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, February 3, 2022
In This Moment: Feb. 4, 2022: Apartheid, Whoopi and B-Mitzvahs; Be Happy, it's Adar I
In This Moment
Shabbat Shalom....and Happy Adar!
Adar, our most joyous month, is also this year the month that is so nice that we are doing it twice. It is a leap year and leap month, and when Adar begins, the Talmud tells us, our joy increases. TBE congregant John Graubard has given me his secret to getting through all the challenges of life during these turbulent times. He endeavers to do three things each day: 1) learn something, 2) help someone and 3) tell a joke. So I invited him to send me his best material, and so this Friday will. be the world premiere of Jewish Joke Night featuring John's Jokes. I'll be your host and I invite the rest of you to send me your best jokes - especially Jewish ones. And keep 'em clean. Weather permitting, we'll be in person AND on Zoom; if we need to go all-Zoom, we'll be using the same link. So get those jokes to me by noon on Friday. And once again, happy Adar! Meanwhile check these jokes out... and take this quick tour of an exhibit on Jewish humor at the reopened Museum of the Jewish People (Anu) in Tel Aviv.
A Good News - Bad News Week
First the good news: Any week where the President of Israel is welcomed with open arms in an Arab country has got to be a good week. OK, so the Iranians' Houthi proxies tried to upend the visit by firing missiles at the UAE. But nothing can erase the fact that a major Arab newspaper celebrated an Israeli state visit. (Read the pdf). And according to a CNN report, "read-outs from President Herzog’s two-day trip to the UAE made no reference to any discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." In the long run, that might be the best news of the week, both for Israelis AND Palestinians.
Click here or on the NYT ad to enlarge.Note the signatories: Sharansky, Henri-Levy and the Wiesel foundation - a veritable pantheon of Jewish conscience for the past half century. And yet, our moral bonafides are constantly attacked by the world - in order, I believe, to undermine the power of our message. And that is precisely what happened this week, withthe report by Amnesty International, which Yair Lapid attacked as "delusional," (see the video on the right). Interestingly, the ad links international human rights with support for Israel, as you can see below. It's a good strategy, but only if Israel lives up to its role as the living embodiment of that Jewish message of universal peace and justice, which so many wish to undercut.
Vintage Israeli Films from the Jerusalem Cinematheque:120 years of Israeli and domestic filmmaking coming to your screen straight off the Israeli Film Archive shelves. Thousands of hours' worth of films and rare archive footage of unparalleled quality are waiting for you on the website.
The Holocaust was about race — and this is crucial — but, “race” as the Nazis defined it.
Let me say it one more time, for those of you who have not been listening. The Jews are not a race, though it was once fashionable for Jews, philosemites and antisemites to think so. Any visit to Israel would dispel that notion. Actually, you don’t need a twelve hour plane flight to learn that. Go into any synagogue, and you will see Jews of all colors and races. Come to my religious school. Look at how the students look. Jews are not a race.
Racism - or Face-ism? - In an essay I wrote just before the pandemic, I discuss how this week's portion, Terumah, discusses the tent of meeting, the Mishkan, in the Wilderness, One of the more curious features is the "cherubim," these mysterious winged angelic creatures that faced each other in front of the ark of the covenant. The text describes their face-to-face posture as "ish el achiv," "a man to his brother." Then in the following chapter, we learn about how the Mishkan structure itself is to be assembled, with planks of wood whose tenons and sockets fit together "isha el achotah," "a woman to her sister." What does it mean for us to be "face-to-face" with others? As we try to return to more in-person events, this question gains a new relevance. See more on Terumah. See this study packet on engaging face-to-face in Jewish tradition.
