Thursday, January 23, 2020

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 24



Shabbat Shalom!

Join us as Cantor Deborah Jacobson returns for another rousing "Shabbat Unplugged" - her second and final guest appearance this year.  Our first one in November packed the sanctuary and it did not disappoint.  Then join us on Shabbat morning - Rabbi Gerry Ginsburg will be delivering the d'var Torah.

My Super Bowl Prediction will come next week.  Meanwhile, you can do your own, and I'll provide a nifty tool.  Gematria is the art of deriving secret mystical meaning by applying numerical value to Hebrew letters.  So if you go to this site, you'll find all the words the Bible whose letters add up to the sum of 49.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to let me know what deeper meaning you can derive from some of those words and their sentences, and what it means for the 49ers and Chiefs.  Send me your ideas by early next week. 

Auschwitz Plus 75: From Sorrow to Song

The 5th World Holocaust Forum:
The 5th World Holocaust Forum: 
"Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism"
Watching the stream live on Thursday morning, I just heard the German president recite "Shehechianu" in Hebrew to begin his remarks - which were received with warm applause.

This has been week of monumental historic importance, especially if you believe, as I do, that the current impeachment trial could be recalled as an inflection point for this generation.  It could also be seen as a blip on the screen or, more ominously, it could be written out of history altogether. But whatever you believe regarding the trial, today, in the midst of that trial, Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi are together, half a world away, with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Prince Charles.  They are in Jerusalem, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Pelosi, in fact, led a Congressional delegation to Auschwitz itself earlier this week, even as the trial in Washington was beginning.  It doesn't diminish the significance of what is happening in D.C. - in fact it highlights that the Holocaust is even more important than any potential generational inflection point; because this event was a point of inflection for all time.  
The Holocaust, while receding into history, remains ever-present.  One stunning example occurred just this week in court. Christopher Cantwell - who is being sued by Integrity First for America for his role orchestrating the Unite the Right violence in Charlottesville (you'll recall the recent visit by their director, Amy Spitalnik) actually quoted Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, in a new motion filed with the court. In an American court, Mein Kampf is being unabashedly cited.

So the Holocaust irrevocably altered everything. But a point of inflection leading to what?  After 75 years, we can begin to answer that question.

This week, Pew released a survey indicating that most U.S. adults know what the Holocaust was and approximately when it happened, but fewer than half can correctly answer multiple-choice questions about the number of Jews who were murdered or the way Adolf Hitler came to power. When asked to describe in their own words what the Holocaust was, more than eight-in-ten Americans mention the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people or other related topics, such as concentration or death camps, Hitler or the Nazis. Seven-in-ten know that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950.


As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I'm proud to announce that my new book, Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously, is now available for pre-order.  The early response has been very encouraging, like this review from Yossi Klein Halevi, author of "Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor." 

As the Holocaust shifts from living wound to fitful memory, the urgent question is not just how to remember but why. In Embracing Auschwitz, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman gives us a compelling and provocative answer. His 'Torah of Auschwitz' celebrates the life-affirming values of heroism, persistence, faith, Jewish unity and defense, and universal justice. Embracing Auschwitz is an essential contribution to our understanding of what we as a people need to carry from the 20th into the 21st century.
You can find more advance praise on the book's site.


Below is an op-ed I penned for the Religion News Service (encapsulating major themes from the book) to coincide with the 75th anniversary commemoration.  The article will be published next week.


The 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "There are three ways in which we respond to sorrow. On the first level, we cry; on the second level, we are silent; on the highest level, we take sorrow and turn it into song." These sequential responses to tragedy mirror how Jews have responded to the Holocaust over the past seven decades, from overwhelming grief to numbed silence.  And now, as the world prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, the time has come to turn the sorrow into song, to, in a sense, embrace Auschwitz.

Let me be clear: There was nothing good about the Holocaust.  What happened during the period of Nazi hegemony over Germany and Europe was the nadir of human history. No other historic event is remotely comparable, and it is hard to conceive of any future atrocity being so maliciously designed and meticulously carried out on so vast a scale.
I've spent the better part of my career as a rabbi and writer trying to reframe Judaism in positive terms, which for me meant steering the conversation away from the Holocaust, lest my own faith wither on the vine. This historic black hole posed questions that were unanswerable, eclipsing centuries of Jewish achievement, nurturing neurosis; it brought out the worst in people. It gave us an excuse to hate and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a hopeless, hapless people?
But recently I've discovered that the opposite is true. Judaism is now being interpreted anew through the prism of this epochal event. Filtered through the experience of Auschwitz, we are hearing the first stirrings of a song.  
Throughout Jewish history it has become axiomatic that approximately seven decades after an enormous disaster, new, creative expressions of faith have surfaced. It's uncanny how often this "seven-decade rule" has borne itself out.  Just as Jews traditionally rise from mourning after seven days, so do we rise collectively from trauma after seventy years.
Seventy years after the first temple was destroyed in 586 BC, King Cyrus restored hope to a Jewish people who had already begun adapting their religion to the new realities of residing in exile, by the rivers of Babylon.  Seven decades after the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, dramatic changes began to revolutionize Jewish philosophy and law. Seventy years after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, which displaced 200,000 Jews and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, Jewish life was replanted in Safed, Palestine, and it came to full flower with the publication of the great law code, the Shulchan Aruch, in 1565. 

The year 1648 was a dark one for Eastern European Jewry, as a Cossack revolt killed upwards of 100,000 Jews. Almost exactly 70 years later, Israel Ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, introduced Hasidism to Polish Jews. In early Hasidic literature, the Baal Shem Tov's followers see a direct historical link from the ordeals of 1648 to their teacher's ministry, asserting that this charismatic leader "awakened the people Israel from their long coma and brought them renewed joy in the nearness of God." 
So what do I mean by saying that It is time to "embrace Auschwitz"
Two things:
First, Jews need to embrace the obligation to be surrogate witnesses, as the last group of the actual witnesses departs.
Elie Wiesel said that "to listen to a witness is to become one."  Jews are living links to the greatest crime ever perpetrated on humanity, and to cultivate that role is the most important role Jews can possibly play in the world today. Humanity, hungry for moral leadership at a time when fascism and hate are on the rise, is turning its lonely eyes to us. What Jews were charged to do at Sinai-to be pillars of morality, a nation of priests-now takes on an added urgency.  Jews need to learn how to tell the witnesses' stories with love and conviction, with bursting pride at their incomprehensible acts of heroism and faith. 
And second, we need to recognize that the Holocaust has taken its place at the very core of what it means to be Jewish.
The 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry asked, "What does it mean to be Jewish?" providing respondents nine suggested Jewish activities and attributes from which to select those deemed "essential."  Just nineteen percent said, "Observing Jewish law." Leading the way, by far, was "Remembering the Holocaust," at seventy-three percent. You can't get three quarters of American Jews to agree on anything, not whether to fast on Yom Kippur, or what to put on a bagel. If there is a core to our self-image as Jews, a common story, that teaching is far more likely to come from Auschwitz than from Sinai. 
Want to hear something even more amazing? Ask Israeli Jews the same question - and  we know that Israeli Jews and American Jews don't agree on much these days - but here the result is nearly identical.  Despite the growing differences between American and Israeli Jews, the Holocaust is the greatest common denominator. 
Any modern expression of Judaism to emerge out of this era must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront the blackest black hole in history. But just as it cannot ignore or deny the abyss, to be authentic, any modern expression of Judaism must also speak to the need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not survive.
The Torah of Sinai, the backbone of rabbinic Judaism, now has a companion narrative that I call the Torah of Auschwitz, a series of sacred teachings and practices that have begun to coalesce into a canon, enabling us to confront the darkest demons of seven decades ago. At the same time, this narrative is filled with positive and life-affirming lessons that can have an enormous impact not simply on the Jewish people, but the entire world.
This new post-Holocaust canon is still in its infancy, but some of its key lessons and seminal stories are now coming clearly into view. Just as the evil perpetrated by the Nazis has no historical parallel, so does the valor of the Holocaust era dwarf anything we have ever seen, even in the Bible. When it comes to pure courage and unfathomable love, Joshua, Miriam, and David can't hold a candle to the stories of Janusz Korczak, Mordechai Anielewicz, and Hannah Senesh. And the prophetic proclamations of Jeremiah and Isaiah are mirrored-and perhaps surpassed-by the immortal words of such modern-day prophets as Primo Levi, Simon Wiesenthal and Viktor Frankl.
As the decades pass, these supernovas will further brighten the midnight sky as their stories merge into the collective, sacred chronicle. As for Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg and over 11,000 Righteous Gentiles honored at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the modern-day Righteous Gentile really has no parallel in the Hebrew Bible.  When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, no one offered to take them in (okay, Pharaoh's daughter did take in baby Moses, but that's it).
How can we not burst with pride at the poetry, the scraps of food shared; the secret Seders; the impossible escapes; the beautiful children of Terezin; how the victims were able to maintain their dignity and humanity in the most inhuman conditions, protecting their loved ones-even somehow falling in love? What makes Anne Frank so eternally appealing is her very ordinariness, her capacity to have remained a child in the most sinister of conditions. Frank has already become a universal symbol of innocence and steadfast optimism in the face of pure evil, eclipsing ancient heroines like Ruth and Esther in our collective imagination, inspiring multiple dramas, films, and novels and drawing 1.3 million visitors to her secret annex in 2016 alone.  In a thousand years, people will still speak reverently about Anne Frank. The Torah of Auschwitz that is now emerging will feature her wisdom as its book of Proverbs and Elie Wiesel's Night as its book of Job
Beyond the heroic stories, the Torah of Auschwitz has transformed religious practice and biblical interpretation.    For example, the injunction to remember (zachor) the evil perpetrated by Amalek (Deut. 25:17) has metamorphosed into the post Holocaust rallying cry, "Never again," a command to remember the victims, the consequences of apathy and unchecked evil, and beyond that, to preserve historical memory itself.
It is said that every Jew, past present and future, stood at Sinai. Well, every Jew stood, metaphorically, in those gas chambers as well, and it didn't matter whether you were male or female, traditional, liberal or secular, born Jewish, converted to Judaism or married to a Jew - or even merely the grandchild of a Jew.  For Jews, the Holocaust has given us a common point of departure, a place where we were all present, even if we weren't.  Jewish unity, to the degree that it can be reestablished at all, is attainable only in the context of that shared experience, and the affirmation that Auschwitz must never happen again.
The Torah of Auschwitz calls on Jews to strive to repair the world, as we've been called to do since Sinai, but now our moral voice has been amplified ten times over. When Jews invoke Auschwitz, the world listens-because we were there. Many hate us for that, especially if they fetishize fascism. Others admire us. But everyone listens. 
And now, as we rise from seven decades of grievingwe are hearing the initial, tentative strains of sorrow transitioning to song.

