Invocation at the Night to Honor Israel 2009

Many Jews have prayed for the return to our biblical homeland. “And let our eyes behold thy return in mercy to Zion. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who restorest thy divine presence unto Zion.”

Today, we are witnessing one of the greatest miracles of human history–the return of the Jewish people to her ancestral homeland. We are living in an age of miracles; a fulfillment of the biblical ingathering of the exiles spoken in Isaiah. Israel is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “God’s echo throughout eternity.”

From the ashes of the Holocaust, we have been privileged to see the rebirth of Israel in our day. The survival of the lamb among a billion wolves demonstrates that God continues to work His miracles in the world today—just like he did in the days of Isaiah and Cyrus of Persia.

Know that each of us plays a vital role in keeping Israel strong. As Bibi Natanyahu said, “W are not strangers to this land; this land knows and recognizes its children.” Our right to the Holy Land does not emanate from the United Nations, nor does it come from the Balfour Declaration itself but from God Himself, which He promised to give to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In every generation since the Roman destruction of Judea, Jews have lived in Israel and will continue to do so until the end of time. Everyone of us, here this evening, is a part of a great majestic chain stretching back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Continue reading “Invocation at the Night to Honor Israel 2009”

The law of the “goring ox” and Kim Jong Il

There is an intriguing law from the Torah concerning the law of the “goring ox” found in the Torah:

If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death (Exodus 21:29).

Talmudic tradition teaches that if the owner has been warned on three separate occasions that his bull has gored, the bull is considered a danger to society, and the owner must take special caution to protect the public from his animal. Should the bull continue to wreck havoc, the owner must pay for full restitution and the bull must be destroyed. This dictum does not apply if someone goaded a bull to gore, as in the case of a bull-fight. The bull’s viciousness must emanate from within the animal’s nature, and must not be induced from the outside.[1]

When we look at North Korea’s behavior, here is a country that fits the model of the “goring ox” mentioned in the Torah. North Korea’s behavior should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Kim Jong Il’s behavior.

When we assemble the pieces of the puzzle, North Korea’s blast and its recent April 5th rocket launch of a satellite into space have obvious implications for its long-range missile technology. As to be expected, the Security Council condemned the launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions.

What is Kim Jong Il looking to achieve? Some think the blast is a show of virility, namely, he is still a force to reckon with even though his health has deteriorated. Others think that Kim Jong Il wants to wrest more concessions from the West. However, there is another scenario that ought to be seriously considered: What if this recent test was part of a collaborative effort with the Iranians? North Korea is always hurting for money and Iran has the means to give the country what it wants in exchange for missile and nuclear technology. Put in simple terms, the Iranians may well have tested their very first nuclear bomb. By renting space in North Korea, the Iranians are letting North Korea be the “fall guy,” a role that North Korea has no qualms about playing–especially since its serves their purposes. Continue reading “The law of the “goring ox” and Kim Jong Il”

Excerpts from the Pope’s Speech at Yad Vashem

Pope Benedict XVI visits Yad Vashem Memorial, Jerusalem

“I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name … I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off” (Is 56:5).

This passage from the Book of the prophet Isaiah furnishes the two simple words which solemnly express the profound significance of this revered place: yad – “memorial”; shem – “name”. I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God.

Sacred Scripture teaches us the importance of names in conferring upon someone a unique mission or a special gift. God called Abram “Abraham” because he was to become the “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). Jacob was called “Israel” because he had “contended with God and man and prevailed” (Gen 32:29). The names enshrined in this hallowed monument will forever hold a sacred place among the countless descendants of Abraham. Like his, their faith was tested. Like Jacob, they were immersed in the struggle to discern the designs of the Almighty. May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this!

The Catholic Church, committed to the teachings of Jesus and intent on imitating his love for all people, feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here. Similarly, she draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion – their sufferings are hers, and hers is their hope for justice. As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I reaffirm – like my predecessors – that the Church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of peace (cf. Ps 85:9).

— Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks at Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem (May 11, 2009)

Journey through the Looking-glass: Pope Benedict XVI’s Interfaith Encounter in the Holy Land

One of the most interesting aspects of the Pope’s recent visit to Israel was the interfaith group that met with the Pope to discuss important issues and challenges that Jews, Christians and Muslims face as a faith community. Despite the good intentions of the forum’s organizers, the Pope’s desire to act as a facilitator for religious tolerance found some explosive road-blocks along the way, as they met at the holy site Norte Dame.

Following the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, Palestinian leader Sheik Taysir Tamimi forced his way to the pulpit at an inter-religious event demanding that the pope to fight for “a just peace for a Palestinian state and for Israel to stop killing women and children and destroying mosques as she did in Gaza”; he asked the pope to “pressure the Israeli government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Of course not a word was said about how these mosques were being used as military bases to attack Israeli citizens. Evidently, Tamimi doesn’t get what “Never Again” really means. Context is everything. But let us return back to our discussion.

Rather than confronting Sheik Taysir Tamimi, the Pope quietly listened and left the room. As one friend of mine wrote in his blog, “The biggest shame of it all is that the  entire Muslim community he represented was not even embarrassed by or ashamed of this verbal explosion.”

Yet, this was not the only place where Pope Benedict XVI found some difficulties. After he spoke at the Yad Vashem, the Pope proclaimed that he had come: “to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah … ‘May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!”

Rabbi Lau, the former Chief Ashkanzic Rabbi of Israel and holocaust survivor took center stage and said, “The Pope’s Speech was devoid of compassion …” Shaming any individual is wrong—especially when that individual happens to be the religious leader who represents over a billion Catholics worldwide!

If I were Rabbi Lau, I would examine my own behavior and ask myself: Couldn’t the criticisms have been made in a more personal and less public venue? On the other hand, the Vatican ought to be a little circumspect with his behavior as well. Rabbi Lau justifiably said that the Pope spoke in vague generalities about the victims of the Holocaust, and chose to use the word “millions” instead of the more specific “six million.” When referring to the Jewish victims, he referred to them as being “killed” rather than the more precise verb “murdered.” These are legitimate criticisms. That being said, I think Pope Benedict XVI’s next meeting will show a marked improvement in every respect.

Postscript: May 14th

If I were the Pope, I would look to the example of Pope John Paul II. One of the greatest qualities he showed was a capacity to personally relate with the people. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is a trained academic, who is more comfortable giving a lecture at a seminary or at a college. Pope John Paul II had a very charismatic ability and could relate to his audience with life anecdotes and the lessons he learned. When Pope John Paul II arrived at the Yad Vashem, his crucifix was made out of cast iron resembling the twisted barb-wired fences of the concentration camps; at the top of the crucifix stood an image of Jesus, intimating that he too was among those who suffered in the camps.  How could one not be deeply moved by such a powerful identification? With time, I hope Pope Benedict XVI acts more like his predecessor.

Chabad Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel

Rabbi Sholom DovBer Wolpe, leader of Chabad’s messianist faction in Israel, condemns the Church and Pope. As Israel prepares for Benedict XVI’s historic visit, head of SOS Israel believes ‘rabbis must not meet with the pope because the Catholic Church tortured and murdered Jews and helped the Nazis annihilate the Jewish people’ (Efrat Weiss, Ynet).

Question: What is your opinion about this reaction?

Answer: Rabbi Wolpe is an outspoken Habad rabbi who believes that the deceased Rebbe of Lubavitch is going to come back from the dead and redeem the Jewish people. His perspectives on a variety of Jewish and political issues are regarded by many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews as provocative–even fanatical.

Personally, I think you need to look back at the eulogies Jewish leaders gave in honor of Pope Pius XII shortly after his demise.

Numerous Jewish leaders, including Albert Einstein, Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog (who was a brilliant rabbinic scholar), expressed their public gratitude to Pius XII, praising him as a “righteous gentile,” who had saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

In his meticulously researched and comprehensive 1967 book, Three Popes and the Jews, the Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide, who had served as the Israeli Counsel General in Milan, and had spoken with many Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors who owed their life to Pius, provided the empirical basis for their gratitude, concluding that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” To this day, the Lapide volume remains the definitive work, by a Jewish scholar, on the subject.

“December of 1940, in an article published in Time magazine, the renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, paid tribute to the moral “courage” of Pope Pius and the Catholic Church in opposing “the Hitlerian onslaught” on liberty:

“Being a lover of freedom, when the Nazi revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom: but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.” Continue reading “Chabad Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel”

Why don’t the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) in Israel honor Memorial Day?

Rarely do we have a chance in the American Jewish communities to hear a Jewish point of view that many of us would  frankly find offensive. Yet, in the interest of communication, it is imperative we understand the words of the ultra-Orthodox critic–if for no other reason–because  he forces us to think about what he is really saying. Oftentimes, it is the hidden and unspoken message that speaks louder than the audible one. Let me tell you about a story that happened this past week in Israel ….

In an interesting article that appeared in the YNET News from Israel, a Haredi rabbi attempts to explain the perennial question people in Israel always ask around this time of the year, when Israelis and Jews all around the world remember Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror: Why don’t the Haredim (the Ultra-Orthnodox and Hassidic) communities observe Israeli Memorial Day or Independence holiday? Why don’t they stand up during the siren?” “Why are they so indifferent towards Independence Day?” And so on.

Without missing a beat, the writer explains, “The Haredim simply don’t care … this day symbolizes nothing to them.” Unlike the Neturei Karta of Jerusalem, who mourn on this day much like many Palestinians do–howbeit for altogether reasons. In their eyes, all Jews must wait for the Messiah and not place their trust in a secular Jewish State.

The real reason Haredim do not celebrate this holiday is because, “they feel no connection to them. Most of them have never served in the army, and their parents did not take part in Israel’s wars. Very few are the fallen, the injured or the combatants among the haredi family or neighborhood. So who have they got to remember and commemorate?”

A true believer of the Haredi community would probably admit that another reason why he cannot feel anything but ambivalence during this time of the year is because the secular Jew in Israel feels equally apathetic toward the traditional Jewish holidays that mark the destruction of the Temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 C.E. Moreover, during the period between Passover and Shavuoth (a seven week period), Jewish law proscribes any kind of joyous celebration; such a religious ruling would prevent a Haredi from celebrating these holidays in earnest.

And the writer concludes, “So, dear seculars, get off our backs on memorial and Independence Day. We truly have nothing against them. We have no reaction to your grief, and we do not despise your joy, but however – they mean nothing to us.” Think if it as a tit-for-tat type of philosophy.

What the rabbi neglected to mention is that the flowering and resurgence of Jewish life within the Haredi community would never have been possible were it not for the ultimate sacrifice those pathetic “secular” Jews have made so that they might be able to spend their lives studying God’s holy Torah. They also fail to realize that were it not for the sacrifices made by the secular, non-Orthodox, and Modern-Orthodox Jews, the Arab world would have prohibited any Jew from living in Israel altogether, as the Palestinian leaders have pledged to do time and time again. Jewish tradition stresses the importance of gratitude, and as one can see from the above story, the Haredi Jewish sector is remarkably deficient.

There is a one more point we must not gloss over; the Haredi writer admits this particular point but he really doesn’t understand the implications of his confession. There can be no love between whether it be between persons, or even with  the State, if one has given nothing to enrich a relationship. For those who give their lives so that everyone else might be free in this country, or in any country, such people understand the true meaning of freedom for they have paid for that gift by making the ultimate sacrifice. Put in the simplest terms: we get what we put into a relationship.

