Politics in the Bible

Throne

The second instalment of the CNN series on Jerusalem: the City of Faith, entitled 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great *1 tells the story of Jerusalem from the point of view of the ruling Kings of the period, their ambitions and jealousies: Herod, King of Israel, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and her Roman consort Mark Antony, Emperor of Western Rome and the ambitious Octavius.

The program makes for stimulating tv filled with plots and battles for supremacy between Egypt, Israel, and Rome, recounted by excellent contemporary historians. It is a true story that is eerily similar to Game of Thrones. The viewpoint, however, of traditional Jewish texts, Torah and Talmud, which also tells of the history of Jewish Kings of Israel, is missing.

Moses receiving the Law (top) and reading the Law to the Israelites (bottom)Moses receiving the Law (top)
and reading the Law to the Israelites (bottom)

Most relevant to the CNN series is Moses’ advice about Jewish Kings:

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel. (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20 *2)

This roadmap for a Jewish King is referenced in later historical descriptions of the history of the Jews as recorded in the later prophetic books, Samuel 1 and 2, Judges and Kings. In these canonical Jewish texts, transparency about situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes are impressive. Successes and failures are recorded along with the “sins” of both the mighty and the ordinary person.

The high priest in his golden garments (the chain censer depicted is anachronistic).The high priest in his golden garments
(the chain censer depicted is anachronistic).

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast episode #32, Kohen vs King: Two Models of Leadership *4, points out that it is inevitable that both Kohen/Priest and King will make mistakes or “will sin.” He points out that the Torah’s prescription for recognizing and repairing errors/sins – teshuva – through acknowledging sins and ritual sacrifice is different for Priests and Kings. For example, in Leviticus, the Torah referring to the High Priest says “im-if,” “If he sins,” but when speaking about Kings, it uses the word “asher-when,” “when he sins.” Thus, the text implies that the “errors” of rulers are inevitable. Perhaps this is because the conduct of the priests as they perform their tasks of teaching, judging, and completing the rituals of sacrifice, is closely prescribed in the Book of Leviticus, but a King has to assess every situation as it arises and make his own decisions.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks muses on the requirements for leaders and Kings.

Leaders learn. That is the principle at stake here. Yes, they have advisors, elders, counsellors, an inner court of Sages and literati. And yes, biblical Kings had Prophets – Samuel to Saul, Nathan to David, Isaiah to Hezekiah and so on – to bring them the word of the Lord.

But those on whom the destiny of the nation turns may not delegate away the task of thinking, reading, studying and remembering.

They are not entitled to say: I have affairs of state to worry about, so I have no time for books. Leaders must be scholars, Bnei Torah, “Children of the Book,” if they are to direct and lead the people of the book.

The sins of the Jewish leaders of this period had started with the Hasmoneans, one hundred and fifty years earlier. Then, the Hasmonean priests successfully ridding Israel of Greek hegemony celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. After their victory, the Hasmoneans sinned by daring to assume the Crown of Kingship and the Crown of Priesthood. They also conquered neighbouring tribes and enforced their conversion to Judaism. This also is frowned upon by the Law of Moses.

“Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

Non-Jews – the stranger – living among Israel must be entirely accepted as citizens as long as they adhere to the seven Noahide laws. They are not required to follow all the commandments of the Israelite Tribes enumerated by Moses.

Herod the Great

King Herod, who happened to be a half-Jewish member of one of these tribes converted by force, did not consult with elders or study Hebrew books. He did not even abide by the Noahide laws. But he, too, coveted the two crowns. Having achieved Kingship, Herod strove to be appointed High Priest by marrying the Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. Although he loved her dearly, his love did not prevent him from murdering her and their five children and anyone else he suspected as a rival. He is also the King who had Jesus of Nazareth crucified and suspected as a possible rival to his authority. He was part of the global web of power relationships, an ally of Marc Antony of Rome and mortal enemy of Cleopatra. These relationships are amply elaborated in the CNN plot.

The tv program advises that Herod’s ambition and envy ensured he had no peace in his public or private life. Herod was described in the series as “going mad” by the end of his lengthy reign. After his death, Roman colonial ambition led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel. This led in 70 AD to the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the one that Herod himself had enhanced in the grand tradition of Roman edifices. The giant stones were thrown over the walls and can still be seen in the archeologically excavated areas surrounding the current Western Wall. The only remnant that remains today of the Temple of Solomon and the one enhanced by Herod is the Western outer wall that had contained the Temple Complex. This became known through the centuries as “the wailing wall” since it was considered the holiest Jewish site. Jews would go there to recall the past and to offer their prayers.

Model of Herod's TempleHolyland Model of Jerusalem.
A model of Herod's Temple adjacent to the Shrine
of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The “wailing wall” was re-engineered as a huge Jewish prayer plaza, site of daily prayers and festival celebrations by the thousands. After two thousand years, Jews once more can live and pray in freedom in their ancestral land.

