National Scholar Updates

Thoughts for Yom Ha'Atsmaut

Yom HaAtzmaut is, like any birthday, a time of moral reckoning and of revisiting our collective story. The trauma and the sense of hopelessness we experience demand an effort to reframe our story and reorient our attitude to life in Israel and, given how events in Israel have impacted Jewry worldwide, to Jewish life itself.

Two narratives, interwoven with one another, have provided the basic conceptual framework within which the vast majority of Israelis have understood Israel and the present moment. It is time for a new vision, based on humility and lovingkindness, to shape a new narrative.

The first common narrative is the narrative of disempowerment and regaining of power. Following years of exile, culminating in the events of the Holocaust, Israel was founded as a safe haven for Jews and as a promise for the flourishing of Jewish life. This also provided a means for the deep seated Jewish vision of being a light unto the nations to find concrete expression. Human activism and taking history into our hands characterize this narrative, which is understood as distinct from the alternative approach, characterized by greater historical passivity, in anticipation of divine action and a supernatural messianic redemption. The sense of empowerment unfolded progressively in Israel’s life as successive military victories showed Israel’s strength, as agricultural and technological capacities made it a wonder to the world and a startup nation and as a miraculous reality was experienced as part of the day to day life of the nation-state. Admiration for Israel characterizes the better part of its history and forms part of the narrative itself. While Israel did not have a particular teaching or example to offer the world, its very existence was a source of wonder and inspiration.

The second narrative is internal. It is a narrative of unity, or the quest for unity, within Israel and the claim that Israel as a state unites and serves the entire Jewish people. Deep fissures within Israeli society have existed throughout the State’s history, but for the most part have been held at bay. A sense of unity has kept society together, especially in times of crisis and war.

The events that have unfolded prior to and since October 7th call into question both narratives. That day was a day of defeat and profound humiliation. By all accounts, despite an enormous show of power following that day, we have yet to emerge victorious from this war. Something has been broken in the national spirit. In parallel, the view of Israel, on the global stage, has sunk to a nadir we could have never imagined.

Almost universally, the second narrative ties to the first, as an explanation for our failure. Accordingly, the reason put forth for everything going wrong is our lack of unity. Internal weakening led to an external attack, from which we have yet to recover.

Both narratives reference the nation and its power and both put forth human/social reasons as the sole means of understanding our historical situation. As a consequence, there is a remarkable dearth of attempts to account for Israel’s condition in other terms, especially theological terms. For the most part, God is kept out of the picture. A history of Jewish introspection and attempting to account for the present moment by examination of the past is cast aside, as these narratives are accepted almost blindly.

There are many reasons why I consider these narratives inadequate to the task of accounting for the present moment and why, I believe, we must discover new narratives by means of which to make sense of this time. The magnitude of our fall from grace cannot be accounted for simply in light of divisive leadership or government policies. Too many factors came together to bring about October 7th, including the failure of intelligence and the particular state of lack of preparedness, for us to ignore the possibility that what happened was not simply a consequence of a set of bad political choices. Theologically speaking, God allowed October 7th to happen. We could have been protected as we were during the recent massive attack from Iran. We were not. This gives pause for reflection.

Similarly, the narrative of unity also falls short in its explanatory power. Divisions in Israel have always been there, nor has any real unity been achieved since October 7th. The notion of unity has itself been used with political convenience and no serious, let alone successful, work of healing national divisions is within sight. Again, theologically – why would God allow lack of unity to lead to these results, if no successful reversal of that reality emerges from events?

So, one wonders, surely one must learn something from this period. What are lessons we should draw from it? Amazingly, no significant insight or message for the moment comes forth from Jewish leadership in response to this question. Political leaders have no new insight to offer. Events simply affirm their previous political views. Religious leaders have been universally dumb in their response, at best echoing the unity trope, or calling for teshuva in the broadest terms. No chief rabbi, Hassidic leader, rosh yeshiva, leader of a particular denomination, or the like, has come forth with a message powerful and convincing enough to constitute the kind of lesson that would make sense of the events of October 7th and beyond.

In this situation, it is impossible to learn anything from the events of the past 7 months. How can one learn if the question is not posed and an answer is not put forth? Moreover, any attempt to learn will, of necessity, echo divisions within the people. Each group will learn lessons that affirm its position and invalidate the views of the other. We need to consider the present moment in terms other than learning historical or moral lessons.

If, as I believe, God has purposes in allowing events to unfold, these should be achieved regardless of our learning capacity and in spite of our collective limitations and fractures. Therefore, we must ask whether there is another way of approaching these events that is not learning from them. Perhaps our collective experience is more important than the lessons we draw. Perhaps our humiliation and the crushing of our ego are the purpose of events as they have unfolded. Perhaps our suffering has a purifying value, in and of itself. Perhaps it is time to own again elements of thought that we have cast aside, in the process of our empowerment. Perhaps the lesson of the purifying power of suffering in exile remains relevant and plays out in our history in ways other than empowering us to take history into our hands. Perhaps the relationship of human and divine action, and the sense of power that we take for granted must be recalibrated. Might all these not be summed up under one word – humility? Is our global humiliation not a moment for collective humility? What kind of Israel might come forth, at 76, if humility, rather than power, were the subjective goal to which we strive? How might the purpose of serving as light unto the nations, largely forgotten in past decades, be rediscovered in this light?

As I contemplated these issues, between Yom Hashoah and Yom Atzmaut , I went to pray, at the tomb of the Prophet Samuel. He was, after all, the great seer (that is what he is called in the Bible) who struggled with the balance between divine and human governance and the limits of human power, as expressed in the institution of Israel’s kingdom. As I prayed, a word came to me – lovingkindness. It was not what I had expected, and yet I think it offers a message that is crucial to the creation of a new narrative, and flows directly from the recognition of how central humility must be to our going forward.

Rather than saying we know what it is all about or that we have the power to draw lessons from events, we can acknowledge that we are overpowered by events and at a loss to comprehend them. We are also at a loss to heal our divisions. More fundamentally, we are at a loss to account for what the purpose of Israel – the State and the People – is at the present moment. And we all share in this existential situation. It applies to each and every sector in society. Each sector requires transformation. Each sector seems incapable of drawing lessons of relevance from the events of October 7ththough indicators for such lessons are present. We are, collectively, at a loss.

Once we recognize this, there is a different way of approaching our society and the world. The surety of truth and the conviction of ideology must give way to another, more humble approach. To me, the most moving testimonies of the Holocaust, and how meaning was found in suffering, are the stories of caring for one another. Showing lovingkindness in the midst of suffering was a form of maintaining human dignity, without any presumption of understanding. The moments that have moved Israeli society most since October 7th have, indeed, been moments in which lovingkindness was manifested.

If our narratives have failed, if our ego has been crushed, if we lack vision, if we are all in a state of collective darkness and despair –  there is still a fundamental way of being that can provide hope and keep us open to new understandings and realization. If we could only inculcate lovingkindness under all situations, both within and without, despite all divisions, recognizing our limitations and collective failure, if chesed rather than emet became our governing ethos, new horizons could  open up. With these a new narrative could emerge. It is the narrative of human efforts reaching their limit, and the acceptance of our frailty and limitation, as we await new revelations and new beginnings. The road along which we travel in this journey is paved by humility and lovingkindness.

 

 

Rabbi Hayyim Angel's Ruth class has been moved to 6:30-7:30 EDT

For the upcoming three sessions, Rabbi Hayyim Angel's course in the Book of Ruth in Fort Lee has been moved to a new time. It will be from 6:30-7:30 pm, EDT.

Upcoming classes will be held on Thursdays May 16, 23, and 30 (from 6:30-7:30 pm EDT) at the Young Israel of Fort Lee, New Jersey (1610 Parker Avenue):

Free and open to the public.

The lectures will also be available over zoom.

Zoom ID: 543 881 8506 Passcode: YIFL

Happy Judaism: Thoughts for Parashat Emor

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Emor

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the festive days that mark the Jewish religious calendar. Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed (III: 43), makes a significant comment about religion and happiness: "The festivals are all for rejoicings and pleasurable gatherings, which in most cases are indispensable for man; they are also useful in the establishment of friendship, which must exist among people living in political societies." Happy occasions are essential. Pleasurable gatherings enlarge our lives by linking us with family and friends, by enabling us to meet new people and interact with them in a positive environment.

Indeed, we not only have the festival days; we have the joy of Shabbat each week. We have the happiness of so many mitzvoth each day. Judaism promotes a positive, optimistic worldview and lifestyle. The hallmark of Jewish religious life is happiness!

The Talmud (Taanit 22a) relates a story that Elijah the Prophet pointed out two people who had a place in the world-to-come. Who were these outstanding individuals? They were street comedians!  They told jokes. When asked why they devoted their time to making people laugh, they answered: we try to relieve people's sufferings; we offer them a moment of laughter to free them from their woes; we use humor to bring peace among those who are arguing with each other.

The 18th century sage, Rabbi Eliyahu ha-Cohen of Izmir, elaborated on the virtues of these street comedians. "Anyone who is happy all his days thereby indicates the greatness of his trust in God. This is why they [the street comedians] were always happy...This quality [of accepting life with happiness] is enough to give a person merit to have a place in the world-to-come; for great is trust [in the Lord], even if a person is not perfect in all other moral perfections" (Midrash Talpiot).

Especially during difficult times, celebrating Shabbat and holidays with family and friends is uplifting. These occasions provide a needed and healthful respite from the problems of our world. By bolstering our spirits in a religious context, we gain strength, courage and optimism to confront the challenges ahead.

 

 

 

Judaism and Humanity: The Messianic Era

Introduction

 

            The Bible has a singular vision for Jews and humanity. Beginning with the unprecedented declaration in the first chapter of Genesis that all people are created in God’s Image (Genesis 1:26–27), the Torah and prophets present a program for Israel and humanity that can bring about a redeemed, harmonious, religious-ethical world.

            In previous articles published in Conversations, I have discussed the biblical ideas of the Chosen People and of loving the ger—the resident alien non-Israelite who dwells in the Land of Israel when Israel has sovereignty.[1] In this article, I summarize the conclusions of those two articles, and then discuss the prophetic messianic ideal of Israel and humanity. Rabbinic interpreters debate the boundaries of what the prophets envision as the ideal relationship between Israel and the nations in the future.

 

The Chosen People

 

            The Torah begins its narrative with Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and not with the people or Land of Israel. All people belong to the same family created in God’s Image, with equal standing before God. God expects humanity to serve God and observe a basic level of morality, codified in Jewish law as the seven Noahide Laws.

God rejected humanity after the expulsion from Eden, the Flood, and finally the Tower of Babel. God then chose Abraham because Abraham chose God; Abraham taught his children and society about the religious-ethical lifestyle the Torah promotes for humanity.

            God’s choosing of Israel is an eternal choice, but the relationship is damaged when Israel sins. Israel’s exiles represent a separation, not a permanent divorce. God longs for Israel’s repentance and restoration of the ideal relationship between God and Israel. Similarly, God’s rejection of humanity with the Tower of Babel is a separation, not a permanent divorce. Non-Israelites who return to Godly behavior can become chosen again. All humanity will be redeemed in the messianic era.

One is chosen when one chooses God. For Jews, that means faithfulness to the God-Israel covenant in the Torah with its commandments. For non-Jews, that means faithfulness to the basic religious-ethical principles of the seven Noahide Laws.

Israel plays a special role as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). Israel’s priests have a genetic component (descendants of Aaron the Priest), have more commandments than regular Israelites, guard and serve in the Temple, and teach Torah to Israel. So too, Israel is a family within the community of nations, has more commandments than non-Israelites, guards and serves in the Temple, and teaches Torah to the world.

The Torah thereby establishes a particularistic religious system for Israel, while simultaneously promoting love and genuine respect of a diverse religious-ethical humanity.

 

The Resident Alien

 

            In the Torah (the Written Law), the resident alien in Israel must observe most laws of the Torah, be cared for and loved, and receive equal treatment. The resident alien is exempt from several laws that govern the unique covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

The Oral Law distinguishes between the ger tzedek (convert to Judaism) who is bound by all of the Torah’s laws and is loved and cared for by Jews, and the ger toshav (resident alien) who must accept certain minimal religious-ethical standards to live in Israel.

            The Oral Law teaches the core Jewish value of loving converts to Judaism. The Written Law teaches that identical love and inclusion of the resident alien, complete with rights and responsibilities. The Torah commands love, sensitivity, and fair treatment of all decent people living in the Land of Israel. Although we apply the laws of the Oral Law on the halakhic level, it also is critical to internalize the core values of the Written Law to envisage and build the ideal society.

 

The Messianic Future

 

We now turn to the focus of this article, prophecies that develop the contours of the ideal future for Israel and humanity. Several passages elicit debate among commentators, who disagree over the precise relationship between Israel and the nations in the ideal future.

 

Zephaniah 3:9

Nations Accept God

 

For then I will make the peoples pure of speech (safah berurah), so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve Him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

 

After censuring the wicked societies of Israel and its neighbors, Zephaniah proffers a prophecy of consolation. All people will speak a pure speech and serve God in unity. Several commentators interpret the “pure speech” as referring to Hebrew (Rabbi Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Radak). However, most explain that people will serve the one true God (Rambam Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, Abarbanel, cf. Berakhot 57b, Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:4). Abarbanel adds that Zephaniah’s prophecy represents the undoing of the Tower of Babel. People no longer will be confused of language nor retreat from God. Instead, religious and social unity will prevail. Both of these components remedy the rupture from the Tower of Babel, making this dual interpretation of Zephaniah’s prophecy particularly apt.[2]

 

Isaiah 2:2–4

Nations Join Israel in the Temple

 

In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  Thus He will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:2–4)

 

In this celebrated prophecy, Isaiah envisions world peace in the context of universal worship of God. All humanity will serve God and will be welcome to the Temple. Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963, Hebrew University) adds that this vision also serves as an antidote to the Tower of Babel.[3] Jerusalem represents the ideal metropolitan center, which attracts people to serve God.

We may add that the prophets generally do not enjoin Israel to actively proselytize throughout the world. Rather, they must build an ideal society and through that model inspire humanity. This picture aligns with God’s exhortation in Deuteronomy:

 

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5–8)

 

Isaiah 56:3–7

Nations Join Israel in the Temple

 

Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself to the Lord, “The Lord will keep me apart from His people”; and let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.” For thus said the Lord: “As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant—I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish. As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant—I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:3–7)

 

This prophecy furthers the invitation to all God-fearing people to serve God in the Temple. Evidently, some God-fearing Gentiles felt excluded, so the prophet responds that they indeed have access to the Temple.

            Rashi, Radak, and Abarbanel interpret this prophecy as referring to full converts to Judaism (gerei tzedek).[4] Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, however, explain the prophecy as referring to righteous Gentiles. They cite Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the First Temple:

 

Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm—when he comes to pray toward this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built. (I Kings 8:41–43)

 

Righteous Gentiles always are welcome to serve God in the Temple.

 

Isaiah 66:18–21

Will Gentiles Serve as Priests in the Temple?

 

For I [know] their deeds and purposes. [The time] has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they shall come and behold My glory…. And out of all the nations, said the Lord, they shall bring all your brothers on horses, in chariots and drays, on mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord—just as the Israelites bring an offering in a pure vessel to the House of the Lord. And from them likewise I will take some to be levitical priests, said the Lord. (Isaiah 66:18–21)

 

Depending on how one understands “from them,” it is possible to read the final verse in this passage as saying that some righteous Gentiles will serve as priests in the Temple. If that is the plain sense of the text, it is unparalleled in the Bible. Generally, the Torah prohibits any non-Aaronides—whether from Israel or the nations—from serving as priests in the Temple.[5]

            Classical commentators maintain that this prophecy does not countermand the laws of the Torah. Only Aaronide priests will serve in that capacity in the Temple. They disagree, however, over how to understand this prophecy.

            Rashi, Radak, Abarbanel, and Malbim maintain that non-Jews will bring Israelite priests and Levites back from exile with them.[6] Although those priests and Levites had assimilated while in exile, God will accept their repentance and allow them to serve in the Temple.

Alternatively, Rabbi Joseph Kimhi and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency submit that non-Jews will serve in the Temple by assisting the Aaronide and Levitic priests as the Gibeonites and netinim did from the time of Joshua through the Second Temple period:

 

 

That day Joshua made [the Gibeonites] hewers of wood and drawers of water—as they still are—for the community and for the altar of the Lord, in the place that He would choose. (Joshua 9:27)

 

And of the temple servants (netinim) whom David and the officers had appointed for the service of the Levites—220 temple servants, all of them listed by name. (Ezra 8:20)

 

Amos Hakham also interprets the text as referring to non-Jews serving in the Temple, but understands the verses figuratively. Righteous Gentiles will bring offerings in the Temple, and God considers those who sacrifice as though they are God’s attendants, like priests and Levites.[7]

            To summarize the respective readings according to the aforementioned commentators:

 

  1. Rashi: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord…. And from them (=Jews whom the nations brought back who are of priestly and Levitic descent) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests, said the Lord.

 

  1. Rabbi Joseph Kimhi: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord.... And from them (=the non-Jewish nations) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests (=to assist the priests and Levites with attending roles), said the Lord.

 

  1. Amos Hakham: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord.... And from them (=the non-Jewish nations) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests (=I will consider Gentiles who bring sacrifices as though they were priests), said the Lord.

 

Isaiah 19:18–25

Israel and the Nations are Chosen People When They Serve God

 

In that day, there shall be several towns in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan and swearing loyalty to the Lord of Hosts; one shall be called Town of Heres. In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border…In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying, “Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My very own Israel.” (Isaiah 19:18–25)

 

            Isaiah prophetically envisions Egypt and (evidently) Assyria accepting God in the future. This is the only place in the Bible where God explicitly refers to a foreign nation as “My nation.” All humanity may become chosen by choosing God through proper worship (generally understood as commitment to the seven Noahide Laws).

            Several interpreters reject the notion that any other nation can become God’s chosen people. For example, Targum Jonathan, Rashi, and Rabbi Isaiah of Trani reinterpret the verse as referring exclusively to Israel’s chosenness: Blessed be My nation [Israel whom I chose in] Egypt, and [to whom I showed miracles with] Assyria.

            Those who understand the verse as referring to God’s choosing Egypt and Assyria generally still give Israel a distinctive advantage. Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Abarbanel explain that all three nations will be chosen by God, but Israel is God’s inheritance (nahalah), enjoying the longest standing and permanent intimate relationship with God.

Amos Hakham recognizes the equality of the three nations in the verse, but suggests that Israel is mentioned last as the most beloved nation of God (aharon aharon haviv).[8] However, the smoothest reading of the verse appears to equate the nations as having chosen status when they embrace God in the future.

 

Ezekiel 47:21–23

Do Resident Aliens Receive Land in Israel?

 

This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides—declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 47:21–23)

 

            Ezekiel envisions a renewed map of Israel in his prophecy of redemption in chapters 47–48. All twelve tribes will return to Israel and live west of the Jordan River. The tribal allotments no longer will follow the ancient distribution from the time of Joshua.

            One of the striking differences between the original world order in biblical Israel and Ezekiel’s prophetic forecast for the ideal future is the allotment of land to gerim. As I discussed in my article on the resident alien, all biblical instances of ger refer to the resident alien, known in halakha as the ger toshav. Therefore, it appears that Ezekiel’s prophecy allots land to all decent people who live in Israel in the future.

            Because the Torah does not allocate land to the resident alien, Sifrei Numbers 10:29 reinterprets Ezekiel’s prophecy as referring either to atonement or burial, not to land acquisition.

Several commentators explain that the ger in Ezekiel’s prophecy is the ger tzedek, or righteous convert. In their reading, those who convert to Judaism prior to the messianic era will in fact obtain land in the messianic era (Rashi, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, Abarbanel).

The smoothest reading of the verses, however, allocates land for resident aliens in the future.

 

Joel 3:1

Will Israelites and Non-Israelites Prophesy?

After that, I will pour out My spirit on all flesh (kol basar); your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 3:1–2)

 

            Joel prophesies that in the future, God will pour His spirit on all flesh (kol basar). The ensuing words refer to various manifestations of prophetic inspiration. If Joel says that all humanity will prophesy in the future, this would be a unique prophecy in the Bible.

            However, Ibn Ezra and Radak observe that Joel refers to your sons and daughters. Interpreting the verse as referring to the same group, they maintain that Israelites will prophesy in the future, and Joel does not refer to all humanity.[9] In this reading, Joel’s prophecy is parallel to that of Ezekiel:

 

I will never again hide My face from them, for I will pour out My spirit upon the House of Israel—declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:29)

 

            Abarbanel splits the verse into two components. Kol basar in the first half of the verse refers to all humanity, who will recognize and serve God. Abarbanel likens Joel’s prophecy to Zephaniah’s prophecy discussed earlier that all nations will speak with a pure speech to serve God (Zephaniah 3:9). The second half of the verse refers to Jews, who will attain actual prophecy (ve-nibbe’u).

            Although Joel’s prophecy does not appear to predict universal prophetic revelation, it calls to mind a Midrash which teaches the core value that all worthy human beings may attain prophecy:

 

I call to witness the heavens and earth, that whether a Gentile or Jew, man or woman, servant or maidservant; all is according to one’s actions, and to that degree divine inspiration rests upon him. (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 10)

 

Conclusion

 

We have considered prophecies of redemption that illustrate aspects of the future relationship between Israel and righteous Gentiles.

Zephaniah 3:9 envisions a united humanity serving God properly (Rambam, Abarbanel), thereby undoing the damage represented by the Tower of Babel (Abarbanel).

Isaiah 2:2–4 predicts the worldwide recognition and service of God in Jerusalem, the ideal metropolitan center. Israel’s living up to its role as a model nation of priests inspires the nations to join them.

Isaiah 56:3–7 combats any discriminatory attitudes Jews might have toward righteous Gentiles. All God-fearing individuals have a place in the future Temple (Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency).

Isaiah 66:18–21 envisages the nations of the world recognizing God’s glory, and bringing Jewish exiles with them to Jerusalem and the Temple. Commentators debate whether the passage predicts that Jewish priests and Levites will be allowed to serve in the Temple despite their assimilationist tendencies while in exile (Rashi), whether righteous Gentiles will serve as attendants for the priests and Levites (Rabbi Joseph Kimhi), or whether they will bring sacrifices and God will view them as though they were priests in the Temple (Amos Hakham). It is possible to read the prophecy as referring to righteous Gentiles to actually serve as priests in the Temple. If this is the text’s meaning, it would be a unique prophecy in the Bible. It also would contradict laws in the Torah that outlaw all non-Aaronides from encroaching on the Temple space.

Isaiah 19:18–25 foresees a future age when other nations accept God and will resume being chosen nations alongside Israel. Several commentators assume that only Jews can be a chosen people (Targum, Rashi), but others interpret the prophecy to mean that nations that accept God are chosen, and this appears to be the plain sense of the text (Ibn Ezra, Amos Hakham).

Ezekiel 47:21–23 uniquely forecasts that resident aliens will receive land alongside the Jews in the messianic era. Many commentators assume that this prophecy refers to righteous converts to Judaism (Rashi, Abarbanel), but the simple meaning pertains to resident aliens, who will own land in a newly redrawn map of Israel.

Although Joel 3:1–2 initially sounded like a unique prediction of universal prophecy, it appears more likely that the prophecy is limited to Jews (Ibn Ezra, Radak). However, a Midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 10) stresses that all worthy people are eligible to receive prophecy.

May we further our own building of a model community, and may we inspire many others to this vision of a united, diverse, God-fearing moral society.

 

Postscript

 

            Although this study has focused on biblical prophecies, it is appropriate to note the debate in Jewish thought between Rambam and his opponents. Professor Menachem Kellner has written extensively on this subject.[10] Many great Jewish thinkers, including Rabbi Judah Halevi in his Kuzari, followed by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Shneuer Zalman of Lyady, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the author of the Zohar, and others, believe in ontological essentialism. In plain English, these thinkers assert that Jews are essentially distinct and superior to non-Jews. This position leads its adherents to maintain that converts to Judaism are lesser than born Jews, since they were born with inferior souls. Additionally, this viewpoint generally rejects the possibility that non-Jews can attain prophecy.

It must be stressed that there is no biblical precedent for these ideas, nor is there much in classical rabbinic literature to support their contention. Kellner maintains that the degraded state of Jews in many medieval communities promoted this attitude as a means of maintaining self-esteem.

            In contrast to this widespread view, Rambam insists that there is no essential difference between Jew and non-Jew. All people must develop their intellect to know God and act morally. God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God, not because of any preexisting metaphysical superiority of Abraham. God gave the Torah to the people of Israel because of that choice, and not as a consequence of any inherent property in the people of Israel.

            This outlook leads Rambam to view converts to Judaism as true equals, rather than as inferior people born with lesser souls. After all, the Jewish people began as “converts” as well. Rambam also maintains that in principle, Jews and non-Jews may attain prophetic revelation if they develop themselves properly.

            Rambam’s stance on these issues dovetails the biblical portrait of Israel’s relationship with the nations.

 

Notes

 

[1] “‘The Chosen People’: An Ethical Challenge,” Conversations 27 (Winter 2017), pp. 38–47. “Love the Ger: A Biblical Perspective,” Conversations 36 (Autumn 2020), pp. 37–46.

[2] See further discussion in Hayyim Angel, “The Tower of Babel: A Case Study in Combining Traditional and Academic Bible Methodologies,” in Angel, Peshat Isn’t So Simple: Essays on Developing a Religious Methodology to Bible Study (New York: Kodesh Press, 2014), pp. 201–212.

[3] Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 294–295, 386–387.

[4] Cf. Mekhilta Mishpatim 22; Exodus Rabbah 19:4–5; Tanna Devei Eliyahu 29; Rambam cites Isaiah 56:3 to demonstrate that there is no difference between born Jews and sincere converts to Judaism (Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte).

[5] Shalom M. Paul (Mikra LeYisrael: Isaiah 49-66 [Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2008, 575) and Joseph Blenkinsopp (Anchor Bible: Isaiah 56-66 [New York: Doubleday, 2003], p. 140) maintain that, according to this prophecy, foreigners will in fact be able to serve in the Temple as priests. Given the legal disparity between this interpretation and the rest of the biblical corpus, Blenkinsopp concedes that “These affirmations…must have been highly controversial, and we may be sure that they would not have been acceptable to the temple authorities at any time after the restoration of the Jerusalem cult.”

[6] Cf. Midrash Psalms 7.

[7] Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Isaiah vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1984), p. 696.

[8] Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Isaiah vol. 1 (Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1984), p. 206.

[9] See also Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Twelve Prophets vol. 1, Joel (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1990), pp. 17-18; James L. Crenshaw, Anchor Bible: Joel (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 164–165.

[10] See especially Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006); Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991). See also his articles, “Chosenness, Not Chauvinism: Maimonides on the Chosen People,” in A People Apart: Chosenness and Ritual in Jewish Philosophical Thought, ed. Daniel Frank (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 51–76, 85–89; “On Universalism and Particularism in Judaism,” Da’at 36 (1996), pp. v–xv; “We Are Not Alone,” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ed. Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold, and Tamra Wright (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2012), pp. 139–154.

Short Term, Long Term: Thoughts on Israel and the Jewish Future

In the short term, things look very difficult. Israel is in the midst of military confrontations with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. In spite of the remarkable achievements of IDF in Gaza, the war lingers on with no clear end in sight. Israel faces increasing international censure from the United Nations, the International Court, and from political leaders around the world. American college campuses are rife with anti-Israel activity. Radical Hamas supporters unashamedly call for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews.

We all feel the pain and the pressure.  We are going through a protracted nightmare. And it won’t likely get better in the short term.

But the crisis will pass, sooner (hopefully!) or later. How can things change for the better in the long term?

Israel must conclude its war in Gaza as quickly and effectively as possible. It must work with allies to put into place a responsible Palestinian leadership that will eschew ongoing warfare and that will work peacefully with Israel for the benefit of all. It cannot ignore the Palestinian issue or let it fester endlessly. 

Israel has taken great strides forward through the Abraham Accords. The more Arab and Muslim countries recognize Israel, the more secure Israel becomes. Formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia would be a potential game changer in the Middle East. Aside from the political and economic benefits, it would undercut the hateful voices that call for Israel’s destruction. It would make it clear that Israel is strong, creative, and a genuine partner with other nations seeking a harmonious region.

While short term challenges must be faced courageously, we need to focus on long term resolutions of problems. It isn’t realistic to expect that the deep hatred of our enemies will dissipate overnight. The ugly anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that have exploded in recent months will not suddenly cease. But visionary leadership can help us move gradually and intelligently beyond the problematic status quo. In spite of all the battles and threats, we need to formulate sensible strategies to bring us to a lasting peace.

We need to be strong to defend ourselves from our enemies; but we need special strength and blessing to work for and attain peace.  Indeed, it may well be more difficult to achieve peace than to win wars. 

“The Lord gives strength to His people, may the Lord bless His people with peace.”

Higher Education and Jewish Education: Knowledge is Power

        About a decade ago, I noticed a blog post detailing harassment of Jewish students at an elite Ivy League women's college.  Duty bound, I forwarded the story to dear friend, a long time alumnus of that school. At first, she was disbelieving.  In time, she became irritated, then angry. Could this be the college she had attended?  Yet what then seemed shocking, now seems almost routine.  It has become common for Jewish students attending American institutions of high education to feel bullied, threatened, intimidated or silenced.  What should be done?  What can be done? 

     The current manifestation of anti-Jewish bias on American campuses is not the traditional disdain for Jews that had existed in higher education in an earlier time.  Jewish quotas at elite educational institutions before World War II were rooted in a kind of country club anti-Jewish animus.  Jews were pictured as pushy, foreign, untrustworthy or strangely alien.  Their achievements and tenacity threatened the good-old-boy Protestant, white upper class ruling establishment.   Hence, restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to ivy league colleges were often maintained and sometimes even openly pronounced.  This prejudiced attitude toward Jews proved increasingly difficult to retain given the political progress toward increasing equality and justice evidenced in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Fortunately, this form of anti-Jewish prejudice has become a relic of the past.

     Today's higher education anti-Jewish animus is of a different stripe. It is fueled by the claim of injustice and oppression.  That claim--sometimes subtle and sometimes overt--resounds all over campus.  Classrooms have been increasingly dominated by professors who dogmatically condemn Israel (and usually only Israel, or only Israel and the United States).  Although reasonable people can dispute the extent of overlap between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias, these attitudes are most certainly far more than distant cousins.  Meanwhile, Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli student groups such as BDS set the tone and fuel the political energy for campus politics.  They are supported by top and often middle-level administrators, whose careers to some extent depend upon their evident and continuous commitment to social justice.

    For Jewish students, it sometimes appears that there is no place to hide.  Hillel and Chabad can provide sanctuaries, but these shelters are often insufficient to withstand the political storm outside. Jewish community is an affirmative response to opposition and harassment, but the Jewish establishment often do not always speak forcefully or directly enough to the accusation that Jews embody or support unjust causes.  The question is: what else can be done to support the Jewish student who feels marginalized or attacked?   

     It is time, I suggest, for Jewish educators to help formulate a response to the charges of injustice and oppression frequently hurled against Jewish college students.  These students need to possess a knowledge of the facts that accurately defines contemporary Jewish reality. The truth about how and where Jews live today--in Israel, in the United States and in the various nations of the world--constitutes essential present and past knowledge necessary to counter the narrative that Jews are responsible for the uniquely predatory and repressive actions of the world's single Jewish state.  

     Hebrew school education about Jews in the contemporary world most often focuses on two broad themes.  The tragedy of the Holocaust is almost always taught and is often a centerpiece.  Jewish catastrophe, unfortunately, has been a recurrent Jewish concern throughout history.  The Holocaust raised the possibility of the eradication of Jewish life worldwide. The questions associated with it are endless.  What malevolency can explain such a possibility?  Why did it happen?  Why was more not done to resist it?  And how can an educator communicate to students of any age the incommunicable?

    A second theme of Jewish education about today's world has to do with the founding and flourishing of Israel.  The event's importance to Jewish life is self-evident. A possible end to the Diaspora is no small accomplishment.  Furthermore, there are other reasons to celebrate this achievement.  Israel's founding was a significant contributor to many Jews' sense of identity and pride worldwide.  If the Holocaust made Jews victims by turning them into corpses, Israel's founding, survival and continuous independence constitutes an enduring source of comfort and satisfaction for many Jews today.

       Unfortunately, these defining events in Jewish history prove largely irrelevant to the political battles waged upon today's campuses.  Said more precisely, the Holocaust and Israel's founding do not provide the Jewish student sufficient self-knowledge and factual awareness to equip them to withstand the withering opposition they often encounter.  Jewish students today gain little sympathy because of the Holocaust and past victimhood their people once experienced.  For this generation of students (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who live their lives so much in the present, even the appropriate sense of that horror has been largely lost. For that reason, a person's understanding and relationship to the Holocaust today no longer constitutes a basic element of most Jewish students' sense of self-identity, 

     Regarding the founding and prospering of Israel, the situation is even worse.  Israel may have been greatly admired in its founding but now that admiration is far from universal. As Joshua Muravchik put it in a well-known book title, with the passage of time David somehow became Goliath.   With growing power has come increased censure.  Condemnation of Israel has become the focal point of much modern day anti-Judaism, particularly on college campuses.  Increasingly, Jews are not identified with the positive achievements of a small, determined democratic nation but rather with an imperialist, racist state that deserves condemnation. In short, Jews are accused of supporting and governing a fundamentally immoral country.

    That Jews have been the unique object of total extermination, or that Israel was founded on noble ideals, does not do much to address or settle the current rounds of anti-Israeli criticism. The essence of that criticism is reflected in the application of a phrase repeated endlessly today.  The phrase is diversity, inclusion and equity. The mantra is repeated endlessly by politicians, by human resource department heads of major corporations and by big media.  Its effect is almost hypnotic. It is a shorthand formulation of how one achieves egalitarian justice.  The inclusive and diverse workplace is the ideal workplace.  The nation that has achieved true diversity and inclusion is both tolerant and fair.  This term even has replaced the traditional American standard for good government.  As stated in the Declaration of Independence, legitimate government had traditionally been defined as an entity that secures citizens' rights and governs according to their consent.  Essentially, it proclaims that citizens are free to make their way in the world and pursue their own course and their own happiness. The new standard is more radical, often prescribing outcomes rather than liberties.  Also, it is important to recognize that diversity, inclusion and equity are both goals and standards.  Their achievement is important, perhaps necessary. Governments and organizations must be held accountable.

     Admittedly, such standards are controversial and open to all sorts of objections.  But that is a different set of arguments deserving extended consideration elsewhere.  For now, the important point to realize is that this mindset has been taught to this generation of college students.  Increasingly, it has become the lens through which they evaluate social reality.  When looking at an Israel governed and supported by Jews, many will inevitably ask: Is it diverse?  Is it inclusive?  Does the society produce equitable results for all its citizens?  In other words, should I support or oppose it? A good number of these students will not be hard core opponents of the Jewish state.  Rather, they are likely to be open-minded and genuinely undecided, asking questions and seeking answers. Jews--and Jewish students-- must be better prepared to engage them.  The stakes are high.

     Examining Israel and contemporary Jewish life worldwide from this perspective will, I think, persuasively and objectively refute many of the harshest charges levied against Israel while correcting misperceptions about Jews and about Israel's moral status in the world.  It is important to understand to the extent such a teaching will supplement--rather than replace--different peoples' rationales for Israel's legitimacy and for protecting the fundamental human rights of Jews everywhere.  Nothing in this educational approach necessarily contradicts or negates deeply held positive beliefs about Israel or Jews.  One can still believe that Jews' claim to Israel is divinely ordained or historically determined. Or, alternatively, a person can still defend Israel's founding and policies according to the precepts of international law. Nor is the conviction that Jews everywhere are entitled to fundamental rights and decent treatment undermined by applying broad applied diversity and inclusion standards. As long as equity is understood as fundamental fairness, and not strict numerical representation, any diversity and inclusion discussion should prove non-threatening.

    The obvious advantage of this sort of education is that it arms Jewish students in their confrontation with campus critics.  But there is another, more subtle benefit to be gained from such an educational approach.  The study of diversity and inclusion--in Israel and around the world--is rooted in practice.  It focuses upon what nations actually do and how people live and have lived and how they have been treated.  What can we expect and observe about how diversity and inclusion actually functions in the world? This real world emphasis avoids a common failure of much academic theory, which tends to adopt  utopian standards and programs and then selectively apply them to disfavored policies or nations. 

     Finally, a word about definitions.  The, discussion of diversity and inclusiveness are here couched in their most popular and appealing sense (as they seem to an idealistic student).  Diversity simply means being understanding of cultural, racial and other differences.  It suggests, in other words, that a person is open, non-prejudiced and tolerant.  Inclusion implies that no one is to be denied respect or opportunity. Equity, as we already noted, means fairness and due process. Therefore, American law and politics equity  often is taken to mean the strict representation of groups regarding the distribution of rewards (and penalties). That is not the way the term is used here. 

    We are also concerned that these terms, once so defined, be applied consistently, holding all nations and peoples to similar standards.  Such a requirement is important because of the emotional and seemingly semi- hypnotic response yielded by these ideas. Fashioned into a negative critique applied against the Jewish state, these terms can take the form of a radical indictment.  When this occurs, Israel stands accused of imperialism, apartheid, racial and religious bigotry and sometimes even genocide.  These are among the most grievous violations of the diversity, inclusion and equity standard imaginable.  BDS and related organizations repeat such charges endlessly and these accusations are today commonly echoed on college campuses. 

     Jewish education needs to address this critique head on, before Jewish students pursue higher education.  So far, this has not been done effectively.  What is required is a curriculum, or perhaps at least a class, that addresses these concerns by describing the ways Jews actually live in the world today.  Their actions and practices need to be seen in an international and historical context.  And, of course, as was previously noted, consistent moral standards need to be applied. 

     What would such a course of study look like?  No doubt, its creation represents a challenge to leading Jewish educators.  What follows is one possible formulation. It represents a very brief and sketchy outline of what such an education might look like:

Course of Study: Diversity, Inclusion and Judaism: Then and Now

Part I: Overview.  Three points need to be made here.  First, terms like diversity and inclusion are contemporary reformulations of traditionally important concepts in western thought and within Judaism, namely  the equal dignity of all human beings.  Second, while often proclaimed, the actual achievement of these goals throughout history has proven elusive.  Failure has been the rule, success the exception.   Third, Jews have suffered particularly because of this failure.  Anti-Judaism (i. e.. anti-Semitism) remains an enduring legacy. As Robert Goldwin has written, "Jews had suffered persecution almost everywhere in the world for Millennia."  Continuing, he observes, "they have been beaten, tortured, murdered, and hounded from country to country and even from continent to continent."

Part II: Jews in the United States. First, demographically and statistically, what do we know about Jews and contemporary Jewish life in America?  What (geographic, cultural, political , etc.) differences and similarities characterize the lives of Jewish citizens (e. g. Reform, Orthodox and secular Jews)?  What about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews? (The issue of assimilation could be considered here).  Finally, what social, economic or political trends are today noteworthy ? (The current spate of attacks on Jews might be mentioned).

     Second, what is the legal and political structure of the United States in respect to Jews? At the time of the Constitution's adoption, Jewish life in the states was surprisingly tolerant by contemporary-worldwide standards.  Yet Jews (and interestingly Catholics in Protestant states and Protestants in Catholic states) were not treated equally at the time of the Constitution's writing.  In many, there existed state churches, religious tests and other discriminatory practices. By contrast, the United States Constitution prohibited such religious oaths in the newly created government, a remarkable but much overlooked guarantee protecting freedom of conscience. In time, the two religion clauses of the First Amendment also became important protections of the right of Jews in the United States to practice their religion.

Part III: Jews in Israel. The creation of the modern state of Israel needs to be described.  Also the ethnic, racial and ethnic (and even religious) differences among Israeli Jews need to be explained.  Particular emphasis should be placed between the different Mizrahi/Sephardic and West European origins of the Israeli people.  Jewish emigration--especially from Russia and Ethiopia--might be highlighted.  Various religious movements among practicing Jews and secular Jews will also need to be recounted.  This diversity within Judaism and among Jews points to a different kind of diversity: that between Jews and non-Jews who are Israeli citizens.  Most predominantly, these include Christians, Druze and Arab Muslims.  This two part analysis should refute the too popular stereotype that Israel is a monolithic nation.  Rather, pointing to the multiple diversities that characterize Israel today raises the following question: given this great amount of diversity, how does a successful nation-state like Israel try to provide for inclusion?  Contemporary issues and challenges could be discussed and analyzed here.

   Next, there exists the need to the explain Israel's political and legal system and structure as a continuing effort to reconcile diversity and inclusion --in other words, to attempt the creation of a single community out of its many disparate parts.  Also this would be an appropriate place to describe and analyze the recent debate within Israel regarding the appropriateness of declaring itself to be a Jewish state.

Part IV: Jews in Arab Lands.  The number of Jews living in Middle Eastern Arab land has declined precipitously mid-twentieth century.  In some nations, almost all traces of Jews and Judaism have been eradicated, a phenomenon explained in detail by authors such as Bernard Lewis and Lyn Julius.  The contrast between the Israeli attempt to accommodate and integrate its Arab population and these Arab states' persecution of their Jewish residents is striking. The difference is highly significant and has been underappreciated, particularly by Jewish students.  An interesting example is what is now essentially a Jewish-free Egypt and the collapse of political influence and sheer numbers during the 20th century. 

   A short examination of why this happened--particularly an analysis of social, political and religious influences within Arab Middle East nations--could help explain how and why Jewish life and influence vanished from many of these countries. 

Part V: Jews in European Nations.  The pre and post Holocaust history of the treatment of Jewish populations in various European nations help provide a more rounded and complete picture of Jews' battle for respect and inclusion--first in a Christian society and then in the modern secular state.   Special emphasis upon England, Germany and France should be given.  Social and economic influences prove particularly important.  The resurgence of left and right wing anti-Judaism today should be pointed out.  Governmental and legal responses (such as the passage of hate crime legislation) could be explained and examined.

Part VI: Jews Elsewhere: Here there is room for a variety of Jewish experiences throughout the world.  For example, the Jewish immigration to Shanghai might be contrasted with the history of Jews in Ethiopia to give some idea of the rich and diverse history of Jews throughout the world and through time.  Although such a topic may seem remote to American students, there exists a wealth of information and research that can serve as a basis for an intelligent and illuminating discussion of the many variants of Jewish life.

Part VII:  What is a Jew? Even the question of who is Jewish is a profound and perplexing.  What is a Jew asked Rabbi Morris Kertzer some seventy years ago, hardly raising a new question. Is Judaism primarily a matter of birth?   If so, what or who counts?  Is having a Jewish mother or at least one Jewish parent essential?  If one chooses to consider oneself Jewish, is it merely a matter of self-definition or must the affiliation be formalized.  If so, how?  Who exactly are the Jews?  Certainly not a race.  But perhaps, to some extent, one or several ethnic identities.  Or maybe what is special about Jews is that they so strongly identify with the land (Israel)?  Could it be that they are a people?  If so, what constitutes their peoplehood?  Is it shared historical experiences or shared books?  Or is it a belief in a single God or perhaps in revelation itself?  If so, what do we make of those who declare themselves Jewish atheists? Was Spinoza really a Jewish thinker?  What about Karl Marx? Is Woody Allen a Jewish comedian? What is significant about this question of Jewish identity is its complexity.  Its many nuances speak to an important kind of diversity within Jewish thought itself.  And it stands in sharp contrast to the recurrent anti-Jewish caricature of "The Jew".  

    This vile image of the Jew--or something akin to it--has not gone away in our time.  Its strangest--and perhaps one of its most frightening  aspects--is its emergence full blown on American college campuses.  The evil Jew-- manifested most fully by allegedly imperialist, racist, colonial Israel, has today become little more than a vile campus cliché. Many older American Jews find the situation shocking.  Most Jewish students--to the extent they embrace their identity--are woefully unprepared to confront this challenge. That needs to change.  It is both a challenge and a task for Jewish education and Jewish educators.   Presented for your consideration above is a bare outline of what such an effort might look like. It is a small first step.  But, I hope, it is a step forward.

 

 

 

    

 

   

     

    

 

 

 

   

    

    

    

 

    

 

Is the American Dream Imploding?

Is the American Dream Imploding?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This article appears in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, March 13, 2024

 

My middle name is Dwight.

That name symbolizes a great American story.

My grandparents, born in Turkey and the island of Rhodes, arrived in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. They settled in Seattle, Washington, in the emerging community of Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews.

My mother’s father was a barber. My father’s father had a shoe shine stand. They arrived in America with little money, little formal education, but great courage and hope. They left impoverished communities in the old world to raise their families in the land of freedom and opportunity.

Like most immigrants of that time, my grandparents wanted their families to adapt to America. Their children attended public school and grew up as a transition generation between the old world and the new. My generation were full-blooded Americans.

I was born in July 1945 and named after my maternal grandfather Marco Romey. But my mother added a middle name, Dwight, after General Dwight David Eisenhower. I was named after an American hero. I was an organic part of American life.

In school, we daily pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States. We learned about Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. They were our forefathers. Our relatives served in the American military. Our mothers and aunts knitted clothes for American soldiers. We were in America not as guests but as equal members of society,

By my generation, almost all the grandchildren of immigrants, were well educated, hard-working and sincere believers in the American Dream. We were better educated and more affluent than our grandparents — exactly as they had hoped would happen. Our goal was to be constructive members of society and to contribute to the ongoing flourishing of America.

The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

With our children and grandchildren, we thought that the American Dream would continue to thrive and expand. But it seems that American society is increasingly marred by antisemitism, racism and violence. The virus of hatred has infected political life, universities and businesses. The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The forces of hatred and divisiveness have become more brazen.

My middle name is Dwight, and I am proud to be a bearer of the American Dream. My name symbolizes the dream of immigrants to identify with America, to become full-blooded Americans. America is at risk of losing that dream. It needs to restore confidence and pride in America as a bastion of freedom and opportunity, a land where people of all religions and races can feel safe and secure, where everyone can work together for the betterment of society as a whole.

Let us not forget the American struggles for freedom, democracy and opportunity. Let us build on the American Dream for ourselves and for our future generations.

I want to believe in that future, sure as my middle name is Dwight.


 

The Hatred Syndrome

It is a strange feeling to be hated by people who don’t know you and don’t want to know you. It is perplexing to hear people calling for your death and the death of all your people without ever considering your humanity, your goodness, your contributions to society.

Haters don’t see their victims as fellow human beings. They create and foster ugly stereotypes. They promote outrageous conspiracy theories that dehumanize their targets.

Hatred is an ugly thing. 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 compassionate societies are instead diverted to hatred, weaponry, death and destruction.

We have always been aware of an under-current of antisemitic 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.

I suspect that almost all of those spewing hatred of Israel and Jews don’t even know Israelis or Jews in person. They don’t hate actual Jews: they hate stereotypes of Jews. They are indoctrinated with propaganda and are fed a stream of lies about Israel and about Jews. The haters are steeped in their hateful ideology and are not interested in civil dialogue and relationship with actual Jews and Israelis. They know little or nothing about the connection of Jews to the land of Israel going back thousands of years, from Biblical times to the present.

So why do so many haters take aim at Jews and Israel? Some of this hatred stems from anti-Jewish religious teachings. Some of it stems from jealousy at the phenomenal success of such a tiny group. Some people spew hatred as a way of making themselves seem important, as though picking on Jews somehow makes them appear stronger and braver.

Erich Fromm has written of the syndrome of decay that “prompts men to destroy for the sake of destruction and to hate for the sake of hate.” Many people poison their own lives with hatred and only feel truly alive and validated when they express hatred of others.

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.

All who stand for a civil society must not be intimidated by the haters, bullies and supporters of terrorism. The syndrome of hate eats away at the foundations of society. It must not be allowed to prevail.

Rav Nahman of Bratslav taught: The whole world is a narrow bridge (precarious), but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.


 


 

Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology

Miri Freud-Kandel, Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology," The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Review Essay by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

For some Jews, faith is not a problem. God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai; we have an unbroken tradition of law and ethics authorized by the great sages of every generation. We do not merely believe in God as an abstract entity; we feel God’s presence. Fulfilling God’s commandments keeps us in constant relationship with God.

For some Jews, faith is irrelevant.  Life is lived without reference to God. The Torah and mitzvoth are not on the agenda. Such Jews are Jewish by birth, by fate, be ethnicity, by emotional attachment…but not by faith in God, nor through the mitzvoth, nor by deference to the great sages of the Jewish People.

For some Jews, faith is a basic component of life but faces nagging questions. Yes, the Torah is from Heaven…but what exactly is meant by that? Yes, the mitzvoth are commandments…but how does an eternal incorporeal God communicate commandments to people? Yes, our sages were great… but they had many disputes among themselves on basic issues of faith and religious observance. What is truth, what is conjecture, what are our options?

While the first two groups are relatively comfortable with their religious worldviews, the third group must negotiate conflicting pressures. Traditional faith is confronted with Bible criticism, modern scholarship and theologies, and an anti-authoritarian zeitgeist. 

Let’s talk about the third group.

These are thinking people deeply respectful of traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They are religiously observant. Many—probably most—of them attended university and were exposed to scholarship that challenged or denied the foundations of their faith. They consider themselves to be religious Jews but they find that they must find ways to reconfigure classic principles of Jewish faith in light of the challenges of modernity.

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a leading figure in British Jewry who belonged to the third group and who wrote significant works dealing with their concerns. Born in Manchester, he studied at Manchester Yeshiva and then at the kolel in Gateshead.  A devout Orthodox Jew, he later attended University College in London, earning a PhD. He served as rabbi of congregations in Manchester and London and became Moral Tutor at Jews’ College where he taught Talmud. He was in line to become head of Jews’ College but Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie blocked the appointment. He felt that Jacobs’ religious views had moved him outside of Orthodoxy. The “Jacobs’ Affair” pitted the religious establishment against Jacobs’ followers. When Jacobs was invited to his previous Orthodox pulpit, Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked the appointment. Jacobs’ followers then established their own synagogue and launched the Masorti movement in England.

Miri Freud-Kandel, Lecturer in Modern Judaism in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, has authored a volume exploring the teachings and influence of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Entitled Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology, it is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Freud-Kandel provides a generous selection of quotations from Jacobs’ various volumes, allowing the reader to “hear” Jacobs’ own voice. But she also provides her own analysis, and points out strengths and weaknesses in Jacobs’ theological positions.

Jacobs believed that “the ancestral faith becomes meaningless unless it finds its response in the depths of the individual soul.” Moreover, “for a philosophy to be true it must be ‘true for me’….The life of faith demands our total commitment.” For Jacobs, faith was not an inherited system that one simply adopted; rather it was an internal spiritual process requiring considerable effort.

Jacobs did not believe it was possible to “prove” the truth about God, since God ultimately is far beyond human comprehension. But he thought that it was possible to approach a genuine faith by factoring in various arguments from reason, personal intuition, mystical insights. Jacobs wrote: “Few believers have arrived at belief in God by starting from the beginning to work it all out by reasoned argument.”  The individual Jew—thinking, processing, feeling, praying—must build a personal theology that leads to a meaningful faith in God.

Jacobs suggested a “liberal supernaturalism” that recognized the divine nature of Torah but that the Torah was mediated through human voices. He rejected the view, listed by Maimonides as one of the 13 principles of faith, that God literally dictated the Torah word for word as Moses copied it down.  Given the findings of Biblical criticism, Jacobs felt it necessary to posit a less literal way of understanding Torah min Hashamayim (Torah from Heaven). He bolstered his argument by citing various rabbinic texts that entertained the view that not every word of the Torah was written by Moses. His basic approach was to indicate multiple “kosher” ways of understanding Revelation that did not entail a literalist interpretation. He wrote: “To point to the human element in revelation is a far cry from implying that God is not the Creator of the Torah. On the contrary, it is God who makes Himself known through the human process of redaction. How this can be is a tremendous mystery, but then, so is how God can be in control of His universe and yet leave room for human freedom and human creativity.”

Jacobs’ interest was not so much in how the Torah came into being but how it was experienced as a spiritually powerful text that brought people closer to God. Similarly, mitzvoth are “commandments” in the sense that we find our way to the divine by observing them. Although this is circular reasoning, it reflects his desire to harmonize traditional beliefs with modern thought.

Jacobs did not claim that he had achieved the definitive Jewish theology but rather that he was expressing his own thinking. He insisted that contemporary Jews need to know what Judaism says to them now, not merely what our ancient and medieval rabbis taught. As Freud-Kandel summarizes: “Jacobs’ account of how God, Torah and Israel were to be understood in their different ways was intended to encourage Jews to work on their faith, to pursue their own individual quest, and to find meaning in Judaism through individual paths” (p. 211).

Freud-Kandel not only presents and evaluates Jacobs’ work, she also points to some of its shortcomings. She reviews various attempts made by other thinkers who tackled the issues that troubled Jacobs. But no one has written the absolutely final theology…and no one actually can do so. Each of us needs to think through the issues on our own.

Miri Freud-Kandel has written an important book that not only sheds light on the thinking of Louis Jacobs but helps readers gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake when traditional Jewish faith comes into relationship with modern and post-modern challenges. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expansive Freedom: Thoughts for Parashat Kedoshim

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Kedoshim

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

We recently celebrated Passover commemorating the liberation of ancient Israelites from servitude in Egypt. The symbolism of the holiday has resonance for us today.

The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitsrayim, rooted in the word tsar, meaning narrow and confined. The Israelites were not only subjected to physical slavery but they suffered the psychological pains of being in bondage. Their world was constricted. They lacked freedom to go where they wanted when they wanted. They had few options.

Freedom offered the Israelites the framework to expand their horizons. They could now take on responsibilities, make choices, think beyond the limitations placed upon them by task masters.

But freedom is a delicate privilege. When we enjoy expansiveness, we feel alive and well. But when our freedom is threatened, our world grows narrower and more confined. We live with a sense of growing insecurity.

Unfortunately, the Jewish world these days is feeling serious threats to our wellbeing. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are undermining our sense of security and wellness. The pressures of Mitsrayim, of constriction, are palpable.

But we seek and demand our freedom. We will not let our world contract on us. To maintain our freedom and security, we need determination. But we also need action that strengthens us and our communities.

This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s command: Be holy, for I God am holy. Our sages pondered:  How can we emulate an infinite and eternal God?

The Talmud reports the teaching of Rabbi Hama ben Hanina (Sotah 14a) that the challenge is for us to follow the attributes of the Almighty: “Just as He clothes the naked…you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One blessed be He visits the sick…so too you should visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be He consoles mourners…so you should console mourners. Just as the Holy One blessed be He buried the dead…so too you should bury the dead.”

Walking in God’s ways of holiness entails living as caring human beings. By interacting with others with compassion, we enlarge our own lives. God is expansive beyond our capacity to grasp; but the concept of expanding our lives is something we can achieve.

The Parasha calls on us to be holy. It then goes on to list many commandments relating to business, agriculture, interpersonal relationships and more. It does not confine “holiness” to the ethereal spheres above but to the very practical and worldly concerns of human life. It underscores the need for us to reach beyond ourselves, to live with great ideals that are matched by significant actions.

Many forces today are pressuring us to constrict our lives. Our challenge is to expand our lives! When Israel and the Jewish People are under fire, we gain strength and demonstrate strength every time we do a mitzvah, attend synagogue, a Torah class, a community rally. We push back against those who seek to constrict us: we are visible in our support for Israel, we contribute to charities and institutions in Israel, we purchase State of Israel bonds, we buy Israeli products, we support those institutions (including our Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals!!) that strengthen Jewish life.

On Passover, we discussed the transition from the narrow confines of our lives in Mitsrayim to the sense of expansiveness gained through our liberation from Egypt. Today we must continue to struggle against all forces that attempt to constrict our lives; and we must continue—with faith and with courage—to expand our lives, to grow, to succeed in freedom.