Thursday, January 2, 2020

Shabbat-O-Gram: Middah Yomi, No Hate, No Fear

Shabbat Shalom and Happy 2020!

This past week's attacks on Jews in the New York area, culminating in the attack in Monsey, continue to trouble us as we enter the secular new year. As disheartening as these attacks and other hate crimes have been, in each case the result has been a strengthening of interfaith ties and communal connections among the persecuted groups.  It's remarkable, actually, to see how people have rushed to the defense of their neighbors. TBE will be hosting a community-wide vigil, organized by the UJF and Interfaith Council, on Sunday at 7 PM. We come together knowing that an attack on one Jew, whatever their denomination or background, is an attack on all Jews, and that any act of violence driven by hate is an affront to us all.  

Join us also for services this Shabbat.  Beth Styles will be joining me on Friday night, as well as at our Shabbat-in-the-Round on Shabbat morning, beginning with breakfast at 9:30 - and don't forget our two children's services on Shabbat morning as well.

No Hate.  No Fear. Perspectives on Anti-Semitism

I attended a special state-wide meeting of Jewish leaders and political reps today, convened by Senator Blumenthal (who is joined in the photo by UJF CEO Diane Sloyer and UJF President David Gordon) and attended by Senator Murphy and other notables. It was impressive how much our state is doing, on a bi-partisan basis, and how quickly we have mobilized to fight anti-Semitism and hate crimes.  But there's a lot of work ahead of us.  See the ADL's new online anti-Semtisim tracker and its interactive H.E.A.T  map tracking 6,768 incidentof extremism or anti-Semitism in the United States in 2018-2019.

For some historical perspective on the current spate of anti-Semitic attacks, Jonathan Sarna, the go-to expert on American Jewish history, argues in an op-ed in the Times of Israel that historically, "hate-mongers and conspiracy theorists have repeatedly targeted out-groups during times of intense social and cultural stress in the United States." 

He adds that three major groups of Americans targeted Jews in the late 19th century: agrarian rebels caught up in the Populist movement, patrician intellectuals in the East, and the urban poor of bustling cities. "Manifest differences distinguished these Kansas farmers, Cambridge intellectuals, and Manhattan day laborers from one another, but all looked upon the Jew as the cause of their misfortune. Once again, anti-Semitism reveals much more about American society's fears and forebodings than it does about Jews."

Unsure times bring out the worst in people.  Those who foster those fears to stoke division and hate are playing with fire - and we are all-too-often the first to feel the full force of that fury.  That's why our prime task remains to douse those flames with love, by seeking common cause with our neighbors.  Which is why Sunday's vigil here is so important.

No less important than the "No Hate" part, though, is "No Fear." In her recent article in Atlantic,  Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt worries that all of these attacks will lead Jews to "go underground," to avoid being seen in Jewish places, or wearing identifiable markers of Jewishness.  This week, one of our TBE graduate students was visiting and she told me that on campus she doesn't wear her Jewish star, something that she had proudly worn for a long time.  So this is not just about those who wear kippot, tzitzis or furry hats.  This is about all of us.

LIpstadt recalls how when she was in Berlin looking for a certain synagogue, she was told to look for the guys walking with baseball caps (rather than showing their kippot in public) and follow them.  Sure enough, they led her to the synagogue.  She adds:

When Jews feel it is safer for them to go "underground" as Jews, something is terribly wrong-wrong for them and, even more so, wrong for the society in which they live. Jews have taken and are taking anti-Semitism very seriously. Non-Jews must do the same. You must do so, not solely for the sake of the well-being of your Jewish neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. (Though that would be laudable.) You must do so for the sake of the well-being of the societies in which you live. No healthy democracy can afford to tolerate anti-Semitism in its midst. It is one of the long-term signs of rot in that democracy. If you care about democracy, you should care about the Jews among you, and the anti-Semites too.
So we need both to turn the hate into love and ensure that Jews, young and old alike, will have no cause for fear.

Join us on Sunday!

Middah Yomi: 
A Daily Dosage of Jewish Values for 2020

Times of Israel photo

You may have seen how this week marked what has become a very big deal in the Jewish world. 90,000 showed up at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the completion of an important cycle.  Daf Yomi (Hebrew: דפ יומי, "page of the day") is a daily regimen of learning Talmud. All 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud are covered in sequence, in a cycle of seven and a half years. The 13th cycle ended yesterday and the 14th Daf Yomi cycle starts on January 5.  If you want to pursue this daily dose of Talmud, a number of apps and websites are out there that can guide you. Click here and you can sign up for the daily page of Talmud email from MyJewishLearning.