See the bottom of this email for more about the book....

The (Jewish) Academy Awards

As we prepare for the Oscars... some interesting reading for this week:

"Jojo Rabbit," although set in the past, puts forward a political idea in the present tense. The film is being marketed as "an anti-hate satire," not as "an anti-Nazi satire," and for once, advertising is truthful. The movie is not substantially about Nazi Germany but uses it as an allegory for current-day expressions and politics of hatred. In showing Jojo's family story-which includes his mildness and clumsiness, the absence of his father, and that absent father's past brutality (which is presented solely as heavy yelling, not physical abuse, because the movie has no room for any complicated emotional conflict), Waititi displays a sort of wan humanism in which Jojo's fanatical Nazism seems excusable, or at least understandable, because it responds to his own personal psychological issues." 

Do we need another Nazi movie? Do we ever need a Nazi comedy? We need this one. Waititi reels us in with the mildly subversive promise of a funny, brown, Jewish Hitler, then quietly pops us over the head with a fable on fanaticism, and how it can be redeemed. 

After a screening of "The Two Popes" in New York recently, screenwriter Anthony McCarten recalls being approached by an audience member with a surprising take on the film."He said, 'You do know this is a Jewish movie, right?'" recalls McCarten. The man went on to say, "'It's a foundational aspect of Judaism to debate scripture in such a way that you present an argument hoping to produce a better counterargument.' That delighted me - because it was not meant to be a movie about Catholicism."   
Also of note, for those looking for a way in to Jewish prayer...

Structure of the Jewish Prayer Service - Intro to Tefillah with Rabbi Wendi Geffen
Structure of the Jewish Prayer Service
Intro to Tefillah with Rabbi Wendi Geffen

Middah Yomi:  Daily Dosage of Jewish Values for 2020

This week's focal point for character building:  

Post-Holocaust "Mitzvot"
My book, "Embracing Auschwitz," discusses how Judaism is now being reinterpreted through the prism of the Holocaust.  In that spirit, here are seven of the new "mitzvot" that are discussed in the book (plus two bonus middot), one for each day of the coming week:

1) In the Torah of Auschwitz, chosenness still calls on us to strive to repair the world, as it did at Sinai; but now our moral voice has been amplified 10 times over by historical experience. When Jews invoke Auschwitz, the world listens-because we were there. Many hate us for that, especially if they idealize fascism. Others admire us. But everyone listens.

2) The Torah of Auschwitz stands, like the Jewish people itself, as a living refutation of Hitler's pathological nihilismTo remember the Holocaust without a social conscience is not to remember it at all. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, "Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must-at that moment-become the center of the universe."  

3) Choose Life! Here's where the Torah of Auschwitz veers from the Torah of Sinai's path. The Torah of Auschwitz teaches that "Choose life!" calls upon us literally to choose life in the face of death, to seek the path that will engender survival, despite any odds, and that survival itself is victory. It goes beyond simply making each moment of life as full as possible, as Psalm 90 implores: "Teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom." The Torah of Auschwitz goes beyond that, imploring us to add to life by simply continuing to live, and thereby make our survival into a statement of persistence and courage.  

4)  Never Forget (Zachor) became perhaps the rallying cry and first commandment of the Torah of Auschwitz, alongside its corollary, "Never Again." The Torah of Auschwitz emphasizes zachor not as a call to punish the villains, or simply to remember the Holocaust as a singular event. Rather it is a call to remember the victims - each individual - and not merely the victims of the Holocaust itself. Our task is to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness go unheeded - from anywhere and anyone.  Further, the call to remember, zachor, is not simply a call to preserve the memory of one dark chapter in history, but to preserve historical memory, period. Never forget means to remember always that there is an authentic basis for experienced truth, that facts matter and we should be accountable to them. Finally, the commandment zachor, as filtered through the Torah of Auschwitz, has come to mean that we've got to remember and to cherish the uniqueness and sanctity of every human being, down to even the smallest shreds of their existence-every strand of hair, every shoe, every single letter of every name. Which, incidentally, is why Nazis hate Jews-then and now. While Nazis have always been more about numbers, Jews have always been more about names. Indeed, the second book of the Torah is called "Shmot," "names."  

5) The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to eradicate boundaries. We have entered a world of connection rather than separation and distinction. We are moving, in a sense from Kosher to Kesher. These nearly identical Hebrew words signify the old ways and the new. The laws of keeping Kosher are, like the rest of the Sinai laws of holiness, built on distinction, on drawing lines of separation. Kesher, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for connection, calling on us to dissolve distinctions, to unify humanity as never before. The Torah of Sinai says, "God is One," referring to that ineffable name proclaimed only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur Day, as he hoped for the expiation of Israel's sin. And the Torah of Auschwitz responds, "Humanity is One," with that word being the final, ineffable cry of battered bodies and intertwined souls;and still we await the expiation of God's sin.

6) The Torah of Auschwitz states, "Love the stranger, because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who is hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who is loved -by someone who was a stranger to you." And it says, "Don't merely love your neighbor as yourself, cultivate kindness in yourself and accept grace from others. Love your neighbor, because you have been loved by your neighbor. And through that love, your faith in humankind has been restored.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Those words of Martin Luther King capture perfectly the essence of the Torah of Auschwitz.

7) The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to continue our unrelenting questioning and not to give up on God so easily, whether or not God has given up on usIn the Torah of Auschwitz, the path back to God is littered with shattered dreams, flavored with a strong sense of the absurd mixed with a pinch of wonder. We remain attuned to the possibility of an orderly universe, despite all that we have witnessed.  The Torah of Auschwitz sees art as a path toward a restoration of the Sacred, as we join Betzalel in continuing to defy the darkness by designing sanctuaries, making music, writing poetry and dancing.

8) (BONUS MIDDAH) The realm of ethics must be a major component of the Torah of Auschwitz. While moral dilemmas are hardly new and predate the Holocaust by many centuries, since Auschwitz we've entered a brave new world of complex choices. The ethical tenets of the Torah of Sinai, highlighted by the Golden Rule, need now to be retrofitted to reflect the impossible, "Sophie's Choice" scenarios described by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, the partisans, the Sonderkommandos, those who gave up their children, and those who ran away from their elderly parents to save themselves. Even the actions of the notorious Judenrat, who betrayed their fellow Jews hoping simply to survive, only to find themselves meeting the same fate, deserve to be addressed from an ethical standpoint. Primo Levi spoke of the Holocaust yielding a complex set of ethical dilemmas that he called the "Gray Zone," because rarely are the solutions black and white. So many of the Torah of Sinai's fundamental moral laws have taken on added meaning in the Torah of Auschwitz. Take the fifth commandment, for example. Honoring parents was difficult enough before people had to decide whether to abandon them to the advancing SS when it was possible to survive by escaping to the forests with the partisans. In the Torah of Auschwitz, some bedrock moral certainties have traded in their exclamation points for question marks, while others have gained prominence in the pecking order of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

9) (ANOTHER BONUS MIDDAH) Now, just as the concept of objective truth has been once again been placed under attack by a new generation of Nazis and Nazi-enablers, the Torah of Auschwitz is riding to the rescue: Holocaust denial is the canary in the coal mine of Orwellian doublethink, the mother of all fake news, in that it not only defies all standards of empirical science and rejects meticulously documented history, which any act of historical denial might do, but in this case, doing so also attempts to whitewash the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated.  The Torah of Auschwitz makes clear that the commandment to remember the Holocaust is about keeping alive the essence of all objective truth and the pursuit of fact-based truth as a fundamental value. The Book of Exodus states that when the Israelites received the Torah they said "Na'a'seh v'nishma," often translated as, "We will obediently act and then we will understand." But the word "na'a'seh" connotes active inquiry, not blind obedience.  In our age of bots, fake news and permissive, unregulated social media, the Torah of Auschwitz reframes this verse to be better understood as, "We will grapple with each word to assess its validity, and then we will understand."

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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