Forgiveness and its impact

Forking forest path

On the cusp of the Jewish New Year of 5782 is Elul, a month devoted to reckoning with the past year, we are supposed to address whom we have harmed in the past year, make amends, and ask for their forgiveness.

Amnon and Tamar, painted by Jan Steen              Amnon and Tamar, painted by Jan Steen

When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him as it states in Samuel 2: 13:22 .

“And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.” Rather he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him “Why did you do this to me?”, “Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?”.

You must not harbor hatred against your brother in your heart. Directly rebuke your neighbor, so that you will not incur guilt on account of him.”

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” . Leviticus ch. 19, v 17-18

Even if you feel that you are the one who has been offended, you are instructed to reach out to those who may have hurt you, to allow them to redress their behaviour. For example, perhaps the other person is unaware of his error, or you have misjudged something you overheard that they may have said about you. So it is your responsibility to open the pathway to reconciliation.

Moreover, you are obligated to reach out for reconciliation three times. The person being approached is instructed to be conciliatory – “kind, not cruel.” This applies to family as well, since often, those closest to us may have the most significant possibility to offend and withdraw in hurt and silence and anger as in the above reference of Absalom and Amnon. *1

Rabbi Avraham Danzig *2 claimed that if ever you hurt another person, that is a violation of G-d’s law, and none of it is forgiven unless forgiveness is sought from the person first. Thus, one is not forgiven in the heavenly court until he has done the work on earth.

Rabbi Yehezkel Levenshtein *3 goes one step further, and remarks, “the only reason that G-d ever moves from the Throne of Judgement to the Throne of Mercy is if he sees us doing the same, seeking reconciliation and forgiving each other.”

The Jakab and Komor Square Synagogue in Subotica

The synagogue service of Rosh Hashana is designated as a person’s opportunity to come before G-d so that he may be blessed with life, health and prosperity in the coming year. We are aware that life and death are in G-d’s hands, not ours. This is what we are praying for on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. However, G-d does not consider forgiveness unless we have done the work of Elul – forgiving each other in the flesh.

Paris

On the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, New Years Day, Jews all over the world celebrate the “birthday of the World.” This day signifies the opportunity for a new beginning for all of us in the coming year. So this is a cause for celebration and joy. It is a holy day like the Sabbath when commercial “work” is forbidden, communal services are held, and festive meals are prepared.

The structure of our holiday prayer service on Rosh Hashanah is Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, which powerfully establishes our Jewish heritage.

Malchuyot (Sovereignty) – we look to our origins as the first monotheistic religion. Rather than entreating multiple deities to provide for all of our needs — food, weather, fertility — we declared that there was one true God who reigned over all aspects of life. That was a radical notion at the time, and of course, it still defines the essence of Judaism. Malchuyot refers to the Coronation of the “Sovereign Over All,” which is happening in the synagogue via the words of our prayers.

Zichronot (Remembrance) – we acknowledge God’s role in our current lives. Although we view God from a greater distance than some of our ancestors – There’s no longer direct divine prophecy as we read about in the Bible – nevertheless, we trust that even though we are far removed from that time, God remembers us today, and even more importantly, that we too remember God. While God may be literally out of sight, God should never be out of mind.

Shofarot (Revelation) looks to our future as a people. In Judaism, we recognize that while God was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, that event did not represent the end of our relationship. God’s revelation continues each day. It attests to the brilliance and durability of our tradition that each successive generation has the ability and the responsibility to interpret and internalize it. The Torah famously tells us in Deuteronomy 30:12, “lo bashamayim hee” – “It is not in heaven” but here on earth, where the sacred words of our ancient texts are to be continually interpreted and understood. *4

And here is Rabbi Yair Silverman, of Moed in Zichron Yaakov, Israel, giving us a reading re malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot that speaks to our present moment.

 

Our prayers beseech God to move from the seat of Strict Judgement – Din – to the Seat of Rachamim – mercy.
Please God, grant us life, health and prosperity.
Teshuva, Tefila, Tzedaka, maavirin et roah hagzera”
Teshuva, returning to our core self and God
Tefila, through words of prayer and
Tzedaka, giving and sharing freely with our fellow man

maavirin et roah hagzera  have the power to sweeten the harshness of G-d’s decree. *5

Chazzan

I look forward to listening to the Reader/the Chazan chant the Torah portion in the original Hebrew every week, whether in a synagogue or through zoom. It’s like having your private opera! You know all the words, but it’s still different every time because you are different. We all change every day, and prayer is a way to access those changes personally. Call it meditation if you wish.

Shana tova ve metuka, Hebrew, for wishing you a sweet year to come.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Maimonidies, Mishne Torah, Hilchot De’ot
  2. Rabbi Avraham Danzig, Wikipedia
  3. Rabbi Yehezkel Levenshtein, Wikipedia
  4. Structure of our prayer service on Rosh Hashanah, Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofrot, My Jewish learning www.myjewishlearning.com
  5. Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka, Ten Days of Teshuvah, quoted in Torah Studies: a Parsha anthology by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson adapted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn, New York, pp.334-337.

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

Does Antisemitism Matter?

The recent Gaza/Israel conflict has exposed misinformation about Israel originating not only in Arab Islamism but also in Russian/Soviet antisemitic propaganda that has infected many media outlets and a large part of academia over the past fifty years.

 

A World War II-era Slovak propaganda poster

A World War II-era Slovak propaganda poster exhorts readers not to “be a servant to the Jew.”

Bradley Martin has reviewed this sad history in his recent article, The Soviet Roots of Far-Left Antisemitism. He writes, “In 1955, the USSR would begin to sell weapons to Arab countries. Even the cause of Palestinian liberation and statehood was largely invented by the Soviets, considering the blueprint for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Charter was drafted in Moscow in 1964 and approved by 422 Palestinian representatives hand-selected by the KGB, according to Ion Mihai Pacepa. Such “liberation fronts” were “seen by the USSR as centers of Marxist indoctrination and opposition to democratic and capitalist movements,” states an article in the Stanford Review.”  Ever since, the antisemitic calumnies, promoted by the Soviet Union and adopted by the Arab League, and many UN members, has been disseminated by professors and students promoting this pro-Palestinian Soviet ideology at top universities, Oxford, Columbia, Yale and sadly many many others all over the world in the name of free speech. It has gotten so bad that lists of these biased professors have now been compiled by the AMCHA initiative, along with databases of antisemitic incidents on many campuses.

These notions, “Zionism is racism,” “Israel is an apartheid state,” and a “colonial power,” have become so familiar that it almost proves the saying sometimes attributed to Goebbels that, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, often enough, people will eventually come to believe it.” These lies have invited and condoned ugly incidents of antisemitic terrorism towards Israel and Jews worldwide. These lies, antisemitic tropes are geared to arouse hatred towards Israel and Jews. 

Zionism is racism, Durban

Durban, Zionism is racism (Photo credit: REUTERS)

In his book, Not In God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence *1, Rabbi Jonathon Sacks examines the psychological roots of ideological violence that appear in many disparate ideologies. He calls these ideologies altruistic evil. Unfortunately, most people are so appalled by the violence of the Shoah, Jim Crow laws, and Jihadism that they prefer to avoid looking at and analyzing these phenomena.

Rabbi Sacks starts with the premise that as humans, we are all vulnerable to psychological issues that lead to ideologies that demonize the other, such as Islamic jihad and antisemitism. They are insidious and powerful because we all want to be on the right side of aiding our countrymen. These ideologies of “altruistic evil” powerfully manipulate our very human characteristics:

Sibling rivalry” is natural in childhood. Every child is angry with the seeming loss of attention from parents at the birth of a sibling. Murderous impulses towards siblings are well documented and often undergird these ideologies of hatred.

Hostility towards the out-group: Co-operation is the basic survival mechanism for any group, but an equally potent survival mechanism is banding together against the outsider – “Us against them.”

Scapegoating: When one’s problems are blamed on the other/outsider and not addressed: By focusing blame on an outside party, attacking a scapegoat obscures all internal problems. Still, it imprisons those who choose this route to unity since scapegoating simply unites hostility towards the outsider, never addressing any real problems of the in-group or the outgroup and is also liable to lead to the prison of victimhood.

Victimhood: Scapegoating generally imprisons the scapegoater in the “prison of helplessness” that is the inevitable outcome of scapegoating – “the prison of victimhood”. Blaming the other is a convenient way to avoid self-reflection that can lead to remedies and healing. As one Holocaust survivor expressed it, “I may have been victimized, but never was I a victim!”

The ideology of dualism vs monotheism: This is a more abstract issue:  Dualism – dividing the world into forces of good vs evil, tends to lead to demonization and hatred rather than interaction and negotiation. Let me explain: Dualism, dividing the world into Forces of Good vs Forces of Evil, creates a universe in which the Satanic forces wage war against the Godly forces: an all-good vs all-bad dichotomy inevitably leads to an “us against them” war of the worlds.” “We” are the good guys, and “You are the bad guys. Monotheism posits that the One God is the source of all that exists in the world: He is the source of both good and evil. All of humankind, created in the image of God, has the potential for both good and evil behaviour.  We are all created with the potential to assess and to choose between good and evil: This capacity to understand and choose offers all of us a path toward achieving peace and reconciliation. Jews call this path “striving for the world to come,” striving for the “messianic times” when all will live in harmony.

Rabbi Sacks explains succinctly the role antisemitism plays in legitimizing evil behaviour towards Israel and towards Jews.

By fulfilling the role of the scapegoat, Jews can be blamed for everything bad that happens to the group. As the mysterious, omnipotent, all-embracing evil enemy, hatred towards Jews unites the group, silences dissent, distracts from painful truths and enables otherwise utterly incompatible groups to become allies by banding together against the scapegoat.

Pointing a finder

Antisemitism is only contingently related to Jews. The real targets of Christians in the age of the Crusades were the Muslims, not the Jews. The targets of Nazi Germany were the European nations that had defeated Germany in the First World War. The real targets of the Islamists are other secular Islamic regimes and those who defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and divided up its spoils. The current spate of antisemitism in the US is an attempt to vilify and delegitimate the American government from the left and from the right, using the emotional hooks of us-against-them, good vs evil, conspiracy theories to energize their adherents.

The significance of antisemitism, however, is its effect not on Jews but antisemites. It allows the antisemites to see themselves as victims. It enables them to abdicate moral responsibility. Whatever is wrong in the world ‘it isn’t our fault; it’s theirs! They did it to us. After all, they control the world.’

Antisemitism did not help Christians win the Crusades or the Nazis win the Second World War, nor will it help Muslims destroy Israel or build just societies.

The Israel/Gaza conflict is not simply political: It bases itself on Hamas’ ideological claim of the supremacy of Islam over all other religious ideologies, and its precise aim, stated in its charter, is to annihilate the state of Israel simply for being Jewish. In this way, Hamas legitimates war against the State of Israel and legitimates assaults both symbolic and physical against Jews, in New York, Montreal, Toronto, London, Paris, and anywhere Jews step globally. Hamas’ Islamic Jihad is a clear example of Rabbi Sacks’ term  “altruistic evil” – misguided altruism couched in political terms.

Antisemitism matters not just because it assaults Jews but because it assaults our common humanity. It is the paradigm case of fear of the outsider, the stranger, the one who is not like us. It resolves conflict within the group by projecting all evil onto the hated group. Rabbi Sacks derives these ideas by interpreting the text of the Bible and the stories of Cain and Abel, Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. He demonstrates via careful analysis of the Biblical text that God never favours one brother over the other but loves and provides for each of us equally and ultimately wants us all to care for each other as He does.

Is there a solution to this problem?

Rabbi Sacks says emphatically, “Yes, there is!”. He brings as an example the reconciliation between the Jewish community and the Vatican since the Shoah/Holocaust.

“Pope John XXIII and his successor Paul VI, reflecting on the Holocaust, read the work of the historian Jules Isaac who showed how ‘the teachings of contempt’ of the Church towards the Jews had given rise to a history of libels, false accusations, forced conversions, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, expulsions, ghettoes and pogroms.

The result was a historic change in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, initiated by the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965. Pope John Paul II deeply identified with that process and carried it forward. That took courage, honesty and humanity — the qualities that made him loved and admired within the Church and beyond.”

Rabbi Sacks warns that issues like antisemitism can never be resolved through war/power/dominance alone but only through education. As humans, we are all vulnerable to the virus of demonization of the other such as antisemitism and racism. Yet, for the same reason, we also all share the potential for insight and healing of these tendencies.

Jews call this healing “the process of teshuva,” “repentance,” or, more precisely, “a reconsideration of one’s path.” To achieve a world where all diverse individuals and groups can begin to see themselves as brothers is the ultimate redemption that Torah education envisions. And this can be achieved not through war or domination but only through vigorous discussion, negotiation, and study of our holy texts.

Think before you speak, Read before you think

 

All people of goodwill must oppose the malignancy of Jew-hatred and racism in any form that it reasserts itself, but before one can oppose it, one must understand it and recognize it for what it is.

 

 

Footnotes:

1.Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015

 

How to deal with Racism, Prejudice and Antisemitism

How to deal with racism, prejudice and antisemitism: This issue has confronted all of us front and center during this year of Covid-19: Do I need to mention George Floyd, the discovery of 1000’s of graves of aboriginal children assigned to residential schools in Canada over the last century and the recent spike in openly antisemitic words and actions over the last year?

