My alter ego: "Rabbi Gamaliel Ben Gamaliel"
|Prof. S. Ned Rosenbaum, PhD
Ruminations from the RaGBaG
For a complete paperback collection of Ned's essays and published columns, 2004-2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
2:37 pm edt
Republican presidential candidates are, predictably,
trying to appeal to Jewish voters by one-sided criticisms of Pres. Obama’s recent remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian
situation. Specifically they are exercised over his reference to the 1967 lines as a starting point for negotiations.
Not to worry. Those of us who have actually lived in
Israel know that “you have to have a plan because you need something to change from”. The 1967 lines are a beginning,
but a non-starter. Whatever Palestinian state emerges from all this won’t have borders that are only nine miles from
Tel Aviv. Israeli/Jewish paranoia will not allow Israel’s major city to be so vulnerable to rocket or even conventional
It would help if the new Palestinian
state foreswore offensive weapons, but I don’t look for this to happen, or for Israel to believe it even if the Palestinians
promised it. It’s also true that only a relative handful of Palestinian refugees will be allowed into Israel proper
and that most of the present Israeli settlements will remain in Israeli hands. The majority are only suburbs of Jerusalem
in any case.
Unfortunately, the whole discussion is
a charade and will remain so as long as Hamas fails to recognize Israel’s right to exist and forswears violence as a
way of getting what they want. Hamas is in the monkey trap.
A monkey trap, you may remember, is a hollow gourd containing something monkeys like. They insert a hand, grasp it, making
a fist and then…they cannot withdraw the hand because the opening isn’t wide enough to allow it. The gourd is
attached by a chain to something, a tree, and, voila! One trapped monkey. Similarly, some Muslims are so ensnared in their
own “we are the only legitimate owners of lands that have ever been under Muslim control” or at least of the Muslim
“heartland” ideology that they cannot let go.
Understand, I’m not happy about this impasse. I would like to see all people, Israelis and Palestinians included, living
“under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid.” The region, like many others all
over the globe, is facing a severe waster problem that is only going to get worse. Squabbling over borders and refugees and
control of east Jerusalem only distracts the squabblers from problems that will eventually overwhelm them like a tsunami,
but I don’t hear many people even acknowledging that this elephant, to mix a metaphor, is even in the room.
It doesn’t do to plead that the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is “only” 22% of Palestine, implying that
Palestinians are nobly agreeing to take far less than half a loaf. If you include Jordan, part of the British Mandate after
World War I, which you must do, Arabs already own more than half the area.Now it’s just possible that the “Arab
Spring” which presently shows a certain amount of hope for the emergence of democracies in many Arab countries will
also engulf Jordan and lead to the replacing of the ruling Hussein family with…a Palestinian state.
Palestinians still constitute a majority of the inhabitants and the Jordanian ruling family are “refugees” from
Saudi Arabia who lost a civil war there in 1925. I think the royal family have done a creditable job ruling the country, but
it’s clearly time for them to step aside.
The Jordan valley is part of a long geological fault system. Maybe it represents a psychological fault line, too, like the
one that generated the Japanese tsunami or the far more destructive tsunami of 2004. Whatever the case, President Obama’s
remarks won’t move the parties to the dispute very far in any direction.
Friday, March 4, 2011
Pope Benedict and the Jews
8:52 am est
good to have the Pope proclaiming that “the Jews” were not responsible for Jesus’ death. How much ice that
will cut with the faithful now or in the future remains to be seen, of course, and I suppose it is perverse of me, but I have
to differ with His Holiness, at least a little bit.
First, though, the case in support of the Pope. During Jesus’ time the
majority of Jews lived outside of Israel. The majority within Israel lived outside of Jerusalem and all these folks probably
never heard of Jesus in his lifetime or even afterward. The idea of “the Jews” being responsible for Jesus’
death is, therefore, absurd on its face. Granted.
There is the additional argument, made by retired Israeli Supreme Court judge
Haim Cohn in his book The Trial and Death of Jesus (NY:
KTAV, 1977) that no Jew would have turned another over to the hated Romans. I’d like to think so, but I’m not
so sure. Sometimes the differences among us run deeper than just matters of opinion. And if we home in on conditions in Jerusalem
ca. 25 c.e., certain facts emerge.
That was the year in which Pontius Pilate was posted to Palestine. Pilate’s
tribe had recently lost a bitter civil war in Italy, but he went to work for the winners and was eager to prove himself a
loyal servant. He was an ambitious, evil man, quite unlike the figure painted by the New Testament. We know from Philo of
Alexandria that he operated well outside of Roman law, even murdering people without trial to demonstrate who was boss.
even before Pilate came, there were Jews who were okay with Roman overlordship, the Herodians. And why not? Rome had taken
over the country bloodlessly in 63 b.c.e., almost a century before, and some people were doing rather well under the occupation.
Some people always do.
In these circumstances the people who benefit from an occupation have a vested interest in seeing
to it that their boat is not rocked. In Israel this wasn’t easy. Rebellions, especially coming from the north –
Jesus’ area - were a feature of the landscape from the time of Herod the Great (ruled 47 – 4 b.c.e.) who began
the custom of brutalizing first the Samarian and then the Jewish population.
Herod was a boon to the construction industry, probably on
a par with the late Saddam Hussein and if you read Josephus there are other things he did that would have put him high in
the favor of some community elements. (The so-called “massacre of the innocents” reported in Bethlehem by
Matthew’s gospel probably never happened.)