Talmud study can be both surprisingly relevant and frustratingly esoteric. Almost every page requires struggle to grasp the meaning - or more accurately, many shadings of meaning.  

So while I highly recommend Daf Yomi, I'd like to present an alternative for 2020.  According to a disconcerting report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based, government-funded NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, freedom took a giant step backward around the world last year.  The report states:

"Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat."  See the nation by nation update.

Freedom of the World Index 

Digging into the report, Axios notes that countries like Indonesia, Hungary and Mali that were considered "free" in 2009 are now "partly free," while the likes of Nicaragua, Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela have joined the ranks of the "not free."  Internet freedom is in decline around the world as governments increasingly use social media to monitor their citizens and spread disinformation. Countries from India to Iran to Zimbabwe shut down the internet this year to combat protests.

Press freedom is also under threat, with Hungary, Serbia, Israel and India singled out for worrying steps.

Yes, Israel.  The report notes that in Israel"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly excoriated investigative reporters and now faces corruption charges for allegedly offering regulatory favors ... in exchange for positive coverage."  As you may have seen, this week Netanyahu asked for temporary immunity from the corruption indictments and it remains to be seen whether that will be granted by the Knesset, as well as whether the Supreme Court will allow an indicted candidate to form a government after Israel's March elections.  But it is the undermining of the free press that lies at the heart of at least two of the indictments.  

Incidentally, I wouldn't worry too much about press freedom surviving in Israel - its media is one of the most vibrant and robust around.  But freedom of the press can be fragile - just look at Hungary, the subject of intense scrutiny by Freedom House, which noted the "great success" PM Orban's government has had at snuffing out critical journalism.

The report also calls out India, where the ruling BJP has attempted to "discourage speech that is 'antinational,' and government-aligned thugs have raided critical journalists' homes and offices." And the US does not get off scot-free for our president's public stance on the press, which, the report states, "has had a tangible impact on the global landscape."  When press freedom has declined in 1 in 5 countries, as the report demonstrates, we need to be concerned about how our own leaders protect our precious first amendment rights.

It should be noted that the news isn't all bad.  There's Ivory Coast (now "partly free") and Senegal (now "free"), while Tunisia has climbed farthest ("not free" to "free") as the lone democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.  Several countries have recently shown positive steps toward increased freedom, including Armenia, Malaysia, Ethiopia and Ecuador. 

So what can we do about all this?  Clearly it is in the interest of every American that we fight these anti-democratic trends - and it is within the power of every Jew to stand up for the values that have been at our foundation since Sinai, the very values that shine from many pages of the very Talmud that is being celebrated this week.

For 2020, I'd like to share Daf-Yomi style quotes from Jewish sources, including both ancient and recent thinkers, who can inspire us to defend our precious freedoms and build a better world.  But rather than flood your inboxes with them daily, which can get messy (what happens on Shabbat?), I'm going to share a week's worth in each Shabbat-O-Gram.  We can call it "Middah Yomi" a daily dose of Jewish values. See a chart of middot here - you might recall that cultivating middot was a a central thrust of my book, Mensch-Marks.  

Given the deep concerns expressed by Freedom House for the future of our world (concerns I very openly share), I think it would be productive this year to focus on how Jewish sources can be most relevant to our current needs, how we can preserve our precious freedoms and fight totalitarianism around the world. 

For this week, we focus on the middah of truthfulness and how dangerous it would be for us to live in a "post truth" world.

And to serve that end, I can think of no better person to begin with than Hannah Arendta modern day prophet who gave moral context to the trial of the 20th century. (Here is the original New Yorker essay that she wrote on the Eichmann trial, printed in Feb. 1963)

Below you'll find one quote for each day of this coming week, and an extra one for good measure.  We can call this "Tractate Hannah" of our contemporary Talmud. Read the quote, then focus on its meaning and relevance to our current world.  

In 2020, let's resolve to begin each day reflecting on a deeply relevant Jewish value - and how it  (and we) can help repair the world.

Middah Yomi: Tractate Hannah Arendt

1)  "Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it." 
- Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism)

2) "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist." 
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
3) "One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive." 
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
4) "True goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion, but organization of the polity. ... What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part." 
Hannah Arendt , The Origins of Totalitarianism

5) "Men have been found to resist the most powerful monarchs and to refuse to bow down before them, but few indeed have been found to resist the crowd, to stand up alone before misguided masses, to face their implacable frenzy without weapons and with folded arms (see photo below) to dare a no when a yes is demanded. Such a man was Zola!"
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

6) "In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." 
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
7) "Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty." 
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

8) "There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is a dangerous activity." Hannah Arendt
Shabbat Shalom  
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

No comments: