Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, November 11, 2021
In This Moment: November 12: Veteran's Day, Make January 6 a Fast Day, Adult B'nai Mitzvah
In This Moment
Our adult b'nai mitzvah class at last night's dress rehearsal.
Thank you to Carol Battin for taking the photo. See another pic at bottom
We pay tribute to our veterans today, knowing just how hard it is to preserve our nation's highest ideals, and how much has been sacrificed. When I was in Washington a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, a small gem on a leafy side street not far from Dupont Circle. It's worth a quick visit. There is a hall of heroes, commemorating American Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor. At our online minyan this afternoon, which featured several families of vets, we had a fascinating discussion about the meaning of these (and other) medals, and why there are so few Medal of Honor recipients. Read some of the stories of heroism:
This Shabbat marks the culmination, at long last, of a long odyssey embarked upon by twenty people - which will now be completed by the nine individuals you see in the photo above. Join us on Shabbat morning in celebration of our nine adult b'nai mitzvah. Their journey has taken exactly three years, three Torah portions (actually four, because one was a double portion), from Behar-Bechokotai to Hukkat to Vayetze, where they landed and from where they will take off on Shabbat. Their individual journeys are just as interesting (and heroic) as their collective one. Read their stories, along with poetry and Torah commentaries, in the lovely B'nai Mitzvah booklet. It has been a privilege to work with them.
Next Thursday, we'll be honored to host (on Zoom), Israel's new Consul General to New England (which includes us), Ambassador Meron Reuben. Join us at 7:30 and send me any questions you might want asked. Click here for registration information.
The New York Times Magazine ran a major story last weekend on "The Unraveling of American Zionism." It spoke of how and why American Jews, particularly younger ones, have become distanced from Israel over the past decade. Since it was so widely read, I'd like to discuss it during my "Jewish Canon" class this coming Tuesday at 7. See the syllabus for other readings - we are on session five.
The 37-page report was based on interviews with 170 individuals, including current and former staff, students and faculty, and it paints a picture of a school — spread across four campuses stretching from Jerusalem to Los Angeles — that tolerated a range of inappropriate behavior toward students who were not white and male.
“Women (and some gay men) commented that straight men received favored treatment and that an old boys’ club mentality permeated all four campuses,” the report states.
“There was a tacit understanding that ‘success’ looked like a married 29 year-old straight male rabbi who was handsome, bearded, and married to a wife who was pregnant or holding a toddler — or both.”
Female students reported being told alternately to dress in more masculine and more feminine ways, and to gain and lose weight, while their male counterparts were not advised on physical appearances
Read this profile of Sue Bird, one of the greatest Jewish athletes ever, who is being honored by the ADL. I love this quote:
“If you take only thing away from my story, let it be this: You don’t have to be a star athlete to be a change maker. All you need to do is speak out for what you believe in. Never let the threat of being political stop you from standing up for yourself and for others. I’m proud to be who I am. I’m proud to be Jewish. I’m proud to be gay. I’m proud to be a woman. Our identities are beautiful and need to be protected. Embrace your identity and fight to make sure it can’t be taken away from you or anyone else.”
I know Yad Vashem has commented on what I’ll call bad Holocaust analogies, whether it’s comparing vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany or comparing Israel itself to the Nazi regime. How active do you want to be in policing those misuses and in trying to protect the integrity of the Holocaust?
No, I don’t think the chairman or this venerable institution should react to every provocation or every single outrageous thing that is being said. The two examples that you mentioned are somewhat different. One is a gross distortion of the Holocaust: When you say that what Israel does have any similarity to the Holocaust, you are distorting the nature of the Holocaust. The other example is trivialization of the Holocaust. We are definitely determined to fight both, trivialization and distortion, but that doesn’t mean we have to publish a press release on every single provocation that someone does.
I must tell you that, today, Holocaust denial is not the real problem. It was during the ’80s and the ’90s. In social media you can find anything, but no world leader, no serious person in politics or arts or journalism will deny that the Holocaust happened. But we do have a serious issue of distortion and trivialization. The Holocaust distortion that we are seeing these days is very well funded and organized and is done or backed by governments. A myriad of European governments are saying, “Of course, the Holocaust happened, but my country was innocent.” Well, that is also a distortion. Basically all countries in Europe had their collaborators, sometimes large numbers, sometimes smaller numbers, sometimes the government itself. I was in Ukraine to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Babi Yar last month, and I had the opportunity to open an academic conference. And I said that we welcome, for instance, Ukraine to the family of democratic nations, and we welcome the fact that Ukraine today acknowledged that the victims were Jews, but there are many European countries — Ukraine and Poland, but also Western European countries — that still have to acknowledge their people’s collaboration with the Nazis.
