Thursday, October 27, 2022

In This Moment: Hear Ye! Fear Ye? The Curse of Babel

In This Moment

What should be our response to the despicable action in LA over the 405?  Should we hang the banner below from an overpass of I-95?  Or would that simply call attention to the actions of haters?

Shabbat Shalom!

No one lives in this room

without confronting the whiteness of the wall

behind the poems, planks of books,

photographs of dead heroines.

Without contemplating last and late

the true nature of poetry. The drive

to connect. The dream of a common language.

Adrienne Rich, “Origins and History of Consciousness” in The Dream of a Common Language

This week we read the portion of Noah, which features the world's first failure to communicate: the Tower of Babel story. This poem expresses our yearning for better verbal interaction, especially at a time when hate filled language and political spin fill the air.

Right now, we also need to communicate through our franchise - the right to vote. Israel goes to vote on Tuesday, exactly a week before Americans do. So much will be decided over the coming days, so much is at stake. Everyone needs to vote. 

The U.S. allows dual citizens of the U.S. and Israel living in Israel to vote absentee in American elections. So they get to vote in BOTH elections.  A few years ago I argued that diaspora Jews, eligible for instant Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, should have the right to vote in Israeli elections under certain conditions. 

The other day I was searching for that article and came across it in a truly wondrous treasure trove, the National Library of IsraelIt's the Jewish people's version of the Library of Congress. On the N.L.I.'s website, available in English, you'll find millions of books, photographs, videos, recordings, posters, scholarly articles, maps, prayers and liturgical compositions. It's all there. And so was that syndicated article. You can read it here and see the N.L.I's printed version at the bottom of this email. 

Nothing has come of my proposal thus far. But it's nice to know that it has found a home at the N.L.I.,  a place where Jewish ideas are shared with no barriers of language or political bias. On some level at least, through this national library, we have undone the curse of Babel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

See These Vintage Parsha Packets for the portion of Noah

Hear Ye! Fear Ye?

Just because Kanye West is a crazy laughing stock abandoned by his clients and corporate partners (including Adidas, with its Nazi past), doesn't mean the artist formerly known as Kanye and now called Ye isn't a danger to be taken very seriously. I've heard from a number of congregants who are feeling the fear.  But Ye is not the main problem right now. Because of his social media impact, he has activated "an army of hate." We need to highlight the hate and never ignore it, but at the same time not give the desired attention to the hater.

The antisemitic banner hung over the LA freeway is infuriating. But the reaction to Ye's rants has been encouraging this week. Our outrage needs to be matched by constructive acts of partnering and healing as we unite in opposition to those who marginalize minorities.

It's small consolation, but these spasms of hate often bring out Americans' better angels. The shooting in Pittsburgh that took place four years ago today was highlighted in a moving, inspiring HBO documentary that premiered this weekListen below to Idina Menzel's new song played during the closing credits of that documentary; it hauntingly echoes Hatikva at the end, while paying tribute to the 11 victims.  

That attack outraged the country just a week before the midterms of 2018 and I believe had an impact on the vote that year. People took a step back after Pittsburgh and the simultaneous political pipe bombs and suddenly all the talk of menacing caravans from Central America disappeared, from the White House and from the media. Hate was 2018's "October Surprise." I am praying that no such acts of terror take place as the country heads feverishly toward this year's vote. But it's good to know that the better angels exist, even if they is so often drowned out.

As we strive to partner with other maligned and threatened groups, we need to remember the core Jewish message embracing an ennobling power rather than a vindictive victimhood. It's a message that I hope Israelis also recall too, as they go to the polls next week. 

As I said in my second day sermon on Rosh Hashanah:

It still goes on, this unrelenting disdain for the other, and this hate is, for lack of a better term, intersectional.  So, the guy who kills Blacks in Buffalo writes about hating the Jews. The ones who attack Latinos in El Paso and Muslims in Christchurch and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville - they hate us too. Some promote racist concepts like replacement theory and eugenics that Hitler used to target us. Some blame George Soros for so called globalism – that is a code word for antisemitism. Show me someone who demonizes Soros – and I’ll show you a Jew hater. Anyone who denies the Holocaust or even questions it. That’s antisemitism. Anyone who even hints that the Jewish people do not have the right to a state of their own – antisemitism. Some hate Jews and others act on that hatred, by aiming their weapons at us - in Jewish population hubs like Highland ParkSquirrel HillOverland ParkJersey CityWilliamsburg and Colleyville

...Judaism says that power ennobles. But only if that power is utilized to ennoble others. Power is a gift, our tradition teaches, but only if we use it wisely. And with the advent of Zionism, Jews have made the conscious choice of power and morality over victimhood and self-pity. 


To be a Jew is to ennoble the world - because we can. To feed the hungry - because we can. To assist victims who are half a world away - because we can. We may or may not be a chosen people, but we are, in the words of Michael Medved, a “choosing people.” To be Jewish is to choose the hard way – to dream up the impossible, and then to fulfill it.


We’re the ones who tackle racism and hate head on. While Christians and Muslims spent most of the Middle Ages building fences and re-drawing borders, Jews were constantly traversing them, carrying the best that every culture could offer. We traveled the world spreading a message of peace and justice, because we had to - we kept getting kicked out of every darned country.


So that’s what it means to be Jewish. And that’s why the world needs us now more than ever. 

Recommended Reading

Israel's elections: 

  • Analysis | Will Netanyahu Return? What Israel's Last-minute Election Polls Tell Us – and What They Don't (Ha'aretz) - The average of all polls in the last two weeks (Haaretz collects them, these are my calculations) shows 72 seats going to ideologically right-wing parties, a figure that includes two formally no-to-Bibi parties: Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu, and (my decision) six of National Unity’s seats, representing the right-wing Gideon Saar’s party in the last Knesset before he merged with Benny Gantz. The remaining 48 seats go to center and left parties, and to the Islamist Ra'am (which is hard to categorize) – just like in 2021. The “blocs,” of parties who support or oppose Netanyahu forming the next government reflect a nearly unwavering dead heat. But tiny trends can be important: Until the party lists were finalized in mid-September, the parties expected to support Netanyahu held a stable average of around 59 seats. Since then the average has crept steadily upward; reaching 60.3 over the last two weeks – not enough for a majority government, but indicating a rise.

Today's Hebrew Headline

(Click for expanded pdf of this front page). With five days until the elections, the strategies of Netanyahu and Lapid are explored.  Lapid needs to prop up his junior partners on the left and Bibi needs to cannibalize some votes from the extreme (racist) right wing parties.  All in the search for a bloc of 61 seats. On the bottom, a photo of the White House meeting between presidents Herzog and Biden.  Today the historic maritime agreement between Lebanon and Israel was signed.

  • Special report: We spent a year tracking antisemitism on one college campus. What we found may surprise you. (Forward) I spent the year since the Torah incident following the Jewish students at GW who are most involved in activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the arena where college conversations around antisemitism are most charged. I spoke at length with the leaders of GW for Israel, J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace, attended several of their events and spoke to club members and other students during nine visits to campus. All of these leaders acknowledged that GW has had a few clear incidents of antisemitism in recent years, including a widely circulated Snapchat video in which a female student threatened Jews. But students who support Israel also said they often anticipated hostility in the classroom or among friends that never materialized. While some reported feeling upset by floods of incendiary posts about Israel from acquaintances on social media, they also said such waves were usually fleeting. Even those who were sympathetic to the missions of national Jewish organizations said the attention they lavish on the campus can sometimes miss the mark. Too often, they said, the spotlight bends toward histrionics, obscures positive Jewish experiences or simply overwhelms the 18-to-22-year-olds as they seek to navigate the complex politics of Israel and Jewish identity while still making it to class on time. “All these organizations have their own agenda,” said Jessica Carr, 21, a senior and president of GW for Israel. “Even though we might agree with them — we’re all pro-Israel — they all have their own agenda and it’s not necessarily what’s best for GW.”

  • Should Jewish Children Trick or Treat on Halloween?   Here’s a selection of views from Moment Magazine (always a great barometer of Jewish currents). While the overwhelming sentiment here is that Halloween is harmless, non-religious and American and basically no big deal (a sentiment that I subscribe to), there are those who feel differently.

What is Diwali?

Something for Everyone...

  • Lighting lamps, victory of light over darkness...what's not to like?

Indian Jews see many similarities to Hanukkah.  

And some differences.

What South Asian Christians Do During Diwali (Christianity Today)

Various legends are associated with the origin of Diwali, an important harvest festival in the subcontinent’s ancient past that is being celebrated this week.

In northern India, the holiday commemorates the return of Prince Rama to the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya along with his wife Sita (an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi) and his younger brother Laxmana after 14 years of exile, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana.

In southern India, Diwali honors the victory of the major Hindu deity Krishna over the demon Narakasura. In the Indian state of Bengal, the goddess Kali is worshiped during the holiday.


For the Sikh community, Diwali commemorates the release of Hargobind, the sixth of ten gurus of the Sikh religion, in the 17th century after 12 years of imprisonment by Jahangir, the Mughal emperor


For the Jain community, Diwali is observed as the day when the last of their great teachers Lord Mahavira reached nirvana.

And for the Buddhist community, Diwali is celebrated as the day the Hindu emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism.

The festival begins with Dhanteras, where people purchase gold, silver, new clothes, gadgets, automobiles, and other items as a sign of good luck. They also worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, and good health, as well as Ganesha, the lord of intellect and wisdom, and Kubera, the demigod for material prosperity.

The second day is Narak Chaturdashi, also called “small Diwali.” People decorate their homes with lamps and make designs on their doorway or inside the house with colored sand, powder, rice, or flower petals called rangoli.

The third day is “big Diwali,” where devotees may visit temples. They light their homes and get together to burn fireworks at night.

The fourth day is Govardhan Puja, where people worship Krishna ,and for many this marks the new year and they exchange gifts.

The fifth and last day is Bhai Duj, which celebrates the bond between siblings.

Some of today’s cultural practices of Diwali have historical spiritual significance:

Firecrackers: When Rama returned to Ayodhya from exile, the Hindu scriptures mention the decoration and atmosphere of the festivities but there is no direct mention of firecrackers. Some historians claim the practice comes from the influence of China, where firecrackers are used to scare away evil spirits .

Clay lamps: Many Hindus believe that lighting such lamps protects against negative energies and bad spirits . In Odisha, people pay homage to their ancestors and call upon them to visit and bless them.

Rangoli: Drawing rangoli design patterns at doorways is considered sacred and believed not only to invite good luck but also to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

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