In U.S., women more likely than men to think about life’s big questions and to believe in fateReligion researchers often find that women around the world are more likely than men to believe in God and other religious concepts such as heaven and hell. A new Pew Research Center analysisof U.S. adults shows that women also are more likely to think about why bad things happen to people, and to believe in fate. Two-thirds of women say that in the past year, they have personally thought ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ about big questions such as the meaning of life, whether there is any purpose to suffering and why terrible things happen to people, compared with 55% of men who report the same. Women also are more likely than men to say they often feel sadness for – and a desire to help – people who are suffering. Moreover, three-quarters of women believe that everything in life happens for a reason, compared with six-in-ten men. Similarly, women are much more likely than men (51% vs. 35%) to believe in fate – that is, that the course of their lives is predetermined.
REFLECTING ON RELIGION IN OUR BRAVE NEW WORLD....
Pandemic Bar Mitzvah Reflections | JewishBoston - Having a bar mitzvah in the midst of all of this taught me how little control I have over anything. Also, I came to peace with others having to do what made sense for them and their families. I learned that I can’t judge anyone’s choices and I hope that others will, in turn, respect mine. I learned empathy in a new and profound way.
And for a contrasting view: Streaming online has been a boon for churches, a godsend for isolated:Some recent data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research suggests churches might want to keep streaming services even after returning to in-person worship. According to a study of pandemic responses by 2,700 congregations from 38 denominations, churches with a hybrid approach — with both in-person and online services — saw reported worship attendance growing by 4.5%. Churches that only met in person saw attendance decline by 15.7%, while those that only met online declined by 7.3%. “There are still an immense number of challenges for clergy going forward,” said Thumma, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University. “They can’t immediately snap back to situations and practices they thought worked. I keep telling clergy that they are going to have to remain open to change. There just isn’t any chance they can go back to the old ways.” From worship, to children and youth ministry, to community outreach — how you do any of it is up for grabs, Thumma said. “We live in a different world now.”
Faith in the metaverse: A VR quest for community, fellowship | AP News:Ranging from spiritual meditations in fantasy worlds to traditional Christian worship services with virtual sacraments in hyperrealistic, churchlike environments, their devotees say the experience offers a version of fellowship that’s just as genuine as what can be found at a brick-and-mortar temple.
A Guide for the Gender Neutral B-Mitzvah (Keshet)- We are part of a Jewish tradition that is continuously evolving. For example, the coming-of-age ritual was originally (and still is today in Orthodox communities) only for boys. The Bat Mitzvah ceremony (for girls) only became popular in the US in the 1970s! Most branches of Judaism continue to grow and adapt in order to meet the needs of contemporary Jewish communities. There is a growing needfor a gender-inclusive version of this ceremony, which is not surprising considering Judaism has a tradition of discussing gender diversity stretching back thousands of years!
The idea of using the term "B-Mitzvah" rather than the awkward "bar/bat" or the plural (but still masculine-dominant) "b'nai," has been growing among progressive synagogues. At the trendsetting Romemu in NYC, they speak of this new terminology as an invitation for the student to "B-yourself." in Hebrew "b'Mitzvah" can mean "immersed in mitzvah" or "living within mitzvah." Another leader in Jewish outreach, Moving Traditions, speaks of "an emerging understanding of gender fluidity and our respect for the need to continually refine our offerings so that all people feel seen and embraced by Jewish life."
I opened a conversation with our board this week of how we can seek ways to be more inclusive in our use of language in ritual. B-Mitzvah could be a good place to start. (See more at the bottom)
The Apartheid Thing
When people ask whether Israel is an apartheid state, the first thing we need to do is look at the definition of the word apartheid. The dictionary definition shows that the term cannot be divorced from its most renowned manifestation, the system of racist political oppression in South Africa, where the racial minority utilized discriminatory means to maintain its grip on power over the racial majority. Definition #2, which does not speak about South Africa, equates it to "separation" and "segregation," concepts so amorphous that just about every entity, from many American neighborhoods to the NFL - can be accused of it.
