Min haMuvhar

A New Ladino Publication

The Diario: The Daring Escape of Two Sephardic Jews from Turkey to America During World War I, Albion Andalus Books, Boulder, 2023.   Written in Ladino by Alfred Ascher, Translated and Introduced by Gloria J. Ascher

Professor Gloria Ascher has prepared this interesting little volume, a Ladino diary kept by her Uncle Alfred of his adventures as he escaped from Smyrna (Izmir) in 1915. Alfred and his older brother Albert were young single men who were caught up in the complicated rivalries of the time. Although they lived in Izmir, Turkey, they held French passports. Since Turkey was at war with France during World War I, the brothers feared they would be arrested by Turkish authorities. They decided to flee to Greece and wait there until the war ended and then return to Izmir. But as things developed, they ultimately decided to leave for the United States where they arrived in New York on December 25, 1915.

Professor Ascher, who taught at Tufts University for many years, has published her Uncle’s diary not only as a scholarly contribution but as a loving tribute to her uncle and the Sephardic civilization of which he was part. As a linguist with a special love for Ladino, her introduction to the Diario comments on the special features of her uncle’s use of the language.

Professor Ascher comments on the events recorded in the diary: “On their journey, Alfred and Albert face many challenges and dangers as Jewish refugees, from stormy seas to hostile Greek bandits. They survive by their resourcefulness, deception, intelligence, patience, persistence, hope, humor, faith and courage, the last of which becomes almost a leitmotif of the Diario, an ideal that must never be abandoned.” She goes on to note: “At least as significant as the emphasis on courage is Alfred’s compassion, his feeling of kinship with other human beings that transcends all differences of religion and nationality.”

For those interested in Ladino, this volume is a real treasure. It is a pleasure to read an extended adventure story reflecting on the challenges faced by young Turkish Sephardic men during World War I. Even if one isn’t entirely fluent in Ladino, Professor Ascher’s lucid English translation is there to clarify words and phrases.

In her Introduction, Professor Ascher notes the growing interest in Ladino. Although there are few people for whom Ladino is their mother tongue, many are eager to participate in Ladino chatrooms, classes and concerts. The publication of the Diario is itself a contribution to the resurgence of interest in Ladino.

For those who know Ladino, even if imperfectly, the Diario will be a welcome addition to your home library. And for those who don’t know Ladino, the English translation will shed light on a fascinating story of adventure and courage.

Learning the Lessons of the Holocaust

(This article by Rabbi Marc D. Angel originally appeared in the Inaugural Issue (January 2024) of Lingap, the official publication of Sanlingap, Inc., in the Philippines. The editor-in-chief of this publication is Carlos Cristobal.)

The Holocaust exemplifies the very worst qualities of humanity. The ruthless cruelty and systematic murder of 6 million Jews took place under the aegis of Germany, thought to be one of the most advanced societies in the Western world. Millions were murdered in cold blood not only by Germans, but by accomplices in many lands throughout Europe and beyond. 

How did so many human beings become torturers and murderers of innocent victims? How were blatantly false anti-Jewish stereotypes so readily believed by masses of people, including those who considered themselves to be religious?

When Jews--or any group--are dehumanized, then all humanity is on trial. Either we draw on our humane values and resist the haters and perpetrators; or we ourselves become accomplices to the crimes. Those who do nothing to resist evil are partners in the evil.

If the Holocaust teaches how inhumane people can be, it also sheds light on moral heroism--the heroism of Jews who resisted their enemies; the heroism of Jewish martyrs who died upholding their faith; the heroism of Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews; the heroism of those who spoke out and acted against Nazism and all the evil it represents.

The Jewish motto after the Holocaust is "Never Again." We won't allow this to happen to us again. But the motto goes beyond Jews. It calls on all human beings of all races, religions and nationalities to spurn the ideology of Nazism, to work for a humane and compassionate world, to see each other as fellow human beings and not as stereotypes.

The Holocaust shows how low humanity can sink. It is an eternal warning to all people to promote love, tolerance, mutual respect.  Once the humane values are compromised, tragedy ensues. It's not just about Jews; it's about all humanity. Wake up! See what is at stake! Never again means never again...ever!

Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo
 

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938) was one of the greatest American jurists. During his distinguished career, he served as Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals from 1926 until his appointment to the United States Supreme Court in 1932. He was known for his calm wisdom, personal dignity, and his commitment to social justice. His speeches and writings were characterized by clear thinking and graceful style.

            Cardozo was born into a Sephardic Jewish family that had roots in America since Colonial days. Among his ancestors were those who fought in the American Revolution. His family was associated with Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, founded in 1654; he retained his loyalty to Shearith Israel throughout his life, and was buried in the congregation’s cemetery upon his death.

            As a young attorney, recently graduated from the Law School of Columbia University, Cardozo had several interactions at Shearith Israel that reflected his generally traditional worldview. In 1895, as the congregation was planning to build a new synagogue building on Central Park West, a number of leading members were calling for reforms in the synagogue’s customs. For centuries, Shearith Israel had followed the ancient traditions of Western Sephardim, including the separation of men and women during prayer services. The reformers called for various changes, including a seating arrangement in the synagogue that allowed men and women to sit together. The congregation’s religious leader, Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, strongly opposed the reforms. Tensions within the congregation came to a head at a meeting of congregants on June 5, 1895. A number of reformers put forth their motion to institute changes; Dr. Mendes and another synagogue leader spoke in opposition to their motion. Then the 25 year old Cardozo made “a long address, impressive in ability and eloquence,” in which he argued for the continuity of synagogue tradition. He pointed out that the congregation’s constitution provided for separate seating of men and women, following in the traditional patterns of Spanish and Portuguese congregations. It would be unlawful to violate the constitution. Aside from the legal point, Cardozo stressed the importance of maintaining synagogue traditions that had been established and maintained by generations of congregants. Regardless of one’s personal opinions or level of religious observance, the synagogue is a sacred space that should maintain its integrity.  Following Cardozo’s speech, a vote was taken: the motion to alter the synagogue customs was defeated by a vote of 73 to 7!
 

            In 1898, Cardozo gave a talk at Shearith Israel on Benjamin Disraeli, late Prime Minister of the British Commonwealth. Disraeli was born into the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community of London, but his father had his children baptized before Benjamin’s Bar Mitzvah. So he was a Jew by birth and by public perception; but was a Christian by formal religious profession. In spite of facing ongoing anti-Semitism, Disraeli rose to the top of the British government, a highly regarded confidant of Queen Victoria.

            The young Cardozo drew a thoughtful portrait of Disraeli’s personal and political life. He could not help but recognize the phenomenal rise to power of a man who was constantly subjected to anti-Semitism in spite of his having been baptized. Although Disraeli presented himself as a Christian, he never flinched from pride in his Jewish background. He described Christianity as a fulfillment of Judaism. Cardozo noted that Disraeli’s position was problematic:  “So we find it to the last—the same union of loyalty to the race and disloyalty to the faith, the same impossible effort to reconcile the irreconcilable and to treat the religious tenets of his manhood as a development of the religion in whose shelter he had been born” (Disraeli, the Jew, Essays by Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus, ed. Michael Selzer, Selzer and Selzer, Great Barrington, Mass, 1993, p.49). Cardozo noted that Disraeli—in spite of his tremendous successes—was ultimately a conflicted and lonely soul:  “The nation marveled at his wit; it laughed at his sallies; it applauded his intrepid spirit; but all the time, it must have felt within its heart that he was a stranger within its gates.”

            To his credit, Disraeli never apologized for or denied his Jewishness. Quite the contrary. He flaunted his Jewishness and presented the Jews and Judaism in positive lights. Cardozo offered an appreciation of Disraeli’s role vis a vis the Jewish people: “As we look back upon him now, we see, I think, that he affected us for good. He taught us to think worthily of ourselves—that indispensable condition, as men have often said, which must be satisfied before it can be hoped that we shall be thought worthily of by others.  He was himself, before all the world, a living illustration of the powers that are in us, of our resources, of our intellect, of our vigor; of our enthusiasm, of our diplomacy; of our finesse. … He might have stood for many other and perhaps greater things; he might have aided us in many other ways; but these he did stand for an in these he did aid us; and if the aid might have been greater, it none the less was great. It is something to have contributed a little to rousing the self-consciousness of a race, in waking it to a sense of its own dignity, and in waking others to a sense of its latent powers. In these days of Zionism, in these days of Herzl and Nordau, let us remember that we are working upon soil which Disraeli and men like him have helped posterity to till. By his own personality, as well as by his words and deeds, he seemed to weave into the woof of English public life some portion of the Hebraic spirit; to Hebraize the mid of the Protestant and the Puritan; and even to revive in his own day some glimmer of those ancient glories which it was one of the functions of his life to illustrate to the world. For that service at least, let us honor him tonight” ((pp. 65-66).

            In a series of lectures at Yale University in 1921, Cardozo reflected on the nature of the judicial process. “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or note, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on life, a conception of social needs….We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own” (The Nature of the Judicial Process, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921, p. 12).

            Cardozo’s own “stream of tendency” included a deep respect for tradition…but a keen awareness of the forces for change. While he understood that judges must not set aside existing rules at pleasure, he also criticized “the demon of formalism.” Judges must balance their decisions, taking into consideration the welfare of society. Cardozo drew on a Talmudic teaching that describes God as offering Himself a prayer: “Be it my will that my justice be ruled by my mercy.” He suggested that judges keep this prayer in mind during their own deliberations (pp. 66-67).

            In a keenly self-revelatory comment, Cardozo reminisced on what he had learned from his experiences as a judge. “I was much troubled in spirit, in my first years upon the bench, to find how trackless was the ocean on which I had embarked. I sought for certainty. I was oppressed and disheartened when I found that the quest for it was futile….As the years have gone by, and as I have reflected more and more upon the nature of the judicial process, I have become reconciled to the uncertainty, because I have grown to see it as inevitable” (p. 166).

            In a subsequent series of lectures at Yale, Cardozo noted that “law must be stable, and yet it cannot stand still….The victory is not for the partisans of an inflexible logic nor yet for the levelers of all rule and all precedent, but the victory is for those who shall know how to fuse these two tendencies together in adaptation to an end as yet imperfectly discerned” (The Growth of the Law,Yale University Press, New Haven, 1924, p. 143).

            Cardozo appreciated the need for balancing various tendencies—the faithfulness to precedents and the drive for change. It is not a simple matter to judge fairly and correctly. “In our worship of certainty, we must distinguish between the sound certainty and the sham, between what is gold and what is tinsel; and then, when certainty is attained, we must remember that it is not the only good; that we can buy it at too high a price; that there is a danger in perpetual quiescence as well as in perpetual motion; and that a compromise must be found in a principle of growth” (pp. 16-17).

            Cardozo’s vast erudition was accompanied with a profound sense of social responsibility, his own personal dignity, and a calm wisdom. He was serenely confident and competent; and at the same time, he was genuinely humble and self-reflective.

            He was a proud Jew. He was moderately observant of religious rituals, although not strictly so. He expressed his views on religion on various occasions. In 1927, he spoke at a dinner in honor of the 75th birthday of his rabbi at Shearith Israel, Dr. H. P. Mendes. In praising Dr. Mendes, he underscored the values of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with the Lord. That same year, Cardozo spoke at a dinner in honor of his friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise. He again stressed the role of religion as an agent of social justice. “Religion is worthless if it is not translated into conduct. Creeds are snares and hypocrisies if they are not adapted to the needs of life….Has there been some social wrong, some oppression of the people, some grinding of the poor? That is a matter for religion. Has there been cruelty to Jews abroad or to colored men at home?....That is a matter for religion. Has the sacred name of liberty, which should stand for equal opportunity for all, been made a pretext and a cover for special privileges for a few? That is a matter for religion. (quoted in Andrew L. Kaufman, Cardozo, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 190).

            But religion was more than social justice. At its best, religion must be marked by a selfless idealism and commitment to transcendent ideas. In 1931, Cardozo gave the commencement address at the Jewish Institute of Religion, and referred to Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, who devoted long years to mark and register the stars, when people mocked him for this seemingly useless endeavor.  “The submergence of self in the pursuit of an ideal, the readiness to spend oneself without measure, prodigally, almost ecstatically, for something intuitively apprehended as great and noble, spend oneself one knows not why—some of us like to believe that is what religion means” (Kaufman, p. 190).

                             *     *     *

 

            When I began serving Congregation Shearith Israel in 1969, and for many years thereafter, the rabbis’ gowning room was the old office of the late Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool. Several photographs hung on the walls, including one of Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo which he presented to the Congregation in 1932 upon being appointed to the United States Supreme Court. He inscribed it: “To the historic Congregation Shearith Israel in the City of New York, with the affectionate greetings of its member.”   

            Thus, every morning and evening before synagogue services, I was greeted by the handsome visage of Justice Cardozo. Although he died before I was even born, so that I did not know him personally, I somehow felt a friendship and kinship with him. He was, for me, an entry way into the past of my congregation and community. His photograph conveyed the confidence and the judgment, challenging us to be faithful to the past and yet open to the needs of the present…and future.      

References:

Cardozo, Benjamin N., The Growth of the Law, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1924.

__________________, The Nature of the Judicial Process, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921.

Kaufman, Andrew L., Cardozo, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Selzer, Michael, Disraeli, the Jew, Selzer and Selzer, Great Barrington, 1993.

Ruminations on Rambam

The Jewish Press newspaper has a feature in which questions are posed to a group of rabbis. I am one of the respondents.

A past question (February 12, 2021) struck me as particularly strange: “Should a frum Jew believe the sun goes around earth if the Rambam says it does?” My immediate reaction: how could anyone today, including a frum Jew, think that the sun goes around the earth? Science has advanced prodigiously since the 12th century, and Rambam himself taught that “a person should never cast reason behind, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.” Rambam relied on the best science of his time. And there can be no doubt at all that he would call on us to rely on the best science available in our time. He would be highly embarrassed by those who, basing themselves on Rambam’s own writings, posit that the sun revolves around the earth, rejecting the advanced science of today.

I concluded my response with these words:  “One of the great dangers for religion—and for human progress in general—is for people to cling to discredited theories and outdated knowledge. Those who cast reason behind thereby cast truth behind. And truth is the seal of the Almighty.”

What I took to be so obvious was apparently not so obvious to the other rabbinic respondents. One of them wrote that “it makes more sense to side with Rambam than it does with Copernicus.” Another respondent asserted that Rambam was not giving a lesson in physics but “was explaining the world according to the Torah.” And the final respondent thought it was “likely” that Rambam would agree with the findings of modern astronomy—likely, but apparently not certain.

How disappointing to realize that there are “frum” people today who feel comfortable denying modern astronomy based on words of a medieval sage. How sad for Rambam’s reputation!

Rambam was one of the greatest luminaries in Jewish history.  A pre-eminent halakhist, philosopher and medical doctor, he was also a brilliant and clear writer. Yet, in spite of his voluminous writings, he still remains misunderstood and misrepresented.

So while I was lamenting the column in the Jewish Press, I was simultaneously pleased to be reading a new book by Menachem Kellner and David Gillis, “Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah,” (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 2020). Both of these authors have written important works exploring the genuine teachings of Rambam based on a careful reading of Rambam’s own words in his various writings.

This new book offers an important approach to understanding Rambam’s Mishneh Torah—and the Rambam’s general religious worldview as well. By studying the concluding sections of each of the 14 books of the Mishneh Torah, the authors have demonstrated an ethical framework for this halakhic work. Rambam was not only concerned with presenting the laws; he was concerned with inculcating the ethical/spiritual foundations of the laws.

In his Guide of the Perplexed (3:51), Rambam pointed out that all of the Torah’s commandments exist “with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to warding off an injustice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality, or to warning them against an evil moral quality. Thus all are bound up with three things: opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.” In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam applied this insight when presenting the halakhot.

In offering his ethical insights, Rambam does so in what Kellner and Gillis describe as a universalistic manner. Rambam often points to Abraham as a model human being…and Abraham discovered and served God long before the Torah was given. Abraham was not “Jewish;” he was a human being who longed to transmit proper beliefs and behaviors to society. At the precise midpoint of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam teaches “that each and every single human being can be as sanctified as the Holy of Holies” (p. 143). Jews and non-Jews can achieve true piety and spiritual perfection. Being “sanctified” does not depend on genetics but on one’s personal strivings.

In closing his chapter on the “Laws of Slaves,” Rambam notes that the halakha permits working a non-Jewish slave “with rigor.” But he goes on to offer an impassioned call for sensitive and considerate treatment of such slaves.  “Out of halakhah and aggadah, Maimonides constructs a halakhah that moves smoothly but pointedly from seeing the non-Jewish slave as an alien who can be treated as an inferior to seeing him as an equal fellow human being. The upshot is a statement of thoroughgoing universalism, as Maimonides builds towards the establishment of a truly Abrahamic society at the very end of the Mishneh Torah” (p.266).

The Torah offers Jews a distinctive way to understand and serve the Almighty. But Jews do not have a monopoly on God. All human beings, created in God’s image, have access to the Almighty…just as Abraham himself had access long before the time of Moses. Kellner and Gillis note: “The point of the Mishneh Torah as a whole is the creation of a society which gives its members the greatest chance of achieving their perfection as human beings. In this way, the end of the Mishneh Torah comes round to its beginning: just as the beginning of the work deals with matters that relate to all human beings, so do the last chapters” (p. 308).

The authors have produced a remarkable book that allows us to see Rambam not merely as a codifier of laws, but as a promoter of an ethical, universalistic humanitarianism. They have shown the ethical component in Rambam’s ending sections of each of the books of the Mishneh Torah. These ending sections “adjust the tendency of each individual book, generally in a universalist direction, and compose a balanced and integrated picture of halakhah, oriented towards universal conceptions of individual and social perfection. They guide the reader towards an understanding of all the ceremonial commandments as intellectually and morally purposive, and of the social commandments as infused with the divine, creating a sense of reciprocity between intellectual virtue and moral virtue” (p. 319).

Kellner and Gillis have written an impressive book that enables readers to enter more deeply into Rambam’s religious worldview. At a time when Rambam is subject to so much misrepresentation and misunderstanding, it is heartening to read a book that seeks to present Rambam’s teachings in a clear, genuine and convincing manner. Bravo and thank you to the authors.

 

Thoughts on the Writings of Franz Kafka

     

   Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Prague-born Jew, one of the outstanding figures of modern world literature. His name has become an adjective: Kafkaesque. His writings feature eerie situations, disconnected characters, labyrinthine story lines.

     Kafka was raised in a moderately assimilated, German-speaking family, and was not given much of a Jewish education. Trained as a lawyer, he worked full time for an insurance company.  His great ambition was to be a writer, but during the course of his short lifetime he published very little. When he died, he left numerous manuscripts—diaries, stories, novels-- to his closest friend Max Brod, with the instruction that Brod burn all Kafka’s papers! Fortunately, Brod did not heed Kafka’s last wish. He devoted years to organizing Kafka’s papers and getting them published. Great fame came to Kafka…but only after he had died. During his lifetime, he mostly considered himself to be a failure.

     Kafka sensed that he could be a great writer; but he was a perfectionist who never seemed to be satisfied with his own work. In an entry in his diary, June 21, 1913, he wrote: “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me” (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, p. 288). His day job prevented him from devoting himself to his writing. In his diary (August 21, 1913) he complained: “My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility….I am, not only because of my external circumstances but even much more because of my essential nature, a reserved, silent, unsocial, dissatisfied person…” (Ibid., p. 299). His diary entry for November 10, 1919 lamented: “I haven’t yet written down the decisive thing. I am still going in two directions. The work awaiting me is enormous” (Franz Kafka, Diaries 1914-1923, p. 190).

     For Kafka, writing was the essence of who he was; and yet he was unhappy with his writing…and with himself. In a letter (November 5, 1912) to his beloved Felice Bauer, he spelled out his dilemma: “Shouldn’t I stake all I have on the one thing I can do?  What a hopeless fool I should be if I didn’t! My writing may be worthless, in which case, I am definitely and without doubt utterly worthless” (Letters to Felice, p. 38). Kafka’s internal life was linked inextricably to his writing, as he explained to Felice (January 14/15, 1913):  “For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind….Writing that springs from the surface of existence—when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up—is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough. This is why there is never enough time at one’s disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray” (Ibid., p. 156). He confided in Felice (March 4/5, 1913): “The trouble is, I am not at peace with myself; I am not always ‘something,’ and if for once I am ‘something,’ I pay for it by ‘being nothing’ for months on end” (Ibid., p. 213).

   Kafka’s life was peppered with failure. He had a very negative relationship with his father. Although he had several lovers, and was actually engaged to be married, he never did marry. He was unhappy with his office work. He wasn’t satisfied with his writing. He suffered from tuberculosis and died while just forty one years old. If it were not for the devoted efforts of Max Brod, Kafka would have been just another forgotten scribbler who made no perceptible impact on the world of literature. But as it happened, Franz Kafka, the Prague-born Jew who suffered so much and died so young, became a leading light in modern literature.

     Kafka’s works are characterized by unexpected and inexplicable events. In Amerika, an early unfinished novel, the main character is a European young man who has to flee to America; he befriends the ship’s stoker and they decide to work together once they arrive in the new land. But when the young man and the stoker go to the captain’s office, they find the captain speaking with a senator—who happens to be the young man’s uncle! The senator immediately takes responsibility for the young man and treats him very well. But at some point the nephew offends his uncle, who immediately disowns him. Left to his own devices, the young man has various adventures, most of which end badly.

     In his most famous novel, The Trial, the main character is simply identified as Josef  K. He seems to be a perfectly respectable man, but is one day confronted by officials who place him under arrest. K. asks: “But why?’ The men reply: “We weren’t sent to tell you that. Go to your room and wait. Proceedings are under way and you’ll learn everything in due course” (The Trial, p. 5). K. is outraged and wants to defend himself, even though he does not know what charges have been brought against him. K. is advised: “You can’t defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get. That’s the only chance you have to escape, the only one. However, even that is impossible without help from others…” (p. 106). K. seeks help from others, to no avail. He thinks about submitting a petition in his defense, but that turns out to be another hopeless approach. The “court” itself is in a nondescript building, with a confusing group of officials and defendants scattered here and there. K.’s situation is a nightmare…but it is not a dream. It is reality, and his life depends on getting acquitted. He is told:  “Our judges, then, lack the higher power to free a person from the charge, but they do have the power to release them from it. When you are acquitted in this sense, it means the charge against you is dropped for the moment but continues to hover over you, and can be reinstated the moment an order comes from above” (p. 158). In other words, the accused is always condemned to live under threat of arrest. He does not know his crime. He does not know who is making charges against him. He does not have the opportunity to defend himself before a responsible panel of judges. He is guilty, and will forever be guilty, without knowing why, and without any defense.  The novel ends with two men coming to K. to execute him. “But the hands of one man were right at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him” (p. 231).

     What was the shame that was to outlive K.’s execution? Perhaps it was the very shame of being human, of living in an unjust and unforgiving world, of suffering perpetual guilt even when one is innocent. The shame was not just K.’s. The executioners are shameful individuals; they are nameless and faceless bureaucrats who follow orders even when those orders are wicked and cruel. They commit cold-blooded murder under the guise of obeying the prevailing legal system. Did Kafka eerily foresee the Nazi era when Jews, innocent like K., were simply arrested, accused, imprisoned, murdered…all in the name of the Nazi legal system?

     Kafka’s sense of human helplessness is a theme in his novel, The Castle. K. is a land surveyor who receives an order to do some work for “the castle.” When he arrives, he is not at the castle, but in the village. A vast maze separates the castle and the village, and K. has a frustrating time trying to find his way to the castle. He seeks advice; he tries different strategies…all to no avail. As he remains in the village, he is ominously told:  “You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you aren’t anything. Or rather, unfortunately, you are something, a stranger, a man who isn’t wanted and is in everybody’s way, a man who’s always causing trouble…” (pp. 63-64). This is a classic Kafka dilemma. K. seems to be an honorable person with a respectable profession, a land surveyor; and yet, he is totally at a loss in the face of a massively complicated system he cannot negotiate. He doesn’t belong, he can’t belong, he will never belong. K. is the eternal misfit, the condemned stranger.

     The signature Kafka feelings of alienation fill his stories. In “Investigations of a Dog,” the dog complains: “But where, then, are my real colleagues? Yes, that is the burden of my complaint; that is the kernel of it. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere” (The Great Wall, p. 23). In “The Burrow,” the mole digs a maze of holes in which it can feel safe from predators. But it never feels safe. “There have been happy periods in which I could almost assure myself that the enmity of the world towards me had ceased or been assuaged, or that the strength of the burrow had raised me above the destructive struggle of former times” (Ibid, p. 55). In his story, “He,” Kafka poignantly describes his dilemma: “He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive” (Ibid., p. 154). In his most famous story, “Metamorphosis,” the “hero” turns into a despicable cockroach, unable to function within his family, at work, or anywhere else. Ultimately, he dies without ever having fulfilled his role as a human being.

     Some students of Kafka have viewed him primarily as an alienated and estranged Jew. Yet, his characters have no distinctive identifying qualities, and some don’t even have full names. Even if the characters may reflect the classic dilemma of alienated Jews in Western society, they obviously relate to the general human predicament in modern times: the growth of bureaucracies, the insignificance of individuals, the feeling of powerlessness against the “establishment,” the loss of traditional religious and sociological moorings. Kafka is widely read and widely respected because his writing touches moderns in a unique and piercing fashion.

     But Kafka’s Jewishness was an essential part of who he was. Even if he was not devoutly religious in a traditional sense, he identified as a Jew, he studied Hebrew, he attended Yiddish language dramatic presentations, and he felt a connection with the national Jewish aspirations connected with Zionism. In his diary (December 25, 1911) Kafka noted his Jewish roots: “In Hebrew [actually Yiddish] my name is Amschel, like my mother’s maternal grandfather, whom my mother, who was six years old when he died, can remember as a very pious and learned man with a long, white beard” (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913), p. 197).  A few years later (December 17, 2013), he has the following entry in his diary: “The good strong way in which Judaism separates things. There is room there for a person. One sees oneself better, one judges oneself better” (p. 324).

     Kafka was not impressed with the “churchly” qualities of Germanic synagogues that attempted to be modern and dignified. He was drawn more closely to Eastern European Jewish immigrants who seemed to be genuinely religious. On Yom Kippur in 1911, he attended the Altneu Synagogue of Prague, which he described as having the “suppressed murmur of the stock market.” By contrast, though, he noted three pious, apparently Eastern Jews, in socks, bowed over their prayer books. They were praying humbly; two of them were crying (Ibid., p. 72). Kafka saw these Eastern Jews as more sincere religiously, more authentic.

     His sympathetic view of Eastern Jews was evidenced in a letter to Milena Jesenska (September 7, 1920). He described a hall where over one hundred Russian-Jewish emigrants were waiting for American visas, in a crowded, uncomfortable situation. Kafka wrote that “if someone had told me last night I could be whatever I wanted, I would have chosen to be a small Jewish boy from the East, standing there in the corner without a trace of worry, his father talking with the men in the middle of the hall” (Letters to Milena, p. 197).

     In a letter to Felice Bauer (January 10/11, 1913), Kafka reflects on the sad state of Jewish life. “Because the Jewish public in general, here at any rate, have limited the religious ceremonies to weddings and funerals, these two occasions have drawn grimly close to each other, and one can virtually see the reproachful glances of a withering faith” (Letters to Felice, p. 151). The loss of religious vitality was not restricted to Jews, but was a phenomenon of modernity. “Today there is no sin and no longing for God. Everything is completely mundane and utilitarian. God lies outside our existence. And therefore all of us suffer a universal paralysis of conscience” (Conversations with Kafka, p. 51).

     But the Jews faced greater insecurity and self-doubt than others. “Their insecure position, insecure within themselves, insecure among people, would above all explain why Jews believe they possess only whatever they hold in their hands or grip between their teeth, that furthermore only tangible possessions give them a right to live, and that finally they will never again acquire what they once have lost—which swims happily away from them, gone forever. Jews are threatened by dangers from the most improbably sides, or, to be more precise, let’s leave the dangers aside and say: ‘They are threatened by threats’” (Letters to Milena, p. 20).

     Kafka’s first-hand experience with anti-Semitism led him to wonder about the Jewish future. Writing in Prague (November 8, 1920), he made his concerns clear:  “I’ve been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate….Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated?...I just looked out the window: mounted police, gendarmes with fixed bayonets, a screaming mob dispersing, and up here in the window the unsavory shame of living under constant protection” (Ibid., p. 219). Like K. in The Trial, Kafka stood accused by people he did not even know, and who did not know him. He was oppressed, without knowing why, and without any satisfactory recourse to justice.

     Zionism was a logical answer for Jews who were in search of a safe space of their own, a place where they could shape their own lives and destinies. “The Jews today are no longer satisfied with history, with an heroic home in time. They yearn for a modest ordinary home in space. More and more young Jews are returning to Palestine. That is a return to oneself, to one’s roots, to growth. The national home in Palestine is for the Jews a necessary goal” (Conversations with Kafka, p. 105).

     His beloved Milena Jesenska wrote words of remembrance about Kafka as a posthumous tribute. “He was shy, anxious, meek, and kind, yet the books he wrote are gruesome and painful.  He saw the world as full of invisible demons, tearing apart and destroying defenseless humans. He was too clairvoyant, too intelligent to be capable of living, and too weak to fight….He understood people as only someone of great and nervous sensitivity can, someone who is alone, someone who can recognize others in a flash, almost like a prophet” (Letters to Milena, pp. 273-74).

                                         *     *     *

           I first read Kafka in our freshman English class at Yeshiva College. We were assigned to read “Metamorphosis,” and I was vaguely intrigued and repelled by the story. I went on a “Kafka binge,” reading one book after the other; and then I stopped reading Kafka for many years.

           For college age students, Kafka has a particular appeal. He is original, surprising; he doesn’t follow conventional patterns. His loneliness and alienation, his frustration with the “establishment,” his desire for personal greatness—these qualities resonate in the minds and souls of young aspiring thinkers and writers.  

           But then I came back to Kafka’s books much later in life, when I was well into “middle age.” Surprisingly, I found that Kafka still spoke to me clearly, powerfully, cogently. When I read his novels, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the absurd scenes; but I also found myself shaking within at the pathos, the dread.

           And now, as a man in my late 70s, I still read Kafka and find him powerful and pertinent. The world hasn’t improved much, if at all, from the time that Kafka was writing his ominous stories. He continues to be a prophetic voice. If only humanity would listen!

References

Amerika, Schocken Books, New York, 2008.

The Castle, Schocken Books, New York, 1974

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, New York, 1965.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, New York, 1965.

Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jurgen, Schocken Books, New York, 2016.

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, ed. Philip Boehm, Schocken Books, New York, 1990.

The Great Wall of China, Schocken Books, New York, 1970.

The Trial, Schocken Books, News York, 1998.

Balint, Benjamin, Kafka’s Last Trial, W. W. Norton Company, New York, 2019.

Brod, Max, Franz Kafka, A Biography, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.

Janouch, Gustav, Conversations with Kafka, New Directions Books, New York, 2012.

 

          

Emending/Updating the Siddur?

In his first volume of responsa, Asei Lekha Rav (Tel Aviv, 5736, no. 14), Rabbi Haim David Halevy suggested an emendation to the liturgy of the Ninth of Av. The traditional Nahem prayer in the afternoon Amida describes Jerusalem as “the destroyed, humiliated and desolate city without her children.” Rabbi Halevy pointed out the obvious: these words are no longer true. After the six day war in June 1967, Jerusalem is a united thriving city with hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents. It is the proud capitol city of a vibrant Jewish State. He suggested that the text be revised so as to refer to Jerusalem as the city that was destroyed, humiliated and desolate without her children.

Rabbi Halevy emended the text to reflect current reality. To continue to describe Jerusalem as destroyed, humiliated and desolate is a lie. 

This very small emendation—changing the text to the past tense—evoked an angry response from many. How dare Rabbi Halevy—or anyone else—tamper with the sacred text of our prayer book? What gives anyone the right to revise time-honored prayers that our ancestors have uttered for generations?

Rabbi Halevy replied to his critics (Asei Lekha Rav, 2:36-39): Yes, the texts of our prayer books are sacred; but how can we come before God and say prayers that are outright lies? Sometimes emendations are necessary in order to maintain truthfulness. How could people continue to describe Jerusalem with words that are no longer true?

This dispute over a text recited only once a year reflects a much larger issue. How do we deal with traditional siddur texts that we feel need to be emended? In the Nahem example, the traditional text is no longer factually true. But what about texts that are troubling to our ethical sensibilities due to sociological and cultural changes. For example, the daily prayers include blessings thanking the Almighty for not having made us a non-Jew, or a slave, or a woman. (A later blessing was added for women to thank the Almighty for creating them according to God’s will.) Our musaf prayers foresee the day when we will once again bring animal sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Traditional prayer books include a passage to be recited by guests during the grace after meals, blessing the host, his children and his wife—in that order! Some prayer books include kabbalistic instructions and readings that are problematic for many moderns.

The traditional mind is averse to change, including altering siddur texts. Various rationales will be offered to justify or interpret existing texts. A common claim is that once changes are allowed, this creates a “slippery slope.” If one change is permitted, this will lead to others, and then to yet others, until the classic prayers are eviscerated according to the whims of each editor.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber published a book in which he described the development of the siddur and how changes have often been made to standard texts. (On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations, Urim Publications, 2010). The prayer books of today have a long history of development. For many generations, especially before the invention of the printing press, the prayer texts were more fluid. Different wordings emerged in different communities, so that even traditional siddurim differ from each other e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Nusach Sefard, Nusach haAri, Yemenite, Italian, Romaniot etc.  Although general structures are shared by all groups, the actual choice of words and order of prayers vary. Rabbi Sperber suggests that current Orthodox siddurim can and should be emended to reflect our modern religious sensibilities.

Non-Orthodox groups have published siddurim with all the revisions they deemed appropriate. But within the Orthodox world, it is rare to find a siddur that dares to make wide ranging changes that seek to bring the text of the siddur into line with our religious worldview. Individuals who are uncomfortable with various prayers may choose to emend/omit them privately; but these are individual decisions, not communally sanctioned.

This brings us to a new siddur, Alats Libi (My Heart Rejoices) edited by Rabbis Isaac Sassoon and Steven Golden (Ktav Publishing House, 2023). While both rabbis are fully committed to Torah and halakha, they are not part of the mainstream Orthodox “establishment.” 

The siddur opens with a lengthy introduction by Rabbi Sassoon. A man of vast erudition, he offers a wide ranging view of the development of the siddur. He points out that the ancient sages referred to prayer as service of the heart; true prayer must reflect the heartfelt feelings of the worshipper. If one’s feelings are at odds with the words of the prayers, then such worship is not service of the heart.

This siddur maintains the traditional structure but modifies texts that the editors feel need updating. Here are several examples.

The traditional blessings thanking God for not having made me a non-Jew, or a slave or a woman are problematic to modern Jews who bristle at the negative tone toward non-Jews and women. The new siddur replaces these blessings thanking God who has brought us closer to His service, who called us His servants, who created humans in His image.  (shekeirvanu la’avodato; shekera’anu avadav; shebara et ha’adam betsalmo)

The traditional siddur has a blessing in the Amida asking the Almighty to destroy and wipe out workers of iniquity. Alats Libi does not approve of references to God as a destroyer of His own creations. The blessing is reworked praising God who crushes evil and sin. (shover resha umakhnia zadon) Following a Talmudic teaching ascribed to Bruriah, one should pray for the destruction of evil, not the destruction of human beings who are evil.

Alats Libi omits references to animal sacrifices. The paragraphs dealing with sacrifices in the musaf prayers for Shabbat and Yom Tov are replaced by a tasteful selection of verses.

The traditional oseh shalom prayer is universalized to refer not just to Israel but to the entire world. (hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol yisrael ve’al kol olamo amen). Likewise the Sim Shalom paragraph concludes with praise of God who makes peace, without specifying peace for Israel. (oseh hashalom)

The editors of Alats Libi have dared to update the siddur while drawing on historic rabbinic precedent and while maintaining the basic structure of the siddur. The result will please some, offend others, be ignored by most. It isn’t likely that many (if any) congregations will replace the current Orthodox siddurim with Alats Libi. Nevertheless, our hearts should rejoice that a serious attempt has been made to address nagging issues that many face when praying with the traditional siddur. This siddur reminds us that when we address the Almighty, we should do so honestly…and joyously.

Surprised by Anti-Semitism? Yes and No.

Although Jews have faced anti-Semitism from time immemorial, it always comes upon us as something new. It surprises us. We don’t understand it.

We strive to be good people, good citizens; we are kind hearted and generous. We devote ourselves to the education of our children, to the betterment of society, to justice and compassion. We have our share of faults along with all other human beings; but by and large, we are a good, responsible, hard-working community.

And yet, no matter what we do, people hate us! They don’t see us as individual human beings but as a vast stereotype. They don’t care if we are religious or not religious; if we are liberals or conservatives. If we are Jewish, they are against us and want to hurt us.

It was once thought that the establishment of the State of Israel would bring anti-Semitism to an end. After all, Jews would then have a feeling of security in the world, a safe haven where no one would bother us.

But the Jewish State has simply become a new target for the anti-Semites. They now couch Jew-hatred for hatred of “the Zionists.” Anti-Semites don’t have a problem with Hamas firing thousands of missiles at civilian centers in Israel; but when Israel responds by bombing the enemy, Israel is immediately condemned and vilified by the haters. For the anti-Semites, Israel is always wrong regardless of what it does or doesn't do.

Happily, there are many millions of people who feel warmly toward Jews and the Jewish State. Happily, many millions of people admire the accomplishments of the State of Israel in the face of so many obstacles; they respect Israel’s right—and obligation—to defend its citizens.

But when we see outbreaks of blatant anti-Jewish violence, anti-Jewish rhetoric, anti-Israel demonization—it surprises and pains us!  In spite of thousands of years dealing with anti-Jewish hatred and persecution, we still are not used to it. We somehow think that humanity will improve, will judge us fairly. We grow optimistic at any sign of peace and understanding, mutual cooperation and solidarity.

We keep telling ourselves that most people are good and that reason will ultimately prevail. The haters will eventually overcome malice and violence; they will realize the value of peaceful and respectful cooperation. In a world of over seven billion human beings, surely there must be room for the infinitesimal presence of 15 million Jews. In a world with so many countries, surely there must be room for one tiny Jewish State that wants nothing more than to be able to live in peace and security.

But the anti-Semites and anti-Zionists don’t really care. They don’t want to be reasoned with; they don’t want to listen. They have their agenda of hate.

Saul Bellow, the American novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, wrote in his book To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account: “…There is one fact of Jewish life unchanged by the creation of a Jewish state: you cannot take your right to live for granted. Others can; you cannot. This is not to say that everyone else is living pleasantly and well under a decent regime. No, it means only that the Jews, because they are Jews, have never been able to take the right to live as a natural right….This right is still clearly not granted them, not even in the liberal West.”

Bellow’s complaint is not new. Jews throughout the generations have had to face the same stark reality: Jews, because they are Jews, cannot take the right to live as a natural right.

That’s the sad part of the story.

But that’s not the end of the story. Even if there has long been hatred and violence directed against Jews…we are still here! We continue to live, to thrive, to hope.

The late Jewish thinker, Simon Rawidowicz, wrote an essay about “Israel: the Ever-Dying People.” He noted that Jews have often felt that theirs was the last Jewish generation. Jewish survival seemed hopeless. But although we were “ever-dying,” we were in fact ever-living! We often felt despair; but hope and persistence prevailed. Jews found ways to overcome all who would decimate us.

Although current manifestations of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are ugly and painful, we must take the long view of things. This isn’t the first period of Jewish history where Jews faced viciousness and violence. It likely won’t be the last period either. But long experience has taught us to stay strong, stay confident, stay positive. The challenge to our generation is to stand tall as Jews, to stand strong on behalf of Israel.

And we do look forward to a time when humanity will overcome the disease of anti-Semitism.  Meanwhile, we recall the words of Rav Nahman of Bratslav: All the world is a narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.

 

 

Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

 

(Rabbi Marc D. Angel was honored at the dinner of the Sephardic Brotherhood of America, Sunday evening December 17, 2023. These are his comments on that occasion.)

One of my favorite Joha stories has him in his yard searching for his lost keys. His wife asks him: what are you looking for, Joha? He answers: I’m looking for my keys.  His wife asks: where did you lose them? Joha answers: I lost them in the house somewhere. His wife asks: If you lost your keys in the house, why are you looking for them outside in the yard? Joha answers: because the light is much better out here in the sunshine!

Like many humorous stories, there is wisdom tucked inside. This Joha story reminds us of an eternal truth: you can’t find your keys if you are looking in the wrong place. Extending the lesson, you can’t find the keys to a happy and meaningful life if you are looking in all the wrong places. You have to know where to look, what values to choose, what ideals to uphold. You have to be able to distinguish between reality and illusion.

As we celebrate Sephardic tradition tonight, the first place we should search for keys is in our past. Centuries of our ancestors maintained a remarkable faith, persistence, sense of humor, wit and wisdom. I’ve spent much of my adult life researching and writing about Sephardic civilization and I have found many keys to a strong, happy life.

Tonight I express my gratitude to parents, grandparents, relatives and friends who peopled the beautiful Sephardic family and community of my youth in Seattle. My grandparents Angel came to Seattle from Rhodes, my grandparents Romey came from Turkey…all in the early years of the 20th century. I was named after my maternal grandfather Marco (Mordechai) Romey. 

I find keys to my life in the family and community in which I was raised. My Papoo Romey was a special influence on me. He was a barber, far from affluent, with no formal education. But he was a remarkable man. Every Friday night, after Shabbat dinner, he would sit at a card table near a window overlooking his back yard; and he would study the Torah portion of the week, as he sipped on a piping hot glass of tea with four teaspoons of sugar. He loved Torah; his faith in God was a mainstay of his life. 

On many Shabbat afternoons I would walk with him from his home on 15th Avenue between Alder and Spruce Streets to Sephardic Bikur Holim on 20th and Fir.  On the way, there was an empty lot on one of the corners with a dirt path running diagonally through it.  It was a convenient short cut. But Papoo would never let us take that short cut. “We don’t walk on dirt paths. We walk derekh hamelekh.” Dignity, honor, kavod, self respect. To outsiders, he was an immigrant, a barber, a poor man. In his mind, he was from the aristocracy of the ancient tribe of Judah who had been exiled to Spain. He was a prince of Israel.

The past is a good place to search for keys. But the present is very important if we know where to look.  When we see family and friends devoted to Torah and mitzvoth, we fill with joy and gratitude. When we see our Jewish faith and traditions live proudly and happily, we know that the keys of Judaism are in good hands. When I left the pulpit rabbinate 16 years ago, after a wonderful tenure in a historic congregation, I established the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Our creed has been to foster an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodox Judasim…much in the spirit of the Sephardic tradition. I have found many keys among devoted, idealistic, and faithful Jews trying to build a better future for our people and for society at large. My son, Rabbi Hayyim Angel, is the National Scholar of our Institute.

But when we search for keys, we also need to look into the future. Our Sephardic ancestors have bequeathed to us a tradition of faith, fortitude, optimism and joy. What will this tradition mean to our descendants 100 years from now, a time of post-ethnic Jewish peoplehood? That question is key to how we live our lives today.

We want our future generations to live strong, happy, beautiful Jewish lives. We want the Sephardic component of their lives to bring them inner poise, confidence, wisdom. The keys we bequeath to them are determined by us here and now. This is an awesome privilege and challenge.

Joha taught us not to look for keys in the wrong places. My Papoo taught us not to take short cuts, to live with dignity and ideals. These are foundational ideas for us now and for generations yet to come.

I am an optimist. I believe in a bright Jewish future, in a better future for all humanity. With all the problems we face these days, the words of the biblical prophet Amos are particularly poignant. “Behold the days are coming, and I (God) will send a famine to the earth, not a famine for bread and not a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God.”

Amen, ken yehi ratson!

 

A Menorah of Spears?

With their military victory over the Hellenistic Syrians, the Maccabees entered the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the worship of God. According to Jewish tradition, they found one jar of pure oil with enough to last for one day. They lit the Menorah and the oil miraculously burnt for eight days, enough time to produce a new batch of pure oil.

When we tell this story year after year, we tend to imagine that the Maccabees found the beautiful gold Menorah of the Temple in its place, and they simply added the pure oil to it.

Yet, this would be truly remarkable. The Syrians had control of the Temple for a long stretch of time and they surely would have plundered all the valuable items within it. It would have been very unlikely for them to have left an impressive gold candelabrum in its place.

A midrash suggests that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they indeed did not find the Menorah there. It had already been stolen by the enemies of the Jews. So the Maccabees improvised by putting together a make-shift Menorah made of spears. The midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 2:1) surmises that the spears had been left behind by the Syrian soldiers who fled in haste during their defeat.

So the Menorah of the original Hanukkah was made of the spears of our enemies!

This midrash is teaching a profound lesson. The very weapons with which our enemies sought to destroy us—those very weapons were used to spread the light of Judaism! The Maccabees were demonstrating that their victory was not merely successful in a military sense. Rather, it was also—and pre-eminently—a spiritual victory. The enemy’s spears were transformed into branches of the Menorah, bringing light into the Temple, restoring worship of the One true God.

The Haftarah that we read on Shabbat Hanukkah includes the famous words of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

Not by spears, not by guns, not by missiles, not by terrorism, not by political intimidation: these weapons of our enemies will not prevail. We will transform their weapons into sources of light and peace. We will create a Menorah of righteousness that will inspire the world to a loftier and more spiritual vision.

To quote from the Passover Haggadah, “in each generation they arise to destroy us and the Almighty saves us from their hands.” The Jews seem always to have been the conscience of the nations—and many people do not like a conscience, especially a guilty conscience. They attack us because they are afraid of what we symbolize: a nation dedicated to One God, to an elevated morality, to social justice.

But the ongoing flourishing of Jews and Judaism is our unflinching testimony that the spirit of God will ultimately prevail among humanity. The spears of enmity and warfare will one day be transformed into branches of a Menorah, bringing light and hope to all human beings. May it be soon and in our days!

Reflections on the Current Rise in Anti-Israel and Anti-Jewish Manifestations

The following is a note I received from a friend who is a professor at Columbia University:

 

“Campus is indeed very difficult; no dialogue is possible, no conversations, and absolutely zero knowledge of history prevails among the loudest voices. We only have fear and sadness in abundance (along with terrifying yelling and cheering--for loss of life. It is unthinkable). I think the majority of students are oblivious but those who are affected are very affected. Many of my students are having a very hard time. One student told me he is scared to wear a kippah (I suggested he talk with his parents and hometown rabbi for advice). I wish I could help my students more. I've reached out and let them know I am available to speak with them individually and have been doing so…I worry especially about my students studying Arabic language. It's not a safe space. Do you have any advice on any of these matters--articles, advice to give students, etc.?

My thanks and wishes for peace.”

 

Here was my response:

 

“I wish we could wave a magic wand and get people to become more reasonable, understanding, kind. Unfortunately, when hatred runs so deep all other humane qualities seem to vanish. Unfortunately, this isn't the first time (and won't be the last time, I'm afraid) that Jews are targeted with hatred and violence. We American Jews had thought that we were basically living in a fairly safe environment (and to a large extent it is still so), but current events have reminded us of our eternal vulnerability. Fortunately, the government on all levels is taking a strong stand against hate crimes, working against anti-Semitism in society and campuses...but this will be a prolonged battle.  Remind your Jewish students that we are all ambassadors and soldiers of the Jewish tradition, that our people have stood strong for over 3000 years, that in spite of our enemies we have found ways to thrive, to foster humane values. Rabbi Nahman of Breslav has a famous line, which I think of often: All the world is a very narrow bridge (precarious), but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all. Kol haOlam kulo, gesher tsar me'od, ve ha'ikar lo lefahed, lo lefahed kelal.

 

We have always been aware of an under-current of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, but things today seem qualitatively and quantitatively different. We witness throngs of people throughout the United States and throughout the world who brazenly and unabashedly call for the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jews. The public display of raw hatred is alarming.

 

Hamas is a terror organization that openly calls for the destruction of Israel and murder of Jews. It has shown time and again that it will commit acts of terror to promote its goals. On October 7, Hamas launched a heinous attack on Israelis, killing hundreds and taking hundreds as hostages. Israel has responded to this brutality by launching a war with the intention of ending Hamas rule in Gaza.

 

Hamas and its sympathizers deny Jewish history, Jewish rights to its own homeland. They deny Jews the right to live in peace. The Gazans keep describing themselves as “refugees” although I suspect that most or all of them were born and raised in Gaza. They refer to their towns as “refugee camps.”  What they are really saying is that they are the rightful owners of the land of Israel and as long as Jews control Israel the Gazans are “refugees” from a land they never ruled and to which they have no legitimate historic claim.

 

Hatred is an ugly thing. Saturating a society with hatred is especially pernicious. It not only promotes hatred of the perceived enemy, but it distorts the lives of the haters themselves. Energy and resources that could be utilized to build humane societies are instead diverted to hatred, weaponry, death and destruction. 

 

The media report on college students (and faculty) who support Hamas, who call for the annihilation of Israel. Hateful voices are raised calling for murder of Jews.I suspect that almost all of those spewing hatred of Israel and Jews don’t even know Israelis or Jews in person. They actually hate stereotypes of Jews. They are indoctrinated with propaganda that dehumanizes Jews. They are fed a stream of lies about Israel and about Jews. 

 

The real enemy is dehumanization. The haters are so steeped in their hateful ideology and narratives that they perpetrate lies and violence against individual Jews that they don’t even know. The haters think that by killing anonymous Jews or Israelis, they are somehow doing something constructive. They don’t think of themselves as liars or murderers, even though that is exactly what they are.

When societies allow hatred to flourish, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. When universities, media and political forums condone blatantly anti-Jewish intimidation and violence, the infection spreads well beyond Jews. Civil discourse is threatened. Respectful dialogue is quashed. Hopes for peace diminish.

The Jewish community, and all those who stand up for Israel, are a source of strength to humanity. We will not be intimidated by the haters, bullies and supporters of terrorism. 

As Rav Nahman of Braslav wisely reminded us: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge (precarious); but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.”