Jews have been especially shocked by the uptick in antisemitism; hatred addressed towards Jews in Charlotteville, San Diego, Poway, Boston, and even in Washington aside from Brooklyn, Muncie, Montreal, and Toronto, the larger centres of Jewish habitation.

The Jewish people have endured baseless hatred and persecution defined in recent times as antisemitism throughout history: nevertheless, they have endured as a strong and proud community and have not succumbed to hatred of the other. How have they done it?

Jewish texts and Rabbis advise:

  1. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” Rabbi Hillel, 1st.century AD *1
  2. “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Torah, Exodus *2
  3. “Care for the widow and the orphan,” Torah, Exodus *3
  4. “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour” Torah, Leviticus *4

The State of Israel is heir to this rich biblical tradition: Harkening to the dictum, “Do not oppress the stranger,” Israel has tried very hard to include Arab and other non-Jewish co-residents of Israel in its social fabric. As a result, Israeli Arab citizens are found in every profession in the country, including the government and the army, notwithstanding the Palestinian calumny that Israel practices “apartheid” and “colonialism.”

“Care for the widow and the orphan,” Torah, Exodus *3

Israel has always had a social welfare system that includes universal free medical care, public education and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor.

Israel has made efforts to share her scientific knowledge with many struggling states all over the world.

Israel continues to be the first to arrive with medical supplies and assistance at every national tragedy, anywhere globally, including the US, most recently at the site of the collapse of the SunnySide condo building in Florida.

Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence Book by Jonathan Sacks, Baron Sacks

 

 

In his book, Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks *5 analyzes several biblical stories that he claims have been misread, such as the stories of sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, and his brothers: And, he demonstrates the underlying premise of the Hebrew Bible that God, the Creator of all humans, loves and cares for each of us equally and wants us to imitate Him and always care for each other as brothers.

He posits that although the roots of antisemitism may be part of our basic instincts as human beings, via human foibles such as sibling rivalry, which I have reviewed in a recent post, – Does Antisemtism Matter –the only remedy to this is education in character development that focuses on brotherly love.

How does one achieve this kind of education?

We can look at Rabbis of the last several millennia and their deep understanding of how education can be both meaningful and transformational. Rabbinic teaching uses every possible educational tool to achieve its aims, to educate for a life of brotherly love: These include narrative, questioning, analysis, and repetition. These tools are embedded in every aspect of Jewish life and daily practice. There is no better template for Jewish education than the Passover Holiday Seder, which is celebrated annually by Jews worldwide and illustrates how these principles are put into practice. Let’s look at how this works by analyzing the Passover seder.

A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting

  1. Jewish education begins with the children, and it starts in the home. So naturally, therefore, everything about the family seder is geared so that children will notice and ask questions, from the traditional “four questions,” which are to be asked by the youngest participant at the table, to every other detail of the evening.
  2. The Passover seder is experiential learning. You tell the story with props and reminders for young and old. For example, Jews are instructed to consume only unleavened bread – matzah – during the seven-day Passover feast. At the seder table, we point to the matzah and say, “This is the poor bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt.”

Matzo

The matzo serves as a reminder to remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt and have no control over one’s life. Through tasting the matzoh and the “marror”, the bitter herb, often horseradish, also present on the seder plate, we taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression several times during the evening. We recite the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt while dipping a finger in the wine and removing a drop for each plague to remind us that we also feel for the distress of the Egyptians who suffered those plagues and drowned at sea. They, too, are G-ds’ children and God, and we weep for them as well.

3. You then explain how this is not someone else’s story but your own.

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Haggadah text)

4. You repeat the ritual every year, regardless of circumstances, whether you are in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 or Montreal amid a pandemic. The Haggadah text states:

“Even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be incumbent upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds and spends extra time telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.”

The Torah

Magically, studying this text on seder night and reviewing it year after year, the reading comes alive for each one of us in a different way that connects to our imaginations at every stage of life and to our particular circumstances, every year of our lives.

At my own family’s seder table, every year, we shared our family story of having survived the Holocaust in Hungary and having fled Soviet Hungary to rebuild our lives in the safety of Montreal. No doubt you, too, have your escape from slavery story.

I genuinely believe, If everyone in the world could experience a Passover seder night, the hatreds of the world would disappear into thin air.

Postscript:

August 2, 2021 I couldn’t resist this musical satire on the Seder/Passover storytelling by a musical acapella group called 613, A Lion King Passover:

 

 

Footnotes:

  1. Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31A
  2. Do not oppress the stranger, Exodus Ch 22:20
  3. Care for the widow and the orphan, Exodus Ch 22: 21-22
  4. Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour,  Leviticus ch. 19-18
  5. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Schocken Books, 2015