Amnesty International's accusation is based on a definition of apartheid where race is the primary factor. They define apartheid as a "crime against humanity, committed when any ‘inhuman’ or ‘inhumane’ act is perpetrated in the context of an ‘institutionalized regime’ of systematic ‘oppression’ and ‘domination’ by one racial group over another, with the intent to maintain that system."
So we spent the better part of this week explaining to Whoopi Goldberg how Jews were victimized by racism during the Holocaust and still are today - but here, we need to claim that there is no "systematic oppression" being perpetrated by one racial group over another, because Israelis are not a racial group. As my colleague Rabbi Jeffery Salkin wrote:
The Jews are not a race, though it was once fashionable for Jews, philosemites and antisemites to think so. Any visit to Israel would dispel that notion. Actually, you don’t need a twelve hour plane flight to learn that. Go into any synagogue, and you will see Jews of all colors and races. Come to my religious school. Look at how the students look. Jews are not a race. But, the Nazis thought that Jews constituted a race, and they applied the most sadistic version of pseudo-science to that definition.
Tragically, horrifically: they got that idea from some American thinkers, who had created their own version of race science, which considered Anglo-Saxons and Nordics to be socially superior — as in, the (now missed and lamented, by some) WASP hegemony over American social structures.
The Holocaust was about race — the Jewish race, as the Nazis defined it.
And, no, Whoopi — not all Jews are white, even visually.
Jews are victims of racism, as this 1900 cartoon clearly demonstrates, but neither Israelis nor Jews are a "race," and therefore they cannot be seeking to dominate another "race."
So the legal definition of apartheid places Israel lightyears from apartheid South Africa. The term apartheid, much like "Holocaust," is so charged and so emblematic of a specific and virulent evil perpetrated by a particular group, that when one uses it, it can only be intended to enflame, and it almost always distorts. That is what is happening when Israel is equated to mid-20th century South Africa.
How is Israel not like that South Africa? Let me count the ways. Actually, the ADL has already done the work, so check out this link: You'll see this quote from someone who wrote one of the most damning reports ever written about Israel (which he later reconsidered). "As noted by Justice Richard Goldstone – a former senior South African jurist and critic of Israeli polices: 'Those who conflate the situations in Israel and the West Bank and liken both to the old South Africa do a disservice to all who hope for justice and peace.'"
It is deceitful to level ‘apartheid’ accusations against Israel, a vibrant democracy that grants equal rights and representation to all its citizens. The very composition of the current Israeli government exhibits just such democracy and a commitment to the full inclusion of all Israeli society. The current governing coalition is the most diverse in Israel’s history and is comprised by Jewish and Arab parties, secular and religious members, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and second-generation Holocaust survivors. By contrast, the tyrannical apartheid system in South Africa enforced segregation and contributed to the dehumanization of citizens both in law and in practice. It's one thing to criticize Israel but it's quite another to attempt to knowingly mislead the world with defamatory, antisemitic language, which implicitly calls Israel a racist state and puts lives at risk. Let us not conflate the two.
Taking all this into consideration, I feel secure in saying that Amnesty International's attack on Israel at least has overtones of antisemitic intent. In choosing to hitch their wagon to 1970's UN resolutions from the "Zionism is Racism" era, when Arafat was allowed to wave his firearm from the podium and no one blinked, it exposes a mindset that does not accept the existence of a Jewish state's right to exist or to defend itself in a dangerous neighborhood, where its enemies are allowed to wave their guns from the UN rostrum and no one blinks. While Israel’s policies and practices can certainly be criticized, it is not factually accurate to say those policies and practices are akin to a permanent and institutionalized system motivated and designed by racism. That is simply not true - not remotely true.
But...still, we need to understand why this accusation resonates among so many - and although there is an element of antisemitism to it, we can't dismiss anti-Israel sentiments out-of-hand as antisemitism.
Click on this new, brief guide to antisemitism (see photo above) from T'ruah, a progressive rabbinical group to which I affiliate, and you will find that it takes on the issue of antisemitism vs. anti-Zionism clearly and directly. I don't agree with every point, but it opens up an important dialogue. I recommend that college students download it and share it with others on campus.
The whole apartheid comparison is so ludicrous that it does a disservice to those who wish to encourage Israel to take more positive steps in improving the lives of Palestinians. But just because others are using a faulty analogy to discredit the moral authority of the Jewish message, we should be chastened by the fragility of our hold on the moral high ground.
The Jewish Moral Message is our most precious legacy, our birthright. And no one has a right to squander it, least of all those who lead the Jewish state.
I'm troubled by the unfair and libelous accusations directed against Israel, but also troubled by the knee-jerk, see-no-evil defenses brought by people who should know better, who know how important to the world it is that the Jewish message maintain that moral high ground. That's why people listen to the likes of Sharansky, Wiesel and Henri-Levi when they talk about Uyghurs; they need to have credibility. There is an overwhelming moral argument for Israel's existence (and there was no such argument for South African apartheid). But if the case for Israel becomes a moral muddle, we lose the authority to make the case, as Wiesel or his disciples did, not just for Israel, but for the Uyghers and Bosnians and Rwandans and Cambodians and Syrians and Tibetans and of course, Soviet Jews; all the defenseless peoples that Wiesel and his foundation have defended. And when we doth protest too much about the supposed antisemitism of all of Israel's critics or that Israel is not South Africa, we lose sight of the valid critiques that can be made.
If the human rights groups so critical of Israel really cared about Palestinian suffering, they would dispense with the South Africa analogy. Apartheid is more red herring than the holy grail of negative branding that they think it is. It enables all of Israel's supporters to become justifiably indignant, as I did, and it distracts from the real issues at hand, some of which are being addressed, even if ever so slightly, by the new government.An Arab minister in the government is reaping huge dividends for his people - even NPR agrees. President Herzog has been flying all over the Middle East (just today it was announced that he will visit Turkey in March), and Defense Minister Benny Ganz was in Bahrain just yesterday.
Amnesty International's accusations are a much bigger deal than, say, Ben and Jerry's political flavor of the month. Which is why some have suggested that the Israeli government's response (see Lapid video) should focus less on terminology and more on taking concrete actions to improve how the Jewish state is perceived - by addressing the issues of fairness, equality and justice. To do that, Israel's supporters have to stop putting our heads in the sand and pretending this will just go away. We should read the Amnesty report, and B'tzelem's too. I did. I did not turn to stone. I still support Israel as much as I ever have.
And I am concerned. When a recent Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI) poll showed that nearly half of American Jews believe Israel is or was committing apartheid, this is an indication of how much the propaganda has worked. But to what end? If the goal is to encourage a two-state solution, there are lots of other avenues to take. Clearly it's not. Heck, human rights groups could have encouraged the Palestinians to take the deals that were on the table in 2000, 2008 and yes, even the 2020 Abraham Accords. Accepting those offers would have applied enormous pressure on Israel to make added concessions. The Palestinians would be a lot better off today. But as Abba Eban famously said, they consistently refused to take "yes" for an answer. Israel was willing to accept a non-contiguous, horribly gerrymandered, partitioned state in 1947. Would that the Palestinians have taken these much better deals... They had free elections in the mid 2000's. If only they and their friends had safeguarded their budding democracy.
Israel is going to make mistakes, and some of them are doozys. We can criticize many of those without being slandered as antisemites. The same is true of America, which has made even bigger mistakes. Martin Luther King said in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that there can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Let's maintain our balance and always do what the Psalm 34 says is the task of the one who pursues a life of goodness:
Guard your tongue from evil,
your lips from deceitful speech.
Shun evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it.
Seeking peace is the goal. Winning a propaganda war won't won't get you there. Seek peace and pursue it. Amnesty International, take note.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
See below a guide to becoming more inclusive in our use of gender language in prayer, created by Keshet. i present it in the hopes of initiating a conversation on how we can be extend our mission of inclusivity and acceptance.