The Wailing Wall or Western Wall

Although the Temple was destroyed, Judaism, as it is known today, managed to survive by a hairs’ breadth. In 70 AD, a small group of scholars/rabbis fled Jerusalem surreptitiously, gaining permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community in Yavneh, a remote town in Galilee. This is where the Talmud – the conversations of the Rabbis on every subject mentioned in the Torah and what Jews call “the oral law” – became formalized and written down over the next six centuries. The ritual sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus were relegated to the daily and festival prayer services and retained their meaning and power.

The Torah and Talmud *3 have formed the basis of Jewish communal life and Jewish wisdom to our present day. Torah and Talmud continue to be studied daily by Jews of all ages, in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, in universities, and now through zoom classes. Its most important lesson is that whatever happens in this life reflects on the equal responsibility of leaders and followers, for each to continually assess his own values and behaviour.

How does one do this kind of reckoning?

“He shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.” (Deuteronomy Ch. 17 V. 18) *5

Whether a king, priest, or commoner, a Jewish person’s reckoning is mediated through personal prayer, meditation, and Torah study. The month of Elul is primarily dedicated to this process.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. CNN series on Jerusalem: City of Faith, 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great (www.cnn.com/2021/07/18/middleeast/jerusalem-original-series-faith-and-fury-timeline/index.html). This tv program is based on historic writings studied by modern-day scholars, like Sebag Montefiore, contemporary author of Jerusalem: The Biography and others.
  2. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17 – V. 14-20, a website presenting the Jewish biblical canon, including Torah and Talmud, along with many commentaries (www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.17.15?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en).
  3. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast, Bible 365, episode #32, Kohen (Priest) vs King: Two Models of Leadership https://bible365podcast.com/bible-365/kohen-vs-king-two-models-of-leadership/
  4. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57)
  5. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18

The Consolation of Media in Pandemic Times

Cinema

While reading the film reviews of the last several years, I keep asking myself why the most successful movies all seem to be fantasies of disaster or conquests by aliens either from Middle Earth or other galaxies?

“There’s no denying that “The Green Knight” is strange. This is a movie full of naked giantesses and talking foxes, beautiful women who insist their heads have gone missing from their bodies, and, oh yes, a massive, axe-wielding combatant made of animated wood and vines. Those arresting images and enigmatic sequences are part of why “The Green Knight” is wonderful. It’s a film that will invite multiple, careful viewings.” *1

And then I recall the course I took with my Shiviti Yeshiva teacher, Yehudis Golshevsky *2, on “Aggadata” in the Talmud. Aggadata presents as a fantastical narrative, and the closest word in English would be “allegory.” Below is an example of the genre. *3

Talmud Readers by Adolf BehrmanTalmud Readers by Adolf Behrman

Struggling with these stories with my class was weird and wonderful. Although these tales are difficult to digest, they are not escapist entertainment. Countless Rabbis have written books of commentaries explaining what these tall tales have to teach us.

In the first session of his zoom course, The Really Big Questions About Judaism *4, Prof. Hazony laments that in our present intellectual climate, the Hebrew Bible is too often disparaged as antiquated and even perhaps geared to children and the unsophisticated. However, many ancient and contemporary scholars have found the Torah to be a marvellous source of ideas on all aspects of human striving.

Torah

Anyone who has ever attended a Jewish mainstream synagogue service knows that a significant portion of any service is the ceremony of taking the Torah out of the ark, unscrolling it, and chanting the Torah portion – the Parsha – for that week in the original Hebrew.

Over the course of the year, the complete Torah is recited every year. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks*5 discusses the value of reading and rereading Torah in his essay on Parsha Ki Tavo,

The great questions – “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “what is out task” – are best answered by telling a story. This is fundamental to understanding why Torah is the kind of book it is; not a theological treatise, or a metaphysical system, but a series of interlinked stories extended over time, from Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Mesopotamia  to Moses’ and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. Judaism is less about ‘truth as system’ than about ‘truth as story.

These stories are retold annually at our festivals at home and at the synagogue.

 

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – ‘not to forget’. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to pass that memory down to their children. It is not the leader alone, or some elite, who are trained to recall the past, but everyone of us.

Rabbi Sacks further notes the difference between history and memory:

History is ‘his story,’ an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is ‘my story.’ It is the past internalised and made part of my identity. *5

This too is an aspect of devolution and democratization of leadership that we find throughout Judaism as a way of life.

The great leaders tell the story of the group, but the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.

Below is a holy storyteller of the Yiddish World who brings it to life through theatre. Here he retells the Sholem Aleichem story of the death and funeral of Meylekh, the Chazan of Kasrilevke, while in prayer at the synagogue on Yom Kippur. (12:56 min)

 

We are fortunate in our time to have ready access to Torah texts, commentaries, brilliant teachers, as well as movies, television, and the internet.

How does one choose from this embarrassment of riches? I will address that in a coming piece!

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Here is one comment from the Washington Post*2 regarding these movies: Washington Post: Opinion: Go Ahead Take a Chance, See a weird Looking Movie LIke The Green Knight or Pig https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/06/go-ahead-take-chance-see-weird-looking-movie-like-green-knight-or-pig/
  2. Shiviti Yeshiva: An international online intermediate and advanced Torah learning community for women-centred in Jerusalem, Israel https://www.shiviti.org.il/
  3. The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah with the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook  Introduction, P.9
  4. Prof. Yoram Hazony, The Really Big Questions About Judaism https://tikvahfund.org/tikvah-online/the-really-big-questions-about-judaism/
  5. Ki Tavo, Lessons in leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, P. 276 -278

Zachor Al Tishkach: Remember, Don’t Forget

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”

The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.