Jesus, on the other hand, had had the temerity to rout the moneychangers from
their place at the south end of Herod’s wonderful Temple complex (where the El-Aqsa mosque now stands). They weren’t
“in the Temple” as the NT reports because it stood about 100 yards north and no one but priests were allowed
in the building. The point, however, is that money-changers overcharged foreign Jews and in exposing their devious practices
Jesus made some powerful enemies.
It’s also true that Romans weren’t too interested in differentiating
one sort of Jew from another. Just like the people in this country today who think “all Muslims are alike,” Romans
would not be too precise in separating “good Jews” from bad ones. If there was a repression, pretty much all would
suffer alike. So Cohn is, perhaps, correct when he suggests the High Priest called Jesus into his house to get him to “back
off” a bit.
In short, there may have been collusion from some elements within the Jewish community to get
Jesus arrested. The rest was on Pilate. Having said this, I’ll have to look at the Pope’s book and see how much
he agrees with me. Whatever he says, I’m sure it will be a giant step in the direction of historical accuracy.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Blood Libel: What It Is and Is Not
Poor Sarah Palin. She can’t seem to open her mouth in public without
putting at least one foot in it. Using the phrase “blood libel” to describe political commentators or her opponents
blaming her for the Tucson shootings was most unfortunate. I have to wonder, though, if she even knew beforehand what kind
of freight that phrase carries. Probably not. She is an outstanding example of the shortcomings of American education.
2:37 pm est
On the other hand, I have to say that we, the Jewish community, cannot trademark or otherwise protect words like
“blood libel,” “genocide” or even “Holocaust” as much as we might like to. One of the
strengths of our English language is its extraordinary plasticity, even if this results in such barbarisms as using “genocide”
as an anti-abortion slogan.
and misuse of words ultimately robs them of their strength and trivializes both the words themselves and the things they were
invented to highlight. This is a mixed blessing because it means that fewer words are “fighting words,” but it
also desensitizes us to things that we should remain sensitive to. But I digress.
Did you know that the last (or latest?) blood libel incident happened in 1928
and that it took place in upstate New York?
It was in September of that year that a three-year-old girl, a Christian, was reported missing there. Massena is
still a small community – it was very rural then – right across the river from Ontario, easy enough to wander
out of. But in the first stages of panic, a local police officer got the idea that Massena’s rabbi might know something
of the child’s whereabouts and the rabbi was duly brought in for questioning.
The rabbi, Berel Brennglass, had emigrated from Lithuania in 1915 and he knew
the drill. So might anyone else who could read a newspaper; the infamous Beilis Case in Russia concluded the year Brennglass
left. That case, by the way, was brilliantly delineated in Bernard Malamud’s best book, The Fixer, and made in to a very effective movie starring Alan Batea and Dirk Bogarde.
(Parenthetically, is it any wonder that so many Jewish people supported the overthrow of the Czar only two years later?)
Fortunately, even upstate New York was not as
backward as Czarist Russia. Someone made a phone call to New York and the news reached Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, at the
time the nation’s leading Jewish spokesperson. Immediately, the “big guns” of the Jewish community trained
northward and in short order, the case was quashed, the mayor of Massena formally apologized and the hapless police officer
Meanwhile, the little
girl was found safe, just wandering around in the woods….
Thus ended what I hope will be the last of these scurrilous blood libels after only a thousand years – the earliest seems to date from the tenth Christian
century. And, speaking of Christians, it’s my belief that the whole heinous business got started because people in the
far corners of the Roman Empire heard vague reports of a new “Jewish hippie” sect - later known as Christianity
- in which the faithful ate their God and drank his blood. Some still do, but they call it Communion and no one today is greatly
exercised by the practice.
In my teaching
career I often had occasion to point out that Jews are forbidden to ingest the blood of any living thing, so using human blood
– in matzoth, the original blood libel – would
be completely impossible. But you cannot reason people out of what they didn’t reason themselves into.
Well, maybe Gov. Palin’s little flap will
have the positive effect of causing people to educate themselves about this ugly facet of Jewish history and lead to a deeper
understanding about why we are so sensitive, even in matters regarding language.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Jews and the Supreme Court: The case for Elena Kagan
It’s not the case that Jews invented justice; there are codes of law from Mesopotamia that date from
1,000 years before Moses’ time. I will, however, claim that we invented the idea of equal justice for all men regardless
of social station (and even a modicum of justice for women).
2:58 pm edt
our primacy in the field of jurisprudence, the first Jew to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court—a mere 140 years
after this country’s founding—was Louisville’s Louis Brandeis. So far six other Jews have served: Felix
Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo (also the first Hispanic!) Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Many people think that Brandeis was the best justice ever and that Fortas was the worst. All of them, however—as well
as the current nominee, Elena Kagan—were nominated by Democratic presidents. I find that significant, but it’s
not my point for this little essay.
personal politics are obviously Democratic. As a Princeton student she got drunk when Elizabeth Holtzman lost her senate race
to Alphonse d’Amato. She served in the Clinton administration as well as the current Obama administration. She’s
the first woman to hold the post of solicitor general and was, until she left to join Obama, the first woman to serve as dean
of the Harvard Law School.
Clearly, she has the intellect
to do the job, but already people on the Left and the Right are worrying she’s too liberal or not liberal enough. I
think that’s a good sign.
the judicial activism of the Left, thinking back to the days of Chief Justice Earl Warren and the pro-civil rights actions
of his court. They conveniently forget that the present court is activist in the opposite direction, or that supreme courts
haven’t been impartial since the days of John Marshall. (Since I live in the South now, I will draw a discreet veil
of silence over the Dred Scot decision of 1857.)
don’t want a liberal justice, just as I don’t want a conservative justice. I want a person who can interpret fairly
what the law presently requires even if she doesn’t agree with the present requirements. It’s sort of like being
a professor who is able to give good grades to students whose personal politics he disagrees with; believe me, I’ve
had quite a few of those, and I venture to guess that Professor Kagan has, too.
I hope, in fact, that Dean Kagan becomes the prototype for a new kind of Supreme Court justice—indeed,
for a judge at any level—and that is a person who subordinates his/her personal ideology or religious views to a careful
and balanced evaluation of the law as it applies in each case. I am, of course, a little concerned that she’s a Mets
Speaking of sports, I’m an Al Davis follower. He’s the managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders
football team and, by the way, also Jewish. Drafting people for his team, he doesn’t look for kids who have played this
position or that, but for the best athletes. They are the ones who can best learn to play the position they are put in.
In the past 40 years, and especially in the past ten
years, our country has become ever more polarized. I understand that at present most Democratic and Republican congress people
no longer socialize with each other after hours. The governor of Texas thinks his state has a right to secede from the Union!
Under these conditions we desperately need people who
precisely can’t be labeled as Right- or Left-wing because, like Billy Martin in the old beer commercial, they “feel very strongly both ways.” By all accounts, Ms. Kagan is just such
Oh, and as to the innuendo attending the
fact that she is 50 and unmarried, I have a son.…
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Jews and the Supreme Court: The Case for Elena Kagan
12:23 pm edt
It's not the case that Jews invented justice; there are codes of law from Mesopotamia
that date from 1,000 years before Moses' time. I will,
however, claim that we invented the idea of equal justice for all men regardless of social station (and even a modicum of
justice for women).
Despite our primacy in this
field, the first Jew to be appointed to the US Supreme Court—a mere 140 years after this country's founding—was Louisville's Louis Brandeis. So far six other Jews have served:
Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo (also the first Hispanic!) Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader
Ginsburg. Many people think that Brandeis was the best justice ever and that Fortas was the worst. All of them, however, as
well as the current nominee, Elena Kagan, were nominated by Democratic presidents. (I find that last observation to be significant,
but it's not my point for this little essay.)
politics are obviously Democratic. As a Princeton student she got drunk when Elizabeth Holtzman lost her senate race to Alphonse
d'Amato. She served in the Clinton administration as well as the current Obama administration. She's the first woman to hold the post of solicitor general and was, until she left
to join Obama, the first woman to serve as dean of the Harvard Law School.
Clearly, she has the intellect to do the job, but already people on the Left and the Right are worrying
she's too liberal or not liberal enough. I think that's
a good sign.
Right-wingers decry the judicial activism
of the Left, thinking back to the days of Chief Justice Earl Warren and the pro-civil rights actions of his court. They conveniently
forget that the present court is activist in the opposite direction, or that Supreme Courts haven't been impartial since the days of John Marshall. (Since I live in the South now,
I will draw a discreet veil of silence over the Dred Scot decision of 1857.)
I don't want a liberal justice, just as I don't
want a conservative justice. I want a person who can interpret fairly what the law presently requires even if she doesn't agree with the present requirements. It's sort of like being a professor who is able to give good grades to students whose
personal politics he disagrees with; believe me, I've had
quite a few of those, and I venture to guess that Professor Kagan has, too.
I hope, in fact, that Dean Kagan becomes the prototype for a new kind of Supreme Court justice—indeed,
for a judge at any level—and that is a person who subordinates his/her personal ideology or religious views to a careful
and balanced evaluation of the law as it applies in each case. I am, of course, a little concerned that she's a Mets fan.
of sports, I'm an Al Davis follower. He's the managing
general partner of the Oakland Raiders football team and, by the way, also Jewish. Drafting people for his team, he doesn't look for kids who have played this position or that, but for
the best athletes. They are the ones who can best learn to play the position they are put in.
In the past 40 years, and especially in the past ten years, our country has become
ever more polarized. I understand that at present most Democratic and Republican congress people no longer socialize with
each other after hours. The governor of Texas thinks his state has a right to secede from the Union!
Under these conditions we desperately need people who precisely can't be labeled as Right- or Left-wing because, like Billy Martin in the old beer commercial,
they “feel very strongly both ways.” From all accounts, Ms. Kagan is just such a person.
Oh, and as to the innuendo attending the fact that she is 50 and unmarried, I have
Friday, August 21, 2009
A heart of wisdom
11:42 am edt
The last time a male relative of mine reached his 70th birthday was 1953 and I can only think of two others who did it
before then. So when I was told my chances of being alive five years from now were “zero” without major heart
surgery, I immediately thought of Psalm 90:10: “The days of a person’s life are three score and ten”—and
the Yom Kippur liturgy in which we say, “Who will complete their [his] years and who will not complete their years.”
Moses, the author of Psalm 90, added that we might expect 80 years “given the strength.” He said nothing about
the positive role that could be played by modern medicine; odd, considering he himself lived till 120.
If you add up
the ages of my older brother, father, paternal uncle, and both grandfathers and divide by five, their average age at death
was between 65 and 66.They all had heart conditions. At 69-plus, I figured I was about three years past my “sell by”
date. Oh well. We bought retirement property in Kentucky in part because of the first-rate medical facilities in Lexington
I fetched up at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, disappointed that they don’t offer discounts to
real Jews, but unwilling to take a complex “valve job” to Jiffy Lube. Scripture teaches us to “number our
days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”
My heart now has a pig valve in it, and why not? The pig is reputed
to be the most intelligent of all farmyard creatures. Before the operation I had a heart murmur: “lub-dub-squish”—now
my heart goes, “lub-dub-oink.”
As I write this it still hurts when I laugh, but I can’t help making
jokes. Humor helps in so many places, from dysfunctional family situations to life-threatening illnesses. Norman Cousins (editor
of the Saturday Review) found this out by literally laughing his way clear of ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative disease
with a 99.8 percent fatality rate. (He watched a lot of Marx Brothers films.)
My natural inclination to see humor everywhere
was sharpened considerably by reading and teaching Albert Camus’ The Plague. For Camus, an Existentialist, life is fundamentally
absurd, that is, without rhyme or reason. As such he maintains that our best response is to laugh at life’s absurdities;
the French verb rire (“to laugh”) is the root of the name of his narrator, Dr. Bernard Rieux.
no clue that Dr. Rieux is a crypto-Jew, but I wonder. My wife maintains, “Every one is Jewish until proved innocent,”
so I suppose that goes double for doctors. Come to think of it, I’m a Jewish doctor myself, just not the kind that does
anyone any good.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Early in my teaching career I spent a lot of time counseling
a conservative Christian student who went on to become head of angioplasty at Duke Medical School before scaling back to a
career as a cardiologist at North Carolina. He took a keen interest in my situation, telling me at one point that having surgery
sooner rather than waiting for something untoward to happen represented “the difference between making a free throw
and a turn-around jumper.” I’m a UK basketball fan; it was a convincing argument.
Moses lived to be 120
in part, I think, because he wanted to make his 100th high school reunion. However it is with us, Scripture also teaches,
“This is the day the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24) I think I know now, better
than I did before, just what that means. May we all be inscribed.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
9:31 am est
In my younger days I sang the "Marseillaise," the French national
anthem, in French,
and still could, I'll warrant, with a couple of glasses
of wine in me.
I can also sing the German national anthem, but I don't. It comes
from a fine old quintet of Josef Haydn that
was made into a hymn for Kaiser
Franz Josef of Austria, a parallel to "God save the King," and also
Protestant hymn called "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken."
my surprise when I heard its opening notes played in the
Presbyterian Church that I was attending in 1952. What happened
fine old piece between 1933 and 1945 means that I will not sing it, but I
often listen to the Haydn.
I always sing HaTikvah, of course, though not without choking up
some. The European anthems I mentioned
are all about blood and guts or
being better than everybody else. Ours is called "The Hope." The Hope!
1832 years, from the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman
occupation of Israel to 1948, when the
State of Israel was proclaimed - and
promptly invaded by its Arab neighbors - all we could do was hope and pray
that someday we'd have a country again and that it would survive. And now
we do. Moreover, not only have I been
privileged to visit it, but also to
live there for a time.
I 'm reminded of the response
of Yitzhak ben Tzvi's wife—he was
the second president of Israel— when she came home from university
and told her parents that she was moving to Palestine. "Palestine," they
will you do there?"
"I will live there," Rachel answered triumphantly.
What I find I can no longer do, however, is sing the "Star Spangled
Banner" in public. I even have trouble
singing it at home before baseball
games. I start to sing, but always break down in tears before it's
My problem is that I know too much about American history, how we opened
our doors to my ancestors
who came here before the Civil War Between the
Yes, I know about the nasty laws that
choked off immigration in1921
and 1924 and the failure of the Dickstein Bill that would have allowed
refugee children to come here and the turning away of the
steamship St. Louis in 1939 with its 930 Jewish refugee passengers.
haven't always been as hospitable as we were a century and more ago, but
I'll match our record against
Presently, we are having our problems integrating so many Mexican
Hispanic immigrants, many of whom are here illegally. My hope is that
we'll find a way to do it and I think
we will. Last fall, watching
baseball, I noticed that one player's name is Franklin Morales. That's a
There's nothing wrong with retaining one's own ethnic monikers. My
oldest grandson's fifth grade class contains two Elijahs, of whom he is
one, and a Zebediah. But this county must
continue to be what it started
out to be, a place of refuge for those "huddled masses" memorialized on the
base of the Statue of Liberty.
Every Jewish person knows, or should, that the poem on Liberty's
pedestal was written by Emma Lazarus, daughter of a Sephardic rabbi who had
immigrated to Baltimore just before
she was born.
` On holidays I fly a 48-star flag that I have from my father-in-law,
Harbor survivor - may his German Lutheran name be for a blessing,.
Both of his daughters married Jews. And may
God continue to bless America.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz
12:04 pm edt
Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz
Like all Americans, I cheered when Michael Phelps became the first
non-Jewish person to win seven gold medals at one Olympics, a “mark” he then quickly eclipsed. Spitz did it 36
years ago at the tragic Munich Olympics that many of us remember with searing clarity. What a lot of people don’t remember
or perhaps don’t know is that 1972 was less than ten years after the “good” colleges and universities dropped
their quotas on admitting Jewish students.
The Ivies, as Jerome Karabel chronicles in his hefty (711pp) tome
The Chosen (Houghton, Mifflin, 2005)—not to be confused with, but apparently intended as an ironic homage to Chaim Potok’s
moving 1967 novel, The Chosen—initiated these quotas. (Quotas remained in force until the mid-Sixties. Brandeis University,
founded in 1953, was a belated Jewish communal response to them.)
It seems that by the early
Twenties the sons of the Eastern European immigrants who came here with nothing were outscoring their WASP contemporaries
on college admissions tests, so enterprising Ivy admissions officers had to find other ways to winnow the applicants. They
were none too subtle about it, either.
A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, who introduced quotas in 1926, was frank
in his desire to limit the number of Jews. But what were the objections to these academic over-achievers? Well, it was alleged,
they had “dwarf stature,” a “peculiar mentality,” “ruthless concentration on self-interest,”
and “lacked success in manly outdoor sports.” (The last is a quote from Cecil Rhodes, founder of the Rhodes Scholarships.)
I applied to Amherst and to Brown in 1957 and was promptly rejected The rejections might have had something to do with my
lack of success in manly outdoor sports—chess and gin rummy are generally played indoors—and my spotty academic
record, but I had a 692 Verbal and a 693 Math on the SATs _ this was before the numbers were recalibrated giving everyone,
in effect, another hundred points. I mention this because Karabel’s book has a grainy photo of one G. W. Bush playing
rugby at Yale and giving “an illegal, but gratifying” punch in the face to an opposing rugby player. The accompanying
text also notes Bush’s SAT Verbal score: 566
My record in college was good, but not great. However, I did
win a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and applied to Harvard and Yale and was rejected by both. So I went first to the University
of Chicago and then to Brandeis. Indiana University, where Mark Spitz went to school, might have been another choice, but
they had no Judaic Studies program then. They do now.
The point of these remarks is this: in order to succeed
in the modern world American colleges and universities would do well to follow the biblical injunction of favoring neither
the rich because of their wealth nor the poor because of their poverty. (Leviticus 19:15; Exodus 23:3) Transposing into the
key of academics, this means having an admissions process that is both color blind and _legacy_ free. “Legacies”
refers to the practice of admitting people to college simply because their parents or other relatives went there.
the recent Olympics showed, strength and stamina, not social standing, wins races. So I’m happy when I see so many non-white
(you’ll pardon the expression, I hope) people on my TV as news commentators, physicians, heads of companies or whatever
else their merit has propelled them to.
As I write this, the first African-American is about to be nominated for President
by a major party. Whether he wins or loses, his candidacy strikes a major blow for the principles that this country was founded
on, principles that survived the best attempts of our self-styled academic aristocrats to undo them.
And now what "strangely"
pigmented little boy is approaching his first swimming lesson, dreaming dreams that are bigger than he is?
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Pastor Hagee Was Right!
10:10 am edt
I first heard John Hagee in Ohio in 1967. I was visiting Kenyon College for a job interview and happened to catch
him on radio. He pronounced his name “hag-gai” then, no doubt thinking himself akin to the biblical prophet Haggai.
On this show he cited Chronicles to demonstrate how the visit of the German chancellor to the British prime minister (or was
it the other way round?) had been predicted centuries ago.
People of any faith who use the Bible this way cause
me serious gastrointestinal distress. Needless to say, I didn’t attempt to follow his career any further. In fact, when
the name surfaced again this year, I had to look him up to be sure he was the same guy. You will, no doubt, have heard him
say that Hitler (may his name be blotted out) absorbed anti-Semitism from his Catholic surroundings.
Such a Furor!
Rev. Hagee was compelled to apologize for what he’d said. However, like a stopped clock, this time he was right. Hitler
was born Catholic. He wasn’t German, but Austrian, and Austria took a back seat to no country in its hatred of Jews.
In 1897 Gustav Mahler was compelled to convert to Catholicism in order to accept the post of conductor of the Vienna State
Opera. Austrians thought themselves superior to Germans, too.
Before the First World War, Hitler spent about
four years in Vienna. When he arrived there, Vienna’s mayor was Karl Lueger, an outspoken political anti-Semite. Hitler
barely scraped by as a struggling artist, imbibing anti-Semitism and, ironically, subsisting partly on Jewish charity. For
Hitler NOT to be influenced by Catholic anti-Semitism, he would have to have been in a hermetically sealed bubble.
the Anschluss of 1938, by which Austria was joined to the Third Reich, Cardinal Theodore Innitzer of Vienna greeted Hitler’s
troops with the Nazi salute. This prompted Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, America’s leading Reform rabbi, to call the Cardinal
“that prostitute.” (Letter to Ludwig Lewissohn in Carl S. Voss, Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People
[JPS: 1969]. We were all a bit less politically correct back then.
However, let’s call a spade a spade. The “Passion
play” at Oberammergau, Germany, in which the part of Judas was traditionally played with a Yiddish accent, began in
1634. I don’t know whether Hitler ever attended, but Oberammergau is only about 100 miles from his birthplace at Linz.
Oddly, the Nazis shut the play down when they came to power; the Encyclopedia Judaica suggests their fear of religion
trumped their hatred of Jews, at least for a time. Still, Germany’s Catholics, mostly in Bavaria, resisted the Nazis
better than their northern, Protestant brethren.
By 1933, though, Christian anti-Semitism—Protestant and Catholic—had
been burgeoning for over 1600 years. In his old age, Martin Luther, Germany’s first Christian nationalist, penned a
vicious attack on Jews (Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, 1543) in which he proposed physical violence against
both people and property. (This screed was disavowed by the German Lutheran Church—but only in 1995.)
the drash here, the moral? There are two things to learn: we mustn’t forget the past, we have to face it squarely,
but we don’t have to live in it. Indeed, to do so is to perpetuate the hatreds that have caused us all so much grief.
world is now so small that even Senator McCain—who formerly sought pastor Hagee’s endorsement—recognizes
that we have to mount a serious effort to head off major consequences from global warming.
There is a Yiddish proverb
that says, “If everyone pulled together, the world would tip over.” I say, “Go for it.”
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Anne Frank's Grandchildren
Our planet faces serious, comprehensive problems. Potable water is already
9:25 pm est
a serious issue in many
places: Israel, parts of Africa and our own
Southwest are three such places. Water deficits will increase and spread
world population increases. Greenhouse gases will increase as we use and
abuse the petrochemical resources that
all too few people, for example, the
ibn Saud family, control.
Since not everyone agrees on
the threat these problems pose, it places a
greater burden on those who do try to find solutions. Jews have long
at the forefront of the world's problem-solvers as one can see from
consulting the impressive list of Jewish
Nobel Prize Winners, especially in
Our list of laureates is often compared with
the handful of Muslims who
have won any of these prizes. The idea, of course, is to put Muslims in a
bad light as
"underachievers" as over against the far less numerous Jewish
population. For me, this is something of a "cheap
shot" and is not my point
Less numerous. Far less numerous. We lost a
third of our number in the
Holocaust and have yet even to make good their loss. What else we lost can
only be imagined.
How many more scientists and inventors, doctors and economists, to say
nothing of writers, artists,
entertainers and teachers were in this group?
How many Anne Franks, - she would have been seventy-seven this year - to
say nothing of the children and grandchildren she would now have? How many
of her children would even now be hard at
work finding cures for diseases,
ways of increasing agricultural production, in short, mending the world?
I happen to believe that without the leavening of its Jews, this world
would fall flat as a matzoh. And it may
yet. The world seems all too often
to exhibit what must be seen as a suicidal tendency, namely, the recurring
to exterminate Jews.Just think: those six million dead would now
have 20,000,000 grandchildren. And It's been estimated
that Jews would now
number 60 million instead of the current 15 million had these persecutions
not taken place.
You might think that President Ahmedlooneybin of Iran could learn from the
examples of Poland,
Spain, Germany and the Soviet Union. All of these
countries went into serious decline as a result of repressing their
populations. Admittedly, this is a Jew-o-centric view of things. One might
also say that minorities like
Jews are "the canary in the coal mine," the
first to feel and suffer from the poisonous gases of emerging dictatorship.
Then Jewish losses would be a symptom, not a cause of a country's decline.
But consider this:
the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century and both
England and Holland in the seventeenth benefitted greatly from Jews
to flee persecution elsewhere. Putting two and two together, one might
wonder why countries don't outbid
each other to entice more Jews in! Sure,
there are some bad apples, but a Jewish community pays for itself many
To the best of my knowledge, no one has claimed that Rumpelstiltskin was
the name is suspiciously Ashkenazic). But the little guy
who could spin straw into gold is emblematic of so many
Jews who have
created material or cultural wealth out of little or nothing, wealth that
they shared with the world.
When I think of Anne Frank's children, the human "treasure" that was lost,
even came to be because of Europe's unspeakable barbarity, my
tears turn immediately to steam.
Well, in the words of the RaGBaG (Rabbi Gamaliel ben Gamaliel), "If the
world succeeds in destroying itself, no
one will learn anything from it."
Monday, November 12, 2007
Seek Peace and Pursue It
Talk given at an Interfaith Prayer Service 11/11/07
11:40 am est
Biqesh shalom v'rodfeyhu!
Seek Peace and Pursue It
These ringing words from Psalm 34 could almost be said to be the "motto" for
all of Hebrew Scriptures. What then?
Peace is more than the absence of war, although that's a pretty good start.
But Shalom means much more than peace, it means fullness, completeness.
Shalom means that "every man (and
woman) be at liberty under their vine and under their fig tree with none to make them afraid." And for that kind of peace
something more is needed: justice. Personal liberty means justice for all.
If it isn' t too self-serving, let
me say that as a Jew I take enormous pride in saying that, at least for the Western part of this planet, my ancestors practically
invented what we call justice.
Amos says "Let justice well up like water; righteousness as an unfailing stream.
But what then? Lev, 19:15 clarifies this, saying, "You shall not favor the rich because of his wealth OR the poor because
of his poverty."
Elsewhere it is written, "You shall have one law for yourselves AND for the alien who
lives among you." (Americans might want to consider how this injunction could affect the licensing of Hispanic immigrants,
legal or otherwise, but as this is not a political gathering, I will forego further discussion.) [this brought laughs as I
hoped it would]
Justice also requires that the punishment fit the crime. Hence, the much misunderstood Lev. 24:20's
"AN EYE FOR AN EYE." This is an advance over previous laws that took account of differnces in social status between
the perpetrators and their victims.
And what of Isa. 63:3's "vengeance is mine, says the Lord." ?
Just so. Leviticus 19:18, more famous for its saying "Love your neighbor as yourself," also says, "You shall
not take vengeance" Let me repeat that: YOU shall not take vengeance.
What should we do? We should, to use
the words of Micah 6:8, "Do justice, love mercy and not confuse our human passions with the will of God." (My translation)
God was all set to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah until Abraham our Father stood in his face and said, "What? Shall
not the Judge of all the Earth judge justly? You would destroy the innocent along with the guilty?" Even God stepped
back from this—and so should we. We must not seek nor even condone any sort of "collective punishment," for
God would not have it so, as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah clearly demonstrates.
To anyone who might suggest
that natural disasters such as hurricanes (or tsunamis) are God's punishment upon us, I would say, "You didn't
get that from MY Scripture."
I conclude with more words of Amos
Seek Me and live!
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
8:51 am edt
People say that Iraq can’t come together because it is an artificial country, but that’s no excuse. France,
Japan, England, Italy, Germany, China… all nation states begin as artificial entities and most manage to knit themselves
together. Even Lebanon is hanging in there. Former Yugoslavia is the exception that proves the rule.
In Iraq the problem
is that each of its three major constituents would rather kill than talk to the other two, let alone entrust the others with
control of the government. So here’s my idea. Iraq should designate a government of Iraqi Jews to act as interstitial
tissue and knit the three major groups together. Since Jews have no tribal territories in Iraq—with or without oil—who
better to act as honest brokers? Nor is this kind of thing completely unprecedented in human history.
the keys to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem have been held by a Muslim family because no Christian denomination would trust
another with those precious keys, nor do any of them wish to cede the prestige of being key-holder to any of the others. Jerusalem,
by the way, was chosen by David in part because it was a foreign city, not belonging to any of Israel’s tribes. Similarly,
Washington is a Federal District because our Founding Parents had the wisdom to realize that siting it in any state would
give that state “bragging rights.”
It’s Ezra, of course, who is called the “second
Moses,” for saving Judaism in Jerusalem after the Exile and putting his colleague, Nehemiah, somewhat in the shade.
But Nehemiah’s life offers its own enduring model.
As you will remember, Nehemiah the Jew was cupbearer
to one of the Persian kings (probably Artaxerxes Longimanus). This was not simply a ceremonial position. The cupbearer always
drank first from the king’s cup so that if someone had slipped in poison—the ancient Near East’s preferred
method of assassination—it would be the cupbearer who would die, not the king.
Why choose a Jew for this position
and not some prominent native of the country? Precisely because the Jew, a landless outsider, would’ve had no stake
in engineering an overthrow, whereas a Persian native—especially one from a prominent family—might easily fall
in with such a plan. (Hitler had a food taster, too, but I presume this civil servant was not Jewish.)
Prime Minister al-Maliki myself and suggest he appoint a Jewish government except... Iraq doesn’t have any Jews to speak
of. Before 1948, the Jewish population of Iraq was 135,000. Their property was expropriated after that, and those who weren’t
expelled left the country anyway. It is estimated that only 100 Iraq Jews are left in residence. Would that be enough? Well,
I suppose others might be persuaded to come back; it would probably depend on the health insurance package.
a lesson here, one that “the nations” might have learned long ago. After being expelled from Spain and Portugal
(1497 and 1507, respectively) Jews helped make the Ottoman Empire a power for four centuries. Poland was at its height when
it had a solid Jewish middle class, and France maintained itself against England in the 19th century in part because it offered
citizenship to its Jewish residents. In short, Jews are an invaluable human resource, the wasting of which can only be done
at great peril to the country doing it.
That’s one reason why the Japanese in World War II resisted Hitler’s
insistence that they eliminate those Jews who’d been fortunate enough to flee to territory controlled by Japan.
if I were a country I’d be jonesing for as many Jews as I could get.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Into the Woods: Reflections on 44 Years of an Interfaith Marriage
Our 44th wedding anniversary will be on Sept. 2. Adding our ages together Mary and I are ten years older than Moses. In the
words of Chalmers Roberts, "How did we get here so fast?" No matter, we're here and, thinking that we may be
the longest-married interfaith couple in the interfaith community, I thought I might share some reflections with couples who
are behind us on the trail.
4:28 pm edt
You may have read our book, Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Fatihs
in One Marriage. If you haven't, it's not too late to do that. Of course, it was published in 1994....
Since then our two older children have been married and divorced. That was something of a surprise. We had
naively assumed that our successful marriage would insure that the children's would necessarily be successful. Not. (Our
third child, 37, is now going with a young woman who, like himself, has a Jewish father. Should be a perfect match.)
But you may be more interested in what has happened to Mary and me.
In 1998 I retired from full-time teaching
and we moved to Kentucky. Into the woods. The next year I started teaching Judaica at the University of Kentucky and will
soon start my ninth year. I now teach four semesters of biblical Hebrew to classes that include few Jews, but many conservative
Christians. Since some of the latter go on to become ministers in conservative congregations, what I'm able to impart
from a scholarly perspective has a ripple effect that is gratifying to contemplate.
And I would probably
not have become a Jew had I not married a Christian.
I teach two days a week and Mary has her twice-a-month
editing of the Lexington Jewish community newspaper. (That actually pays a little, unlike Dovetail.) She's also working
on her second biblical novel.
I keep a picture of Mary from her Junior prom—I didn't know her
then—in front of me as I type. Physically, we've changed a lot, but that bright, pretty high school girl is still
there and like the rose(nbaum) and the briar, we've gotten a lot closer over the years. There are still a few gaps between
us, but, as we wrote in the book, we can hold hands across them.
What has changed the most is our religious
practice. We do the same full schedule of holidays at home— including Bilbo's Birthday—that we always have,
but our public practice has fallen off markedly. Part of the reason for this is that the Lexington Havurah of which we are
members is 75 miles away. We make a majority of their monthly events (I'm on the Board), but if they had weekly events
we wouldn't make them regularly. Too far, and besides, what would Al Gore say?
At that, we've both
lost a lot of our enthusiasm for regular denominational practice. Like many Catholics, Mary has been deeply disturbed by the
current Church scandals and more so by the knowledge of how far back their roots go. For my part, even without Art Blecher's
book (see review, below), I'm increasingly turned off by the realization that denominational religion is, at base, a business
and the kosher food industry is a racket.
Mary would be willing to give up kashrut, but I cling to it, albeit
in a somewhat attenuated form, in recognition of the ancestors who preserved their faith so that there was, finally, something
this prodigal son to return to. Besides, what else could we do with our six sets of dishes?
of that old high school conundrum: how far can a dog go into the woods? The answer is: halfway, because after that he's
coming out again.
Our Christian religious focus centers on Gethsemani, the monastery where Thomas Merton
lived and where he is buried. That's only eight miles away, so we usually have no trouble getting there once a month.
The "draw" is a monthly discussion of Merton's works with a pick-up collection of local folks, retreatants from
all over, and a couple of monks. I am the Resident Jewish Intellectual and, again, I think that what I have to contribute
is useful to Catholics who have no acquaintance with Hebrew Bible and a distorted view of Judaism.
by reading a little Merton, but the conversation invariably hares off on any subject it wants and often continues over dinner
which takes place after Vespers. Mary and I usually spend that period sitting on the veranda, looking over the spacious and
well-kept grounds, saying nothing. I like to wander up to Merton's grave, about forty yards away, and intone a few appropriate
things to its occupant.
There's probably not a minyan in our neck of the woods, by which I mean all
of Nelson County, KY, but most of our closest friends continue to be, as they have always been, Jews, in this case from the
Havurah. Shared interests and academic backgrounds provide the same bonds they did when I taught college in Pennsylvania.
Rabbi Arthur Blecher writes that intermarriage will be the salvation of the Jewish community in America and
I hardly know how to respond. Of our three children and four grandchildren only one of each is Jewish. Yet.
Along with Allen Secher, I am writing a book on intermarriage in the Bible. Since I continue to believe that, without
Judaism, Western civilization would fall flat like a matzoh, I certainly hope that something keeps it afloat.
Shechayanu, Mrs. Edwards
4:16 pm edt
You may have heard that Sen. John Edwards'
wife made a dainty faux pas recently when she suggested the family might have to do without tangerines. This was her response
to the realization that it costs a lot in energy to transport them from California to South Carolina. However, it also points
to a larger problem in our society, a problem we could call 24/7.
We want what we want when we want it and
that's no matter what "it" is. In the late Sixties in Israel my family learned a better approach to life and
have practiced it ever since.
Before I968 I hadn't practiced much of anything Jewish so it was all new
and wonderful to me. One of the new things I learned, of course, was the shehecheyanu,
the blessing we say almost at the drop of a hat for arriving at this point in time, whatever
point "this" is.
One of its uses is to bless the first fruit of any crop, any season in
which one consumes it. In Israel the seasons seem to follow hard one upon the other so there's no lack of fresh
produce. And the oranges and grapefruits and pamelas right off the trees, or so it seems, are to die for. The thing is, you
can't get everything you might like to eat every time you go to the store because they're not always in season.
We came back to the US, reluctantly, in 1970. Ours was a small college in a small town that also happened to
have a farmers market. Well, we were on that like white on rice.
Local organic chicken, lamb
and beef. (We had to explain to Mr. Eby, the nice pork merchant, that we didn't eat his products for religious reasons.)
In the Spring, red raspberries; chestnuts in the Fall, along with the best tomatoes and apples I'd had since I was a child.
Once you remind yourself how good fresh produce can taste, you don't want to buy the stuff out of season.
I wouldn't think of buying a peach from anyone but Maurice Fegenbush at the little Bardstown farmers market that has recently
opened up. And his apples are incomparable.
This year will be a sore trial because all of his trees were
blooming when a late cold snap killed the fruit.
It's true, I admit,
that I sometimes sneak into Kroger under cover of darkness and buy fruit out of season, but this is mainly because we have
the grandchildren over for breakfast five times a week. Left to my own devices, I would do without.
as I'm sure you know, is a large part of enjoyment. The psychologists call it "delayed gratification" and it
explains why some Jews still wait for the Messiah and others root for the Cubs.
The thing is, waiting works.
We light the first fire of the season about the time the chestnuts come in, and roasted chestnuts - they can be a little tricky
- are a treat. Everything is a treat if you have to wait for its season to roll round. But that's the genius of
it. There's always something rolling into season so you always have a treat to look forward to.
A variation on this is the four fasts that dot the Jewish calendar. Anyone who has ever fasted knows how good the food
tastes after doing without for a day.
Do we eat tangerines? Yes, occassionally, and bananas, too. But I
wouldn't have fresh tangerines on my table every day if Arnold Schwarzenegger himself offered to deliver them. I prefer
to enjoy earth's bounty in season, as the original design called for.
The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect those of any
organization or institution with which I am affiliated.
The RaGBaG's thoughts may also be read in his column, "Third Opinion," published by Shalom, the newspaper of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation.