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, January 27, 2022
In This Moment, January 27: Snow in Jerusalem; Holocaust Remembrance Day; People Love Dead Jews - and Canaries; the Totalitarian Olympics
Sarah Darer Littman's talk at Friday night services on Colleyville and her new book, "Some Kind of Hate." The talk can be found during the last half of the video, which also includes the service. Click here for Sarah's website.
A lively discussion at Tuesday's "New Jewish Canon" class addressed key questions revolving around the Holocaust and memory, exploring the works of Deborah Lipstadt,Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Of particular interest was how to preserve memory at a time when the survivors are aging, and what is it exactly that we are going to preserve. We found Levi's concept of "gray zones" particularly relevant given the recent suggestion that Anne Frank was betrayed by a fellow Jew.
For next Tuesday's New Jewish Canon class, we'll be looking at Israel and the Palestinians:
Sylvie Rosenberg's Bat Mitzvah last Shabbat morning.
Shabbat slalom is an appropriate greeting for a week heralding the Winter Olympics and a day when Jerusalem was turned into a winter wonderland. Whether or not we are are significantly snowed under this Shabbat is not yet known, but this week's services are still exclusively on Zoom, so not to worry. At Friday night's service, we'll focus on the issue of immigration and what we can do within our own community.
Snow in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 27, 2022 Nati Shohat/Flash90
This weekseven American Jewish organizations, including the ADL and Reform and Conservative movements released an open letter calling on Israel’s top leaders to take “unequivocal action” to stop ongoing political violence committed by Jewish Israelis in the West Bank against Palestinians, Israeli civilians, and IDF soldiers.” The letter, which does not use the word “settler” and instead uses the term "extremist," so as not to connect all settlers to these actions, noted the damage done by such incidents to Israel’s “ image and relations with the United States government, American people, and American Jewry” as well as to Israel’s status as a democracy.
The Surprising History of Vegetarianism (Ha'aretz) “Even many champions of animal rights believe that human life is more valuable or important than animal life. While I myself do not think that human beings are more important or valuable than animals, I think it possible that our lives are more important to us than their lives are to them. That is one of two views, between which I am ambivalent,” explains Professor Christine Korsgaard from Harvard University, one of the most respected moral philosophers in human/animal relations. “The other view, opposed to that one, is that when you take life away from any creature, you basically take away everything that matters to that creature, and one creature’s ‘everything’ cannot be more than another creature’s ‘everything.’”
AP Photo of Jerusalem this morning: Mahmoud Illean
The Totalitarian Olympics
Tank Man & Ex. 23:2 vs the Super Empowered State
The Olympics begin next week, and this year this Olympiad hardly promises to bring us the typical respite from international strife, which the games traditionally have done, going back to ancient Greece. The fact that the host nation has rounded up a million people and resettled them in camps has to strike at the conscience of every Jew, especially on a week when we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's also the 80th anniversary of the infamous Wannsee Conference, which coordinated the Final Solution. Though implementation of the genocide had already begun, Wannsee has become an important symbol, a watershed in Holocaust, and human, history.
What I'd love to see is this. NBC, send your best to Beijing. Bring Brian Williams out of mothballs. Lure Bob Costas back. Summon Chet Huntley from the dead. Whatever. Then go find Tank Man and interview him. You know who I mean: the guy from the Tiananmen Square photo. Find him. Every day, lead off your coverage with a story about him, or about the other heroes who have stood tall against the masses, who have stood up to the insurmountable pressures of a heartless totalitarian regime. In June of 2021, Microsoft removed 'Tank Man' images on Tiananmen Square's anniversary.Now's you chance to atone, NBC, even though you and Microsoft split several years ago. We know little about Tank Man, though some have tried to identify him. But not to worry. We do know other heroes. Here's a list. You can start with that, NBC. Here are the first ten names:
I don't envy you, NBC and IOC. You know, maybe it's time to stop rewarding dictatorships with these sacred games. The recent record is not good. Putin ruined Sochi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while making mockery of doping rules, and then celebrated the Games' conclusion by invading Crimea. Some suggest that's precisely what he'll do to Ukraine as soon as the China Olympics are finished. If it's too expensive for democracies to pull off the Games, the idea of permanent sites makes a lot of sense, from the perspective of sustainability alone, along with compelling economic and geo-political reasons. Perhaps if NBC were to stand up for the little guy, the Tank Man, over the super-empowered state, just this once, it might shake the system just enough to bring about change.
