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 2, 2023
In This Moment: Is the billion dollar "He Gets Us" Super Bowl ad campaign hoping to get US? The "You People" controversy; Groundhog Day - A Jewish Holiday? Tu B'Shevat
Sunrise in Nepal, photo taken by me on New Year's Day, 2018
For those who might be wondering if there is a Jewish connection to Groundhog Day...but of course. There's a Jewish connection to everything! Not that we are afraid to see our shadows -- I'm thinking of the other "Groundhog Day." The movie.
The Jewish response to Groundhog Day can be seen in a single verse from the prayer book, one recited each morning just before the Sh'ma, in the Yotzer (Creation) section of the service: "Ha-mechadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom tamid ma'ase b'reisheet." In the midst of thanking God for the gift of light, we also express gratitude to the One who "renews each day completely the work of Creation."
What is that saying? Not that we awaken each day to the same old nightmare, as Bill Murray did in the movie and we've done for the past three Covid years. How many times did you wake up and say, "Is this still happening?" Jewish tradition takes precisely the opposite approach. Every day presents us with a fresh start, as if all of Creation is being renewed along with us. With that fresh start comes a second chance, and a third chance too. We can keep trying until we get it right. And if we get it wrong again, as invariably we will, well, there's always tomorrow. The alarm rings and we make a go of it once again, A Jewish groundhog might indeed return to the hole if it sees a shadow. But it will be right back out there the next day, hoping the world will be a little bit better. And, as the Israeli song states, "V'im lo machar az machartayim," "And if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow."
Israeli song "Machar"
Harold Ramis, director of the film "Groundhog Day" (he also had a bit part), once compared his filmto the Torah...sort of. He said, “One reason Jews respond to the idea is that the Torah is read every year — you start at the same place on the same day.” he said. “The Torah doesn’t change, but every year we read it we are different. Our lives have changed … and you find new meaning in it as we change.”
He laughed. “I’m not comparing ‘Groundhog Day’ to the Torah ... but there’s something in it that allows people every time they see it to reconsider where they are in life and question their own habitual behaviors.”
So Hag Samayach! And let's hope the groundhog sticks around for a while, to see the sun rise yet again, dawning on a new day.
Once again we are participating in HIAS's annual Refugee Shabbat this Shabbat, along with 800 other communities and individuals from more than 100 cities worldwide, who have registered their participation. As HIAS describes it:
"Refugee Shabbat is a moment for congregations, organizations, and individuals in the United States and around the world to dedicate a Shabbat experience to refugees and asylum seekers. The fastest-growing European refugee crisis since World War II is still ongoing. People seeking asylum are being turned away at borders around the world. And this year, for the first time ever, the total number of displaced persons globally is over 100 million. This is a critical moment for all of us to reaffirm and redouble our support for refugees and asylum seekers."
So join us Friday night as we mark this important event.
And join us tonight (Thursday) at 6:30, for another of our Jewish-Christian Bible conversations, this one on Psalms and in particular, Psalm 22, which contains the famous verse echoed by Jesus, "My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?" Find out why Jews associate this psalm not with Jesus, but with Queen Esther. Click here for the reading, here for the Zoom link and click here to watch a video of last week's session, on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
And speaking of interfaith conversations....
If "He Gets Us"...
Does he get how offensive his billion dollar ad campaign is?
Get ready for a Super Bowl Jesus Blitz that just might put the December Dilemma to shame. The "He Gets Us" ads have been around for several months now, and on the surface, a little proselytizing is expected and inoffensive. It comes with the territory of being an evangelizing religion. I've always felt Judaism can hold is own quite nicely in the marketplace of religious ideas. But we can never forget that proselytizing has most often - and most vociferously - been directed toward Jews, and that the pitch has typically been cleverly cloaked in the language of inclusiveness and love. This campaign is no exception.
What's different is the scope.
The "He Gets Us" campaign looks to spend a billion dollars to reach the broadest possible swath of Americans. TheGreatest Story Ever Told meets TheGreatest Ad-Buy Ever Sold. Two Jesus ads will be shown during the Super Bowl, which means that the Good News will officially be in-our-face. Jason Vanderground, a spokesperson for the campaign, stated in an interview on CNN, "We are trying to unify the American people around the confounding love and forgiveness of Jesus."
No offense to Jesus, or to campaign sponsors like the Servant Foundation, but on Super Bowl Sunday, I'd rather be unified under the flings and dashes of Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts. I would think that a truly "confounding love" would include respecting the views of those who choose not to accept your truths.
Unity is admirable and needed. That's what the Super Bowl, at its best, accomplishes, with a hundred million Americans watching the same thing at the same time. But as a recent Pew survey demonstrates,unity under a Christian banner is a fleeting dream.America's Christian majority is in steep decline. If the sponsors are looking to recapture lapsed Christians, there are a number of places they can look where Jews may not be as prevalent (I'll resist the temptation to list them). But no, if you look at the content of the ads, the prey here is not exclusively lapsed or young Christians, but all progressives, among whom are the approximately three quarters of America's Jews who voted on the progressive side of the spectrum in 2020. Just look at the ads themselves, and see the hashtagged topics featured on the campaign's home page:
The hashtags could not be more baldly geared toward piquing the interest of progressives, and in particular, Jews. I half expected the next hashtags to be #Wokiest, #Vegan-but-can't-resist-lox and #taking-a-knee-during-the-national-anthem. I have no proof that those designing this campaign are specifically targeting Jews, but I also have no proof that they aren't - and the evidence of historical precedent is overwhelming. Do we need to remind the sponsors about #Crusades, #Inquisition, #Supercessionism (the original "Great Replacement" theory) and #Forced Conversion? It's a sensitive topic for us.
This pandering is insulting not only because it is so obvious, but also because there are many seriously committed Christians who also happen to be progressive. Presumably, most of them have sufficient respect for the Other to resist the urge to show their Jewish friends the Way of the Lord. I have many cherished Christian colleagues who are deeply loyal to their faith, and not has shown interest in trying to "complete" me. And most, by the way, are not impressed by "He Gets Us" campaign.
So we must understand that those behind this campaign are not looking for real unity based on tolerance and mutual respect. A "unity" that excludes over a third of the country is not unity. A "unity" that threatens an already jittery minority at a very precarious time is not unity.
It's more like the old Beatles' lyric, "Come together, right now...over me." Yes we want everyone to join together, but only under our banner, on our terms. Whatever happened to #Pluralism?
Hey, we get it. Jews have also prayed for a come-together-over-me distortion of unity. But that's the key. We prayed, in the privacy of our own synagogues, that people would ultimately come around to believing in the One God. We don't buy Super Bowl ads that dredge up old nightmares of Torquemada. Notably, the medieval prayer that promoted this chauvinistic, false "unity," Alenu, which trumpeted God's ultimate defeat of those who “bow to vanity and emptiness,” was softened considerably in subsequent versions.
I would perhaps not be as perturbed about the campaign if an act of vandalism hadn't recently desecrated a Jewish-sponsored billboard campaign attempting to spread our message. The goal was not to evangelize, but simply to bring people together to combat hate. (Photo appeared in the NY Daily News)
What would Jesus say about that, or about the synagogue in New Jersey that was firebombed last week? Maybe his marketers could add the hashtag #endantisemitism-homophobia-and-racism to the home page. I bet Jesus would be okay with that.
Hey, Hobby Lobbyco-founder David Green and the rest of the campaign's big-ticket sponsors. Is your intent truly just to reach out to Gen Z lapsed Christians? Or is it to make a religious minority feel like we are being targeted again by the oldest trick in the book - love bombing - while at the same time insidiously isolating us and other non-Christians in the name of so-called unity?
Face it, we're just not that into him. Deal with it and accept us as we are. We're fine with being a minority. Our kids are proud of who they are (I hope). We know how to stand up to bullies who want to make us feel that we are strangers in our own land. We can stand up to the powerful and the wealthy.
Tyre Nichols' brutal death was heartbreaking. In light of that, it would be beneficial to read this introductory article on Judaism and Policing. - The late Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi, understood modern police to be equivalent to the biblical officers (shotrim). But in his reading of Deuteronomy 16, the shoftim (judges) and shotrim must be one and the same because of the potential conflict between law enforcement and individual liberty. “One who makes an arrest is dealing with a person who, according to the law, is still innocent — this is before the person has stood in judgements and before his guilt has been proven,” HaLevi wrote. “For this reason, the arrest is a violation of the freedom of a person, who is presumed innocent. But in order to allow for the interrogation of the suspect, and for bringing him to court, we have to permit his arrest.” While recognizing the need for a judicial process, HaLevi was concerned with the lasting consequences of arrest, both materially and psychologically, particularly if the detained person is later found to have done no wrong. He writes, “For this reason, halakha [Jewish law] assures us that no person will be arrested without cause, whether for a serious crime or a minor one such as those related to prices and measures and such things, and those who are charged with making arrests are in the realm of judges.” HaLevi’s particular concern for the potentially adverse effects of wrongful arrests is reflected in the broader Jewish concern for the health of the community in matters of criminal justice. The objective of the judicial process is restoration of financial loss plus recompense if physical, psychological or financial harm has been caused. The focus is always on what the person who inflicts the damage owes to their victim — not on their character.
In Jonah Hill’s offensive new movie, a Black-Jewish love story comes with a side of conspiracy theories (Forward)When they shot the movie a year ago, director Kenya Barris (“Black-ish”) and his Jewish co-writer and star Jonah Hill couldn’t have predicted how it would land in the midst of several national stories about Black-Jewish relations, including prominent Black celebrities who have dabbled in antisemitism. For example, the film’s use of a popular song that includes the N-word in its title at two different intervals — first as a joke about Hill’s character being unable to say the title, then at the end under a hora — takes on a heightened meaning today. Kanye West, who now goes by Ye and is one half of the talent behind the song, recently went on a months-long antisemitic tirade that included him expressing his admiration for Hitler.
“You People” is the Black-Jewish movie of the year "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." The 2023 version. With hip hop. (Jeffrey Salkin, RNS) American Jews need to understand the fears of Black parents. Jewish teens, especially our boys, do not live in the same world as Black kids. For a white teenager, a traffic infraction is a ticket; for a Black kid, it is a potential death sentence. That leads to two very different conversations that white, middle class parents have with their kids, and which Black parents — of any social class — have with theirs. American Blacks need to understand the fears of American Jews. True, our children are not targets. But, we feel that our entire people has a target on its back. We are living through a wave of antisemitic acts, including the regular, under-reported physical attacks on visibly Orthodox Jews. This past weekend, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue in Bloomfield, NJ. This all hurts, and it chips away at the American Jewish soul… This is a great film. The music is great, and mostly new to me. You must also catch the scene in which Akbar takes Ezra into a barbershop, which is a direct cinematic quote from the barbershop scene in Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming To America.
And seeNetflix’s ‘You People’ Is Bad Jewish Representation at a Really Terrible Time (Kveller) -Aside from the fact that it peddles in so many Jewish stereotype — Ezra works in finance, his mom nags and nags, his bubbe kvetches about his tattoos, his Jewish dad is out of touch, the Jewish women he dates “just don’t get him” — it also deals in some serious misinformation about Jewish people and history. It starts with the movie’s second scene, a Yom Kippur service which Ezra attends largely out of obligation. His grandmother, played by an underused Rhea Pearlman, tells him that he can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of his tattoos. A little research could’ve shown that Bubbe is wrong — while tattoos may be a Jewish taboo in some circles, you can absolutely be buried in a Jewish cemetery with them. This little bit of misinformation is innocuous enough — and Ezra’s response to it is genuinely funny. But another line of misinformation has a little more concerning repercussions....
Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint From the “Rediscovered Reading” series (Ruth Wisse -Sapir Journal) - Philip Roth was onto something important that Freud had ignored when he analyzed joking as a creative means of restoring psychological balance. What if there is too much reliance on joking, and the cure proves worse than the disease? Laughter may be an excellent way of coping with anxiety, and is it not wonderful that a quarter century after Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz, the American branch of a decimated people should have become the national champions of comedy? But Roth identified a streak of hysteria in all that laughter and a heavy dose of pathology in letting it all hang out.
Back to "You People." My take....
Watching it as a comedy, I was amused and at times I LOL'ed. I instinctively do that whenever Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus open their mouths anyway. But the Farrakhan scene disturbed me, as it did for the reviewers cited above. The conspiracy theories needed to be debunked then and there, when they came up at the dinner table. Since they didn't, I will, with the help of Tablet Magazine.
It’s a position that Farrakhan has articulated for years. Perhaps the most noxious element of Farrakhan’s position, that the Jews are no friends to African Americans, has been locating its point of origin in the idea that Jews were heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1991, the Nation of Islam, a branch of the Black Nationalist Movement, published