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)

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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.

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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.

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[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

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

When Religion Turns Dark

“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

― Christopher Hitchens

Every religion has a dark side past that civilization must never forget.

In Poland, over Easter, throngs of Poles burn a Jewish effigy. It was like a scene from the Holocaust, yet this happened just yesterday on April, 21, 2019.

For Holocaust survivors, this is a painful image to see again. Yet, not all Poles are anti-Semites. One Polish young man took a bullet from a Nazi and saved my father’s life. There will always be good people; there will always be bad people who do evil things.

Anti-Semitism is still one of the world’s foremost enduring social diseases. But today, we are no longer alone. The Christians are now experiencing the same kind of mistreatment that Jews have known for much of our history.

In the past, Christians in France burned handwritten volumes of the Talmud in the 14th century. During the Holocaust, the French handed Jews over to the Nazis so their country would be spared the horrors of war and be left alone. Perhaps there is a karmic element to history. Today, French Christians are observing their sacred faith be desecrated by a throng of Jihadists living among them who have no respect for the “pagan” Christian religious symbols or places of sacred worship.  

The month of April, 2019 has proven to be one of the violent on record.

Since the beginning of 2019, the Catholic churches in France are being targeted with arson attacks, vandalism, desecration of holy statues, and the destruction of the Eucharist. One of the most important French churches, second in importance to the Notre Dame, is the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, where the Da Vinci Code movie was filmed. This church as recently set on fire just after midday mass on Sunday, Le Parisien reports. Firefighters and police said the blaze was an arson attack.

For Catholics, the Virgin Mary is a very important symbol, but in February this year, they destroyed a 19th-century statue of the Virgin Mary. This was the first of three incidents that occurred at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles.

Then you have thousands of fundamentalist Muslims cheering the destruction of the Notre Dame on Twitter.[1]

Given the recent spate of attacks in France, Nigeria, Sri Lanka where over 290 people were killed, and other places, once again people are asking the obvious question: Why is this happening in the 21st century? Did we not learn anything from the Holocaust, or from other tragic human experiences? There is not a simple answer to these questions.

Maimonides and Hegel both agreed that history sometimes occurs in cycles. Human nature seldom changes; new circumstances arise that challenge how we will react. They say “there is no fool like an old fool,” and Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Are we condemned to relive the Crusades? Are we retrogressing to a time when religious wars nearly destroyed civilization? Haven’t we learned anything from history?

Historically, every religion gone through its dark night of the soul where it allowed its fanatics to define the course of its history. Two thousand years ago, the zealots fought against the might of Rome expecting to achieve a new Maccabean-esque victory over the “forces of darkness.” Our ancestors learned the hard way that this method cannot work.

It can only create misery.

Christianity’s history is bloody. Protestants and Catholics fought each other from the 16th  to the early 18th century. Religion has seldom been a healing force in Europe and its secular culture today is largely due to the animus one Christian faith showed toward the other. In fact, Christianity throughout most of its history has perpetuated continuous violence toward the Jew, toward the Cathars, toward the Muslims, and toward each other.

Islam’s history is even more violent than the Christian history.

Jews are not the only people to have endured a genocide. Just ask the Hindus.

Every Hindu from India refers to a great genocide as the “Hindu Kush” (the “Hindu Slaughter) that occurred over an 800-year period starting from the year 1000. Marauding Muslim armies butchered hundreds of millions of Hindus; it is amazing India ever survived.

And in the 14th century, a Muslim conqueror from Uzbekistan named Timur the will always be best remembered for his gruesome military campaigns in which they have slaughtered tens of millions of people. He created an empire that stretched from parts of central China and Delhi, India, to the Mediterranean. In some of his battles against the Hindu “pagans”, he murdered over 100,000 in one battle alone. The Indus River flowed with blood for weeks. Never has the world seen a more genocidal army of fanatics than the hoards unleashed by Timur the Lame. 

The Bahmani Sultanate was a Muslim state of the Deccan in South India and one of the major medieval Indian kingdoms. Bahmanid Sultanate (1347–1425) in Southern India had an annual agenda of killing a minimum of 100,000 Hindus every year.

Yes, no religion can claim immunity from the diabolical forces that have infested its soul.

So, as a student of comparative religion I wonder: Are we destined to repeat the worse periods of human history? Humankind must learn to evolve—if it is to survive.

From a theological perspective, I believe God is never responsible for the evil that exists in the world—but we are. We cannot evade our responsibility.

So how do we put an end to the rash of religious hatred that we are witnessing in the world perpetuated by Islamic jihadis?

For one thing, Western society needs to emancipate itself from the childish belief in multiculturalism that has become one of the cornerstones of modern education. Not all societies are considered equal. Some are barbaric and have never learned to respect human rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, or the right for the individual to choose his or her own spiritual path.

Treating every retrograde culture or religion as if it were on even footing is foolish and dangerous. In our country, enabling pro-Sharia operatives such as Ilan Omar and Linda Sarsour will only promote a dysfunctional Islam that wishes to extend it hegemony over the Western world and civilization.

Secondly, western societies need to stop importing immigrants from Jihadi movements who have no respect for our culture or our social values. If someone wishes to live in the 8th century, it is best they remain in the countries they are presently residing.

For the Muslim community in particular, we must promote an Islamic Reformation movement—one that will bring healing to their communities. Sharia must never be enabled as a political or legal system—it damages and disrespects human dignity, as we see in the retrogressive regimes of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other similar countries. Reformations are great for religions—they keep us honest and progressive.

People like M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., who is also the Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) and Co-Founder of the Muslim Reform Movement must be in the forefront our media programs.  Other progressive Muslims need to be more in the forefront preaching their message of an Islamic Reformation. It is an endeavor that is well worth investing and supporting. Encouraging Muslims of the Sufis and the Ahmadiyya movements to assume a prominent role in their communities could make a big difference.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to promote healthy expressions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that celebrate the dignity and holiness of the divine image.

For the Christian communities of Poland and elsewhere, Christian leaders need to do a better job teaching their followers that each human being is responsible for his or her own behavior. We cannot condemn an entire people because of something one’s ancestor did or might have done. And for the record, the Romans crucified Jesus—not the Jews.

And lastly, for the Jewish community, we need to promote a greater separation between the State and synagogue in Israel itself. We cannot let zealotry dictate the next chapter of Jewish history.

As we prepare ourselves to observe Yom HaShoah, it behooves us to take note that the Jews are not the only people of history who have experienced genocide. Many other peoples across the globe have experienced it. Finally, we must do a better job informing the non-Jewish community the existential threat that the mullahs of Iran pose to Jews living in Israel, lest we allow another Holocaust to (God forbid) occur.

We must not abandon Israel in her time of need.

The Democratic Party’s “Jewish Problem”

CHULA VISTA, California — Jewish tradition has long taught that the Hamans of the world accomplish more good than evil by uniting the Jewish people.  The Talmud relates, “The actions of Ahasuerus and Haman can be understood with a parable; … the sealing of Haman’s decree proved more effective than the forty-eight prophets” (BT Megillah 14a)

This observation is hardly surprising given the topsy-turvy world of the Jews who lived in ancient Persia.

As I thought about this remark, it occurred to me that there is a ray of truth to this ancient sentiment. Anti-Semitism has sometimes served to unite us as Jews in the face of enemies who seek to destroy us.

Historically, Anti-Semitism is not defined by any one political party; it is a social disease that transcends borders. It is making a comeback throughout Europe; it is making a comeback here in the United States.

Anti-Semitism functions a lot like a virus. A virus can remain dormant for decades or longer, and suddenly come alive when you least expect it.  If a virus manages to remain dormant, without replicating and without its host cell signaling that it’s infected, it is possible that it can live in the host indefinitely.

Anti-Semitism occurs in much the same way.

Most Jews remain surprised whenever we see it erupt; usually, we have come to expect such behavior from anti-Semites from the right; but recently, we are witnessing a resurgence of anti-Semitism from left—from the emerging new voices who will someday take over the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Is Nancy Pelosi concerned? I suspect she is. Perhaps she is terrified. And who could blame her? Several anti-Semitic voices can find a home in the Democratic Party ought to be alarming to any decent person.

And yet, the seeds of anti-Semitism are almost imperceptible. Who would imagine that a refugee from Somalia would turn the Democratic Party upside down on its head? But that is exactly what Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) managed to do in just a couple of months  since her election to office.

Ironically, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) owes a lot to the liberal Minnesota Jewish community; they took her at her word;  they blindly supported her. When she took part in a debate at the Beth El Synagogue in Minnesota, the local Jewish community asked her, “Where exactly do you stand on BDS?” She said at the time BDS was “not helping in getting that two-state solution. . .” Anyone listening might have thought she opposed it.

Surprise!

Little did they realize that Omar supported the BDS! Could this have made a difference in the election? Do the math. She could not have won without Jewish support.

The Jews of Minnesota did not expect to be so easily played by Omar’s bait-and-switch antics. Then again, her friend and confidant Louis Farrakhan has often claimed, “The Jews are stupid.” And while I agree with the substance of Farrakhan’s remark, I think Santayana put it more eloquently, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s also called, “Life 101,” Jewish history should have taught us to be less gullible when politicians solicit our political support.

We have only our own naivete to blame.

As Jews, we want to believe people possess an essentially good nature. Just as the philosopher Immanuel Kant failed to grasp the notion of radical evil, so have we as a people. In my opinion, this misplaced optimism has harmed our people throughout our history. When the Bolsheviks declared Russia a communist state, guess who paid the price with their lives?

Guess no further, the Jews who supported the Bolsheviks. The Jew has always been a convenient scapegoat.

When Omar accused us of dual loyalties, and accused us of financially controlling the world,  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) with Linda Sarsour immediately came to Omar’s defense.  Tlaib participated in a major campaign fundraiser where she called the Jews “satanic”

How Farrakhan-esque!

A video appeared on the page of a Facebook group to which Tlaib belongs, but FB subsequently removed it. Nor is that the only example, according to a report on the conservative WND website.  Omar’s associates claimed, “The Jews aren’t actually from Israel.”  In one October 2017 post, one member accused Israeli settlers of training children ‘to terrorize Palestinian civilians.’ Other members of the group have added posts accusing Jews of controlling the media and perpetuating other anti-Semitic stereotypes,” according to The Daily Callerrevealed.[1]

But this same FB group also claimed that the Holocaust was a hoax and that the Jews invented a historical claim to Israel as a subterfuge in their effort to control the media. Abdel-qader posted the video on his personal Facebook page and on the wall of the Facebook group, “Palestinian American Congress.” [2]

A man is judged by the friends he keeps. We tell this truth to our children, it applies no less to adults.

When Omar claims in 2012, “Israel had hypnotized the world,” most of the Democrats in Congress realized this statement is morally indefensible. Instead of wanting to direct their attacks at Trump, more and more Democrats are starting to realize there is a fire in the Democratic party that is threatening to destroy the Jewish-Democratic alliance that has remained strong for decades—until now.

Displaying a penchant for making thoughtless remarks, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez  has gone on record for calling for an end to the United States’ special relationship with Israel.[3]

But what about Farrakhan?  Farrakhan also defended Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, saying that she has “nothing to apologize for” following an antisemitic Twitter storm in which she accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of paying American politicians to be pro-Israel. He added, “Sweetheart, don’t do that,” Farrakhan said, referencing Omar’s apology. “Pardon me for calling you sweetheart, but you do have a sweet heart. You sure are using it to shake the government up, but you have nothing to apologize for.”[4]

But for all his mischief, Farrakhan is not a pretentious anti-Semite, unlike Sarsour or Omar.

And what about Senator Chuck Schumer? Schumer condemns Omar’s ‘wrong and hurtful’ words. He should have advised his friends on the other side of the Capitol building to remove her from any committee and throw her out of Congress.

And as for my liberal rabbinic associates whose numbers are legion, who have supported Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and others, we must say—it is time to act courageously on behalf of your people. It is time to identify with your people.

Omar is a repeat offender. The Democratic Party can ill-afford to tolerate someone who insinuated that American support for Israel is fueled by money from a pro-Israel lobbying group.

Kudos to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s immediate and unqualified condemnation. But it cannot stop there.  Omar needs to be thrown off the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee..  Let us pray that Representative Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, follows up on his comment that her remarks should not be “swept under the rug.”

As Jews, if we do not stand for ourselves, who else will stand for us?

NOTES

[1] https://www.wnd.com/2019/01/rashida-tlaib-in-group-which-calls-jews-satanic/

[2]ibid

[3] https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/433131-ocasio-cortez-fundraises-off-claim-that-aipac-is-coming-after-her-omar

[4] https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Farrakhan-defends-Omars-antisemitic-antics-attacks-wicked-Jews-581075

In reply to Alice Walker’s calumnies against Jews

ColorPurple.jpg

In reply to Alice Walker’s calumnies against Jews

-Second in a Series-

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — Most of us probably had a lot of respect and cheered for Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. It is a story about the life of African-American women who lived in the South during the 1930s. Eventually, the book was adapted to  a film, it received eleven Academy Awards in 1985.

When the New York Times Book Review published a full-length interview with Alice Walker, the interviewer asked a very innocent question: “What books are on your nightstand?” Walker replied with four. One of the books she chose was David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free: The 21st Century Edition. Apparently, Icke is someone Walker admires.

For most Jews, David Icke is probably an unfamiliar name.

Icke is an English writer who has made a reputation for himself as a professional conspiracy theorist. Most Brits regard him as a genuine “eccentric.” Among his antics, Icke claimed to be a part of the Godhead (move over Jesus!) and in 1990, he claimed that the world would soon be destroyed by tidal waves, earthquakes. Icke’s name is also associated with Holocaust denial. He also believes shape-shifting reptilian creatures from a different dimension control the world.

Icke’s love of the later 19th century anti-Semitic book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has given rise to his belief that the Illuminati, Masons, Globalist Bankers, Rothschilds, Federal Reserve, and other “secret” societies, “control the world.” Although Icke denies being an anti-Semite, Icke considers “the Talmud to be among the world’s most racist works on the planet.” As if that were not enough, he accuses the Jews of being the primary force behind the American slave trade and contends the Jews control the KKK.  Louis Farrakhan and other black radicals have made similar allegations against the Jews.[1]

So how does Alice Walker feel about the Jews?

As recently as November 2017, Walker decided to write a poem on her blog, which she called, “It is Our Duty to Study the Talmud.” Like a true disciple of Icke, she walks goosesteps with her British mentor. Here are just a couple of choice selections from her blog:

Alice Walker writes:

It is our duty, I believe, to study the Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.

Rabbi Samuel’s Response:  Yes, the Talmud is full of questions, but the Talmud never tries to close people’s minds, but seeks to expand it.  The Talmud is not an arcane book of escoteria, its focus is to help people discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Alice Walker continues:

Where to start?
You will find some information,
Slanted, unfortunately,
By Googling. For a more in depth study
I recommend starting with YouTube.
Simply follow the trail of “The Talmud”
as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness . . .

Rabbi Samuel’s Response: Diatribes against the Talmud are nothing new in Jewish history. The Church burned the Talmud since the 13th century and beyond. The Nazi propagandists also loved attacking the Talmud.

Alice Walker writes:

Is Jesus boiling eternally in hot excrement,
For his “crime” of throwing the bankers
Out of the Temple? For loving, standing with,
And defending
The poor? Was his mother, Mary,
A whore?

Rabbi Samuel’s Response: Like LeBron James, Walker presumes the “Jews control all the money of the world.” I have already written about this in a previous article.

But what about Jesus? Does the Talmud claim that Jesus is boiling in a pot of excrement? This is an interesting question. Actually, there is an opinion that someone expressed in the Talmud that purports, Jesus is boiling in a pot of excrement.[2] The historian Peter Schaffer explains:

  • The most bizarre of all the Jesus stories is the one that tells how Jesus shares his place in the Netherworld with Titus and Balaam, the notorious archenemies of the Jewish people. Whereas Titus is punished for the destruction of the Temple by being burned to ashes, reassembled, and burned over and over again, and whereas Balaam is castigated by sitting in hot semen, Jesus’ fate consists of sitting forever in boiling excrement. This obscene story has occupied scholars for a long time, without any satisfactory solution. I will speculate that it is again the deliberate, and quite graphic, answer to a New Testament claim, this time Jesus’ promise that eating his flesh and drinking his blood guarantees eternal life to his followers. Understood this way, the story conveys an ironic message: not only did Jesus not rise from the dead, he is punished in hell forever; accordingly, his followers—the blossoming Church, which maintains to be the new Israel—are nothing but a bunch of fools, misled by a cunning deceiver.[3]

I would take a different approach from Schaffer. Oppressed people often resort to sarcasm to get back at a threatening foe. Historically, the Jews of Late Antiquity did not have a problem with Jesus per se, but they did have a problem with the Pauline recreation of Jesus that the Church authorities tried to force-feed the Jewish population. Jews were often under the penalty of death or incarceration if they converted a single Roman citizen. This lampooning of Jesus in the Talmud reflects a Jewish counterpunch at the Christian community of their time.

Nobody ever claimed the Talmud is a compendium of flawless wisdom and virtue. Unfortunately, there are some silly and inane comments found in its pages. Should it bother us? Simply put, people will sometimes say stupid things from time to time. You cannot blame the “Jews” for every odd thing a given rabbi may have said. Historically, you could say that the Talmud was the very first open-source precursor to the blog. While there is a lot of wisdom for the most part in the Talmud, there are some comments I wish the redactors never preserved.

Alice Walker continues:

Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.

Rabbi Samuel’s Response: The Talmud as with the Bible condemns slavery as an institution. The rabbis liberated slaves just to make a minyan! The Talmud says further that anyone who acquires a slave acquires for himself a master, since he must treat the slave better than he does himself. The Sages insisted that a slave must have a normal family life, no different from that of his master. As the Talmud states, “One who acquires a Hebrew slave acquires a master for himself” (BT Kiddushin 20a); Treating a slave as an equal (or even better) was never an easy task, but the Talmudic rules made it possible for the Jewish community to eventually ban slavery as an institution.

With respect to pedophilia, the Talmud never endorsed the sexual exploitation of minors. I think Walker is confusing Judaism with the other Semitic faith that encourages fifty-year-old men to marry seven-year-old girls, as Mohammed did with Isha. By the way, Ms. Walker, this practice still occurs even today among some Muslims throughout the Muslim world.[4]  Historically, Jewish law never sanctioned marrying young girls to grown adults.

Alice Walker writes:

You may find that as the cattle
We have begun to feel we are
We have an ancient history of oppression
Of which most of us have not been even vaguely
Aware. You will find that we, Goyim, sub-humans, animals

Rabbi Samuel’s Response: Nowhere in the Talmud does it say that “Goyim” are subhuman. The Talmud says, “Whoever destroys a single human life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world. [-Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:5; JT 4:9, BT Sanhedrin 37a ] [1] Furthermore, the Talmud always stresses, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:16) – See BT Sanhedrin 73a, passim. Killing a Canaanite or any Gentile is a crime punishable by death.

Commentary: I doubt whether Alice Walker ever read a page of Talmud in her life. I think she is so woefully ignorant of the Talmud because in her heart she hates Jews. She ought to study the Ethics of the Fathers, or find a rabbi to teach her Talmud, as explained by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a man who arguably is the Rashi of our generation.

But wait, Alice Walker writes further:

 –The Palestinians of Gaza
The most obvious representatives of us
At the present time – are a cruel example of what may be done
With impunity, and without conscience . . .

One can easily gather that Ms. Walker loves the Palestinians of Gaza; one would think she considers them among the most virtuous of peoples. But in my opinion, her praise of them is surprising.

Ms. Walker has probably never been to a Palestinian summer camp in Gaza. If she did, I wonder what she would think of how they teach young children how to fire machine guns, crawl through tunnels, learn how to use rocket launchers, plant mines, participate in “Knife Camp,” where these youngsters learn how to stab anyone who is a Jew.[5]

What I am about to say may shock many of you. I write this as a child of a Holocaust survivor. My father and family survived the worse of the concentration camps. But even my father felt that the Palestinians of Gaza as well as some of the radicals living in the West Bank, had reached a level of human depravity that made the Nazis almost look civilized by comparison. Nazis never sacrificed their children to kill Jews; nor did they turn their children into human bombs just to kill Jews, or put rat-poison in suicide vests to maim as many Jews just for the love of God. Where else but in the Arab world would runaway Nazis be treated like rock-stars? Nazi Alois Brunner’s confirmed death in Damascus reveals an uncomfortable truth: Egypt and Syria have long ties to Nazi Germany and long provided sanctuary to fugitive war criminals.[6]

By the way, Ms. Walker, the Nazis hated blacks and would have preferred using them as slaves, to be discarded after finishing with them. The Muslim-Arab axis during WWII is something you should never forget. History has shown that the enemy of the Jew is no friend of the Negro.

Next time Ms. Walker wishes to mention the Talmud, I suggest she find a good mentor. She might be surprised at the wisdom it contains.

*
NOTES

[1] And Icke’s list goes on, and includes numerous reptilian shape-shifting alien conspiracies—which the Jews are a part of.

[2] BT Gittin 57a.

[3] Peter Schaffer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton, NJ: by Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 13.

[4] https://www.politico.eu/article/immigrants-migration-culture-integration-sweden-struggles-over-child-marriage/https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/9500484/Alarm-as-hundreds-of-children-under-age-of-10-married-in-Iran.html

[5] https://www.algemeiner.com/2016/08/31/palestinian-summer-camps-where-kids-learn-to-kill-jews-constitute-child-abuse/ See also http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/49575/Gaza-children-play-war-in-Palestinian-summer-camp and https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3742455,00.html. Comp. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mariotti/what-we-got-wrong-about-n_b_10864118.html and

[6] https://www.thedailybeast.com/hitlers-henchmen-in-arabia