But none of this will happen, for a whole host of reasons, including the battering America's self image has taken with regards to its own treatment of the "stranger," but it comes down mostly to inertia. No one wants to make waves. No one wants to stand up to the crowd, to fight an overwhelmingly powerful opponent when the odds of success are not great. No one wants to ruin the party and go against the majority.
Which brings me to this week's portion of Mishpatim, which speaks both of the need to love the stranger and to stand up to the empowered behemoth called by the rulers the majority, but really an instrument of autocracy - and to have the kind of courage that Tank Man demonstrated more powerfully than just about anyone else has ever done.
Dara Horn's thought-provoking new book,People Love Dead Jewshas been much discussed. But one point she makes is worth questioning – that we should stop claiming that anti-Semitism is the “canary in the coal mine” of hate, the idea that when acts of animosity start with the Jews, they invariably escalate and spread to other groups.
How degrading it is to yourself to make that argument, the whole “first they came for the Jews” idea. You’re forced to erase and denigrate yourself in order to gain some kind of public empathy. Because then what you’re saying is that we should all care when Jews are murdered and maimed because, you know, it might be an ominous sign that real people might later get attacked.
Her point has validity. Why should hatred against Jews be condemned only because it portends other, supposedly more evil hatreds? Why should subsequent attacks on other groups be seen as an escalation? All hate is created equal. All hate is, or should be, equally vile - and it's troubling that after the Colleyville synagogue attack, many people didn't act that way. At first, the FBI even denied that the Jewish community was even specifically targeted. The FBI director later cleaned that up.
Dara Horn's point, however, remains valid. I will grant that.
But there is another aspect of the canary-in-coal mine analogy that is quite valid. The dead canary is not warning us about the escalation of hate, but the degradation of truth.
See what Deborah Lipstadt wrote in 1993 in her seminal book, Denying the Holocaust, a work discussed in this week's "New Jewish Canon" course:
Those who care not just about Jewish history or the history of the Holocaust but about truth in all its forms, must function as canaries in the mine ones did, to guard against the spread of noxious fumes. We must vehemently stand watch against an increasingly nimble enemy. But unlike the canary we must not sit silently by waiting to expire so that others will be warned of the danger. When we witness assaults on the truth, a response must be strong, though neither polemical nor emotional. We must educate the broader public and academe about this thread and historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are.
This week is the fifth anniversary of the 2017 International Holocaust Day proclamation thatleft out any mention of Jews, an enormous error by the new administration, and one that emboldened White Supremacists. My guess is that it was inadvertent, a result of the incompetence and confusion that marked those first weeks (and beyond) in the Trump White House. But of course, the last thing Press Secretary Sean Spicer could do was to admit an error and clean it up, and the denial of the uniquely Jewish nature of the Holocaust is perhaps the most egregious form of Holocaust denial.
Holocaust denial is the canary in the coal mine of Orwellian doublethink, the mother of all fake news, and that not only does it defined all standards of empirical science and reject meticulously documented history, which any active historical denial might do, but in this case, doing so also attempts to whitewash the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated. There is, and there never has been, a greater, more bald-faced lie than the denial of the holocaust. That fact alone warranted an official immediate White House retraction.
And so, Dara Horn, I respect what you are saying. Jewish deaths should not be seen as noteworthy only because they portend threats against other groups. They are not the appetizer to the real meal. "First they came for the Jews..." (actually, in the famous quote, it was the socialists) should not be the reason people stand up for the Jews. They may or may not eventually come for you, but you should defend Jews because anti-Semitism is evil, not because of the canary's warning. And we should fight hate wherever it is found.
But Holocaust denial is a special form of evil - it is an attack on truth itself, and one that can lead to other attacks, until truth becomes so degraded that even an armed insurrection in broad daylight and a free and fair election can be questioned. No lie is more malignant than Holocaust denial.
If the veracity of Auschwitz is allowed to be defiled by denial, no truth is safe.
Finally, here's an Olympian challenge for this Shabbat morning...