As the philosopher/psychologist Eric Fromm writes in his best-selling book, “The Art of Loving,” true love requires labor and sacrifice. Anything else will not do. Perfunctory giving lacks depth and feeling. The more one gives of oneself, the more bonded two people become because there is a personal investment. We love what we labor for because the loved object becomes in a mystical sense, intertwined within our own innermost being. When a person fails to give themselves in love toward the Other. the relationship becomes flimsy because the couple never had anything invested in the first place; they literally have nothing to lose. This is the real cause of the Haredi ambivalence–and that is why their story is so tragic.

The Religious Politics of Swine Flu

Government discussions come and go; often people seldom care what is being discussed; political channels like C-Span are not known for their high ratings. However, in Israel, government discussions at the Knesset are often the kind of material that a Jay Leno or a Saturday Night Live or Mad T.V. comedy writing team would definitely consider using as a part of their programming. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

The defacto Health Minister, MK Rabbi Yakov Litzman, went on public record saying that the “Swine Flu” would be from here on in referred to as “Mexico Flu,” as pork is non-kosher and considered unclean under Jewish law.  Was he being serious? Of course! We need not look at Saudi Arabia or Iran for religious or pontifical declarations—all we need to do is look in our very own backyard!

According to an editorial in the Ha’Aretz News, ‘Haredi government minister gone wild’ comment that makes for great office banter, the truth is that it’s just one more in a series of state-sanctioned declarations by a government official that serves only to further humiliate Israel in the eyes of the world.” Yes, let’s give our kudos to Netanyahu—that’s what happens when religious fanatics are allowed to be a part of the government.

Politics and religion is a lot like meat and milk in the Torah; each one by itself is permitted, but when mixed, they become a forbidden mixture! Politics and religion functions much the same way. By itself, religion is fine as is politics (when the politicians behave themselves!), but when we mix religion and politics–we end up with a draconian combination that only serves to oppress the people! And the writer further explains:

Such is the system that produces a government where a party representing a community whose media cannot print the word sex, airbrushes women out of photos, and binds them into a strict second-class status, can be put in charge of the Health Ministry, a ministry legally bound to protect the well-being of all Israelis, regardless of gender, race or religion. How can a man whose usage of the Hebrew language is governed by his own interpretation of Jewish law, deal with issues like teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or post-natal care for women?

As I read the article, I found myself laughing at the Rabbi’s lack of wisdom. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that swine is “treif” (attacked by an animal of prey);  it is simply “ta’me”  (”unclean”) and even this kind of designation does not make it an evil creature. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel once had a similar reaction once when they found out they were getting porcine insulin that derives from pork derivatives. Continue reading “The Religious Politics of Swine Flu”

The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus. Continue reading “The Sins of Swiss Neutrality”

A poet’s endorsement of the new Genesis commentary


The journey to wholeness may not be lacking in terrors, but it exerts an equally compelling fascination. Metaphors for our desire to be reunited with the mystery from which we come abound throughout world culture; often it begins with a traumatic separation from the source. The Quiche Maya tell us that the gods glazed the eyes of our ancestors so they could no longer see into the Heart of Heaven and watch the gods making love, but left them with a vaguely apprehended memory of that spectacle. The Gnostics spoke of it as a longing. Genesis presents us with its own unique etiology of this longing, a traumatic separation, which Augustine labeled as “Original Sin” for which we must atone. Rabbi Michael Samuel, in his new book, Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation, has another reading, one which, true to his title, opens the conversation; he prefers to view expulsion from the Edenic womb as an “Awakening.”

More than a decade ago, I found an unoccupied chair across from a dark haired man pouring over a book at a local breakfast haunt, Cool Beans, in Glens Falls, NY. The man noticed my book, Carl Jung’s “Answer to Job,” then asked me what I thought about it. I told him that I was intrigued by the idea that God might learn from man, that a creator might expand his consciousness through his creation. I made this point every semester to students in my Creative Writing classes at Adirondack Community College by quoting from the Tablet of Ptah, perhaps the earliest Egyptian account of creation, which Joseph Campbell dates at least to the second millennium BCE.