See below my op-ed discussing ways to commemorate the January 6 Insurrection. The article suggests that we might go the way of Jewish commemorations of past tragedies by declaring a Fast Day. The article was originally syndicated by the Religion News Service and has been published by, among others, The Washington Post (See it in the Postand see it on the RNS website).
(RNS) — With the first anniversary of the Capitol insurrection less than two months away, it is not too soon to begin figuring out how it will be commemorated. I believe it should become the American Fast Day.
Gather the elders — all the inhabitants of the land —
In the House of the LORD your God,
And cry out to the LORD
When profound national traumas happen, they need to be ritualized so their lessons will not be forgotten. Painful memories need to be channeled into constructive actions, with a focus on symbolism and sacrifice. Cemetery visits on Memorial Day or name recitations on Sept. 11 enable us to re-experience, annually, the pain of shared loss and to retell the sacred history.
For years to come, the war of the narratives regarding Jan. 6 will be fought in the courtroom and classroom — but right now, the prime battlefield is the calendar. Ritual observances need to be established immediately, before purveyors of falsehoods seize the storyline, distorting what really happened. There is not a minute to spare.
So, why a fast day? Jews typically set aside the anniversary of a national tragedy as a time for fasting and reflection. The formula is simple. When we’ve strayed and thereby suffered, we fast, afflicting ourselves to cleanse both our body politic and our individual souls.
The most traumatic ancient event for Jews was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70. The rabbis established the ninth day of Av as the anniversary of that catastrophe, and that day (and prior three weeks) become the focus of annual grieving rituals, including refraining from meat, haircuts and weddings. This enabled the Temple’s fall to become living history for every Jew, an annual journey from sin to repentance, and from there, potentially, to redemption.
The ancient rabbis established a handful of fast days that are still observed, and many others were left on the cutting room floor. An entire Talmudic tractate is devoted to fasts, including those designed to mitigate against drought, plague and wild animals, or to commemorate the occasional political assassination.
The presumption, in establishing these fast days, is that the people had somehow drifted from the righteous path. In the case of the Second Temple, the cause was “baseless hatred” of Jews for one another. The most famous fast day of all, Yom Kippur, was a means of atonement, originally, for the sin of the golden calf and the shattering of the tablets of the covenant.
For Americans, fast days extend back to Colonial times, when fasting was practiced during planting time in the spring. Cotton Mather wrote, “We may not eat or drink so much …, on such a day, as at another time.” In 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses voted for a day of prayer and fasting to protest the Boston Port Act. Then, confronted by a crisis with France in 1799, John Adams proclaimed a fast day of “humiliation, penitence and prayer.” Abraham Lincoln declared the same in August 1861, at the start of the Civil War, and called for another fast day in 1863, expressing the fear that “the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins … ”
Fasts have fallen from favor, though the current National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May is derived from these prior observances. But there is no fast day tied to a cataclysmic event; not for Pearl Harbor, 9/11 or the Civil War.
Jan. 6 deserves one. As happened in ancient Jerusalem, America’s sacred precinct was desecrated, this time not by Romans bearing pigs, but by cretins bearing Confederate flags and feces. The Capitol was quickly washed and fixed up for the inauguration, but it was never ritually cleansed and rededicated like the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after some of its desecrations (that’s how Hanukkah came to be). And neither have we been cleansed of the stain inflicted upon our democracy. Our blemished Capitol and our sullied democracy still need that moment of cleansing and rededication.
I am not proposing a specifically religious event — fasting does not need to be religious — but faith groups should be encouraged to tailor observances to their denominational proclivities. A national interfaith commission — including secular organizations — could be set up to establish a common set of goals for these observances. They could include prayer, learning (teaching the roots of American democracy) and voting rights advocacy.
The Capitol and its history should be central to the programming; diverse groups of Americans (politically and geographically, as well as demographically) could meet there for extended dialogue on the virtues — and fragility — of our system. As with Jewish and Muslim fast days, at sundown, the mood would become more hopeful, with the day’s observances culminating in an evening musical celebration of the ideals that make American democracy so precious for the world, and so worth fighting for.
Then everyone would eat.
Of course, the Jan. 6 observance should include memorials to those who died as a result of the insurrection. Any service, colloquium, concert or advocacy event should include a recitation of the basic credo: The 2020 election was fair and conclusive, a violent coup was attempted and put down. It nearly succeeded — and the Big Lie lives on.
Writer and historian Anne Applebaum said on the morning after Jan. 6: “People are trying to say that this is not who we are. I’m afraid this is who we are now.” The doomsday cult that invaded our most sacred precinct on Jan. 6 is who we are now. But we can change that.
“This is the fast that I desire,” proclaimed Isaiah. “To unlock the fetters of wickedness and … let the oppressed go free.”
This is the fast we need to desire — and ratify as soon as possible. We can make Jan. 6 the American Fast Day, a somber celebration of what truly makes America great, so the catastrophe of last January will never be repeated.