Tag Archives: New York Times

A Thin Blue Line

A paraphrase of the title of the 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ about the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events the film investigates took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police in essence form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty and integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  All of these ideals form, each in their own way, a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed, still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington DC.  If you’ve followed the news you know that Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record earlier in the week in an interview with the NY Times, stating “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the isle condemned King.  He also was stripped of his committee responsibilities.  Just a few minutes ago as I type this the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning King’s comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is there are certain commandments that are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them.  This week Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

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Hillel Circles the Wagons – What is in the Middle?

Sunday’s NY Times reported that Hillel, the national Jewish student college organization, has formalized a new policy banning any speaker or program that challenges the State of Israel and its policies from appearing at a Hillel sponsored event.  In doing so the organization is following in the steps of AIPAC, the Israel lobby group in Washington, which does not allow its representatives to appear at any program or meeting where a member of an organization that does not agree with its policies is on the agenda.  And about a year ago members of Atlanta’s Jewish community tried to ban Peter Beinart from speaking at a Jewish book fair there, saying that his views on Israel were not acceptable.

I understand the impulse.  We look around and see a world that is hostile to Israel, we see anti-semitism (just this morning reports of a French comedian’s anti-semitic gesture being used by French athletes), and we fall back on the old Hillel maxim (not the organization, the Talmudic sage) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But while we are thinking about the sage Hillel lets remember that he was the bar plugta, the one who argued with, another great sage from antiquity, Shammai.  Hillel and Shammai always disagreed about matters of Jewish law.  If one said black, the other said white.  If one said something was permitted, the other said it was forbidden.  In the end, Hillel won the debate soundly, and in the over 300 disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, almost all of them were decided according to Hillel’s opinion.  Yet the opinions of Shammai and his house are all recorded and preserved in the Talmud.  Even though they were wrong.

This seems to me a fundamental Jewish ideal.  The Talmud, which is the core document of Jewish life, is a record of debates.  Page after page, disagreement after disagreement.  Sometimes the debates are about trivial matters, sometimes they are about issues that would have a long lasting affect on the entire Jewish community.  The point is that the Judaism we practice today, a rabbinic-Judaism, was formed through these debates, through the arguments.  And the record of those arguments is complete – both the winners and the losers are present on the talmudic page, both the main stream opinions and the radical ones.  That is authentic Judaism, the shakla v’taryia, the give and take, the intellectual back and forth.

To stifle debate, to close it out, or avoid it, to present only a single unified view, is just not the Jewish way.  Is it easier?  Yup.  Is it safer?  Maybe.  But since when have we Jews chosen the easier way?  And why should we start now?  And by the way, if Hillel’s mission is to foster authentic and meaningful Jewish life on campus, how can they do that when they are not operating in an authentically Jewish way?

So I say kudos to the Swarthmore Hillel.  They recently declared themselves an ‘open Hillel,’ and have stated they will not abide by the new national Hillel guidelines.   By doing so they have reminded us all not only of the importance of free speech in our country, but also of the role that open debate and discussion should always have in Jewish life.

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The Bible’s Liberal Politics

Each year on Christmas Day the New York Times runs a short phrase at the top of its front page, in green lettering:  Its Christmas – Remember the Neediest.  This is a reflection of a traditional religious idea – on days that are set aside to remember and reflect, to be glad and grateful, to be sensitive to the blessings we have in life, we should remember those less fortunate, and in that remembering make sure to do something to help improve their lot in life.

In Judaism this value can be seen in the connection of holiday celebrations and the giving of charity (צדקה).  On Purim and Passover we are expected to give to the needy, and in modern times the High Holy Day period has become one connected to a variety of charitable appeals, from the synagogue’s annual to Israel Bonds and just about everything in between.

This impulse without question goes back to the Bible itself.  In the Hebrew Bible we are warned again and again to care for the marginalized – the orphan, widow, and stranger.  Those who cannot care for themselves, who need some extra help to live a proper and dignified life.  It is ironic that in today’s polarized political climate, with so many conservative groups so closely identifying with the Bible and their understanding of its values, the initial impulse of the text was both progressive and what we would call today ‘liberal.’

Consider the following biblical concepts:  there should be a sliding scale fee for poor people who need to access the sacrificial system in Jerusalem (Leviticus 5);  financial transactions should be legislated and regulated (in terms of charging interest (Exodus 22 and other places) and in terms of the full remission of debt every 50 years (Leviticus 25)); a persons of means is commanded to return an item a poor person gave them as a loan guarantee if the item is essential to that person’s dignity and comfort (Deuteronomy 24); and the list could go on and on.  On the macro level, it is clear that one of the Hebrew Bible’s overarching concerns is the prevention of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.

As holidays come and go in our various faith traditions, we are reminded in our celebration of those days to not forget the needy.  The Bible would extend that message, for in its hundreds of laws as well as in its central values is a message – the needy should not only be remembered on sacred days, but on every day.

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