What the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose breathes

they speak to the heart. It is the heart that brings forth

every issue, and the tongue that repeats the thought

of the heart. Thus were fashioned all the gods…*

“Rabbi Michael Samuel,” he stuck out his hand. “You can call me Michael.”

Michael told me that he, too, was moved by Jung’s idea that both the unfolding of creation and the dialogue between man and God represented the birth and expansion of consciousness. What was thought by the heart, and spoken by the tongue into recognizable form, might also describe the fundamental process of psychological development Carl Jung called Individuation, which drew on latent intelligence of both the personal and the collective unconscious rooted in the history of the species through time. Michael pointed out that this was the process described in the first book of Genesis where Elohim speaks the universe into existence, an increasingly complex unfolding of matter from ineffable depths of mind.

From that point on, three mornings a week, we ate our bagels with generous dollops of cream cheese as we shared our explorations. We agreed that myths, including the creation in Genesis, were psychological road maps to the mystery at the center of our own longing to realize the potential for wholeness in each of us. I saw this in relation to my students, so embedded in a culture that assaulted them with an endless fusillade of corporate images and expectations, often at odds with each other, that they had forgotten even the memory of the mystery they contained. Michael was drawn to the challenge of renewing his own tradition by directly evoking in his congregation a longing that moved us to reach for something beyond our grasp. Unless he and his colleagues were able to do this, he observed, they would watch their following diminish, particularly among the young people who craved an experience that gave their lives meaning. Common to both of us was finding a way to open their hearts to the vitality of the world and the interconnectedness of creature and creator, or what the Maya called the gods making love.

Reading Michael’s book, Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis, A Timeless Theological Conversation, I am delighted to find that the heart-thoughts of our past conversations have made it to the Rabbi’s tongue. In these pages, he has uncovered the pulse in the book of Genesis; to feel it is to renew the longing which is the precondition for psychological growth; to hear it is to revive the memory of an origin and destination buried in each of us.

The book is a profound exploration of metaphors, symbols and structures in Genesis that embody the design of divine mind projected as source and destination, that through the unfolding of this ever increasing complexity we move toward the recovery of wholeness. Rabbi Samuel does this through an inter-disciplinary approach that calls upon the Biblical scholar’s command of history, tradition and philology, the humanist’s grasp of literary narrative, the application of anthropological/sociological resources of the social scientist, and the analytical psychologist’s understanding of developmental and archetypal patterns. His ability to synthesize the intelligence from these disciplines allows him to distinguish the Jungian archetype of The Shadow, that part of the dark material in the individual and collective psyches that must be integrated rather than projected, from the objective existence of Evil, “which has an ontology all of its own” derived from primordial chaos. He discusses The Fall not as the grand betrayal of God by man, but the true awakening of consciousness that can only proceed from the painful separation from the unconsciousness of Eden.

At Cool Beans we talked about the need to evoke the longing that connects us to the enduring forms. Without this, the roadmaps to psychological and spiritual development will dissolve into unguided urgencies and impulsive confusions. Genesis is a text that speaks directly to this if one can read it as Rabbi Samuel does: “God and human-kind co-created human evolution and spiritual growth.” This book gives us a way to read the road-map: “Genesis denotes an inner movement toward the highest possible degree of being…”

At the conclusion of this journey, Rabbi Samuel invokes the spirit of psychologist Viktor Frankel, a Holocaust survivor and the inventor of Logo Therapy. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankel advocates for personal choice based on the developmental goal suggested by the Logos Function in Genesis—the ongoing enlargement of consciousness through a dialogue with the conflicts of daily life. We must engage our Edenic legacy of love and loss. It is a fitting way to end a book that does just that. Most remarkable about this stunning array of insights is that it leaves space for personal discovery, and time to hear the beat of heart-thoughts behind the words. When I remember of our breakfasts at Cool Beans, and see what has become of them, I feel fortunate to have been a part of this genesis.

Paul Pines,

author of My Brother’s Madness.