“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).

These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.

 

Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”

 

STALIN’S RISE TO POWER

Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.

 

In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.

In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.

Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.

In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.

It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.

 

THE RISE OF THE NAZIS

RISE OF THE NAZIS

This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.

In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst RöhmHermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:

  • The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
  • Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
  • Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.

In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).

Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.

  • Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
  • Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)

Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.

In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”

Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had  converted to Lutheranism.

The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.

This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.

These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”

 

History-Zachor Al Tishkach

CHINA UNDERCOVER

In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.

The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.

This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important? 

Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.

The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.

 

 

RBG: How Jewish Was She

RBG: How Jewish Was She?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RGB), the phenomenal Justice of the US Supreme Court, passed away Friday evening, September 18, 2020, on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hilary Helstein of The LA Jewish Film Festival organized an hour-long interview with Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary film RBG. I participated in her reminiscences of meetings with RGB and then rewatched the movie.

The following morning, I read Melanie Phillips’ recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that was with her life. Melanie points out that while few commented on her Jewish background, the Guardian newspaper did mention her Jewish identity.  However, Melanie writes, the paper got it all wrong.

In the Guardian, Godfrey Hodgson wrote: “Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17., [In 1993, President Bill] Clinton was anxious to make the Supreme Court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.” 

These comments astonished people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was never abandoned; rather, it was threaded throughout her life and work.

After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to read, “Ginsburg moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she, nevertheless, remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”

What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any learned Jewish person would have recognized in RBG?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, who sparred, even with G-d, when justice was involved.

“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!” (Genesis 18:25)

This central awareness of seeking justice for all characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end: Even if she lost her cases, her dissenting opinions were seen to reverberate throughout the broader community.

According to the US constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States is the final arbiter for justice. However, the very idea of a human court structure with judges who refuse bribes derives from the Torah, the Jewish Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible, “Moses and the Israelites were commanded by God to establish courts of judges who received full authority over the people of Israel, who were commanded by God through Moses to obey the judgments made by the courts.” (Exodus 18:21–22, Numbers 11:16–17, 11:24–25; Deuteronomy 1:15–18, 17:9–12)

The Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin (בית דין הגדול) and a Lesser Sanhedrin (בית דין הקטן). Each city could have its lesser Sanhedrin consisting of 23 judges. However, there was only one Great Sanhedrin comprised of 71 judges.  Among its other roles, it acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. The uneven numbers of judges eliminated the possibility of a tie. The last to cast his vote was the head of the court.

The Torah also mandated the courts’ impartiality and severely prohibited the taking of bribes.

“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Deuteronomy 16:19)

Modern workplaces and societies are no less susceptible to bribery, corruption, and bias than ancient Israel was. According to the United Nations, the most significant impediment to economic growth in less developed countries are lapses in the rule of law: In places where corruption is endemic, the consequences are severe: It may be impossible to make a living, travel across town, or live peacefully. (1) The UN statute recognizes that those who have the power to demand bribery are more at fault than those who pay them, for the prohibition is against accepting bribes, not against paying them. (2)

In this sense, Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed in the footsteps of Abraham and Moses – biblical heroes who took no bribes and followed their vision, even arguing with G-d on justice-related issues.

Ginsburg’s Jewish values were equally evident in her private life. RGB was devoted to her parents, especially her mother, who had been ill and passed away a day before Ruth graduated from High School. She was also committed to her husband, who fell ill shortly after they were married. She took care of his medical needs and kept up with his classes and her own throughout his illness while also caring for their infant daughter. RGB was devoted to keeping her word, pursuing truth, and following through on her personal and professional commitments.

Jeffrey Rosen (3) and Dahlia Lithwick (4), who knew her professionally and personally over many years, recorded an interview for the Jewish Book Council shortly after her passing; throughout the interview, they reminisced about her life, teasing out these extraordinary aspects of her character, her intense capacity to care about others, to remain focused on her goal, to not give in to useless anger and to treat everyone, even her opponents, with respect and courtesy.

Rosen and Lithwick speculate to what extent RBD’s Jewishness and outsider immigrant status may have contributed to her remarkable vision. They also note her efforts in sharing her ideas with the next generation and how generous she was in this regard with her time and energy.

It is perhaps a divine irony that Justice Ginsburg passed away on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when according to Jewish thought, all the world – every individual and every community – is judged by the Supreme Judge – the Divine One. Dying on a Jewish Holiday is regarded as dying by the Kiss of the Almighty, a death reserved for the righteous – the “tzadik”  that she certainly was.

(1) United Nations Development Programme, Issue Brief: Rule of Law and Development (New York: United Nations, 2013), 3.

(2) Bribery and Corruption (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

(3) Jeffrey Rosen recently published his book Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law, providing a unique glimpse of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career.

(4) Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

 

Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, LAJ film festival screened, on line, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.