Above: a scene from Tuesday night's inspiring Reyut panel discussion
Check out next summer's Israel @ 70 Tour - and reserve now!
Mazal tov to Aaron Eben and his three-generation TBE family, as he becomes bar mitzvah this Shabbat morning. Our portion is Lech Lecha and on Shabbat morning we'll be talking about Jewish names and why we change them. See the parsha packet. And join us Friday night as well for another wonderful musical Shabbat. Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and we will be hosting the AJC's Director of Contemporary Jewish Life, Steven Bayme. Make sure to be here for that and for the Hoffman Lecture on November 7, featuring Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart.
"The Band's Visit"
Last night I was able to see the new Broadway musical, "The Band's Visit." It opens officially on November 9, but already the buzz is sky high, with nightly sellouts. I really enjoyed this story of an Egyptian police band that gets sidetracked to a dead-end Israeli development town in the 1990s. The acting is superb, the music spirited, the theme universal and the ambiance authentically Israeli. The overarching message is of overcoming difficulties in communication. The premise of the show is a mix up at the border that sends the band to Bet Hatikva, instead of Petach Tikva, "with a P." English is the common ground where the Israelis and Egyptians meet, but it's also slippery ground for all of them and the words never flow easily. In some ways, though, the communications issues are more acute among couples and families that have known each other for years in the town. It was nice to see a show about Arabs and Israelis where not a word is spoken about territories, terrorism or anything remotely political. A definite two thumbs up!
Warding off Evil Spirits, Jewishly
For this week of Halloween, for those interested in a variety of responses to the question, 'Should Jewish children trick or treat?" click here. And if you click three times, you can escape the clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West! One way to resolve the dilemma of whether or not to go out would be to trick or treat in a Jewish costume.
You can also take a look at my packet on Vampires in the Jewish tradition.
Meanwhile, if you are concerned about how to ward off evil spirits, Jewish folklore provides lots of advice. Because, you see, over the centuries, no matter what the rabbis poo-poohed, the ordinary folk in the country side were spitting on their fingers and going "poo, poo, poo." Jewish folk religion was - and is - full of the occult. Below are some helpful hints, direct from my great great grandmother, whom I contacted at a seance, assisted by the Long Island Extra Large (the Medium was unavailable)
How to Ward off Evil in Jewish Myth and Superstition
Spirits of the dead who wander between heaven and earth and are trapped, unable to ascend: Wear a prayer shawl and blow a shofar (preferably in the cemetery where the bodies of the wandering souls are buried). The gates of heaven will open for the souls to enter. (From "The Boy Who Blew the Shofar," Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales.)
Stand inside a chalk circle to protect yourself from evil spirits.
Say the Shema to ward off demons.
To keep demons away, read Psalm 91.
To exorcise a dybbuk, you need a minyan (ten adults past B'nei Mitzvah age) and a rabbi. The rabbi will contact the spirit and try to convince it to leave the person and move on to the afterlife (heaven). A dybbuk is a wandering spirit who has invaded a human being. You can spot a dybbuk because they will sometimes speak nonsense or behave in a strange and disturbed manner.
Red string is said to ward off evil.
Salt protects one from demons and evil spirits. Place it in the corners of the room where evil spirits like to hide.
To put a golem to rest - erase God's name on his forehead. Angels can provide protection from demons and evil spirits.
Spitting 3 times is done in response to seeing or hearing something especially evil or good. Spitting protects against demons.
When traveling, wear a metal pin on your clothing as protection against evil.
The Religious Landscape
A very interesting survey on the American religious landscape came out this fall, based on interviews of over 100,000 Americans from every state. It's summarized here. The headline finding from a national perspective is that white Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.
But for me the more interesting finding is that the religiously unaffiliated-those who identify as "atheist," "agnostic," or "nothing in particular"-now account for nearly one-quarter (24%) of Americans. Since the early 1990s, this group has roughly tripled in size (see the chart below).
This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, but for Jews it has unique implications, because Jewish identification can be - and often is - based on peoplehood rather than religion. But for us the key is that what we are seeing in the Jewish community is reflected everywhere.
See also this recent Washington Post article on the state of American Jewry.
Finally, my article "Embracing Auschwitz" summarizing some the themes from my High Holidays sermons, appeared in this week's New York Jewish Week. Here it is.
As a rabbi, I've long felt that the Holocaust took up far too much Jewish bandwidth, smothering our joy and replacing it with resentment. It posed questions that were unanswerable, eclipsed centuries of achievement, gave us a pretext to hate others and gave our children the excuse to opt out of this Debbie Downer of a religion altogether.
But recently I've come around to a very different perspective, one validated by the pending release, on Nov. 3, of a video game. Not just any video game, but "Call of Duty: WW2," the long-awaited next installment of a series that has sold 30 million units worldwide. What makes this one different is that it will depict the Holocaust, a topic avoided in prior WW2 video games, and the creators indicate that the subject is being handled authentically and truthfully.
"We didn't want to shy away from history," creative director Bret Robbins told Mashable.
"We wanted to be very respectful of it. Some very, very dark things happened during this conflict, and it felt wrong for us to ignore that."
As a response to the recent surge of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust is increasingly being brought into the mainstream of popular culture. Aside from "Call of Duty," this year's hit conventional board game is called "Secret Hitler," which simulates the rise of fascism. The subject has become so prevalent in social and political conversation that a rule was created, Godwin's Law, asserting that if any discussion goes on long enough, eventually someone or something will be compared to Hitler.
The Holocaust is everywhere.
Back in the 1970s, Elie Wiesel disparaged the lowbrow TV mini-series "Holocaust" as "untrue and offensive." But the series was seen by 20 million West Germans, half the country's population, which led to massive reforms in the German educational system. Hopefully after the release of "Call of Duty," millions of fans will convert their gamer's rush into a strengthened commitment never to let such evil prevail again.
Wiesel also said that anyone who hears the account of a witness becomes a witness. With Wiesel gone and the survivor generation dwindling, it is time for Jews to embrace Auschwitz and to fully assimilate the power of its narrative into our collective story. I believe Jews are finally ready to do just that - and that Judaism itself is adapting to prepare us for that role.
In the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, what stood out most was the response to the question, "What does it mean to be Jewish?" Leading the way by a large margin was "remembering the Holocaust," at 73 percent. If there is a core to the Jewish self-image, a consensus narrative, that story is far more likely to revolve around what occurred at Auschwitz than at Sinai.
Jews, like all people, crave to live lives of joy, love, acceptance, community and faith. After seven decades of going through various stages of grief, we are at last recognizing the potency of the Holocaust message and its potential to help us check those positive boxes. What used to evoke only guilt and vulnerability is becoming a source of vitality and inspiration. While the narrative remains utterly shattering, sparks of hope are beginning to emerge.
In a series of sermons over the recent High Holidays, I demonstrated how classical Judaism is now being interpreted anew through the prism of this epochal event, and a "Torah of Auschwitz" is emerging.
Keep in mind that I use the term "Torah" with some deliberate irony - it is intended to provoke thought, not to show disrespect. For in the broadest sense, the word means "sacred teaching," and as a verb it connotes an ongoing, evolving process of discovery. I contend that such a "Torah"- like process of sacred discovery has been dramatically aroused by the epochal events of 70 years ago.
For example, in Leviticus 19:14, the Torah of Sinai says that we should not place a stumbling block before the blind. In Germany today, there are memorial plates in the ground for Jewish victims - "Stolpersteine," or stumble stones, they are called, because when you stumble over them you have to notice. As of last January, there are 56,000 Stolpersteine throughout the country. So the "Torah of Auschwitz" offers this corollary to Leviticus: "Yes, you should place these stumble stones everywhere a victim lived, to remove blinders from the eyes of those who try to forget their suffering."
Or take Deuteronomy 17:19, the commandment to remember what Amalek did to Israel in the wilderness, attacking the meek and innocent. For centuries, this has been interpreted as a call for vigilance in the face of evil. But in light of Auschwitz, this commandment has been reinterpreted, not as a call to punish the villains, but rather to remember the victims and to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness, from anywhere and anyone, go unheeded.
Sinai's Torah also calls upon Israel to love the stranger - no fewer than 36 times - "because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Egypt was a living hell for the Israelites, as was Auschwitz for Jews. But in Egypt, save for Pharaoh's daughter's rescue of baby Moses, there were no Raoul Wallenbergs or Oskar Schindlers to buck the genocidal trend.
In stark contrast, Yad Vashem has honored at least 26,120 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries. So, the "Torah of Auschwitz" states "Love the stranger," because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who was hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who was, occasionally and inexplicably, loved.
Just as the evil perpetrated by the Nazis has no historical parallel, so does the courage of that era dwarf anything we see in the Bible. As the decades pass, selfless supernovas like Janusz Korczac, Mordechai Anielewicz and Hannah Senesh will further brighten the midnight sky as their stories merge into the collective, sacred narrative.
Jews need to embrace this story with love, conviction and overflowing pride at the unfathomable fact that somehow we survived this genocidal onslaught. And we survived with one mission only: to tell the tale. As the release of "Call of Duty: WW2" demonstrates, the world has never been more receptive to, and in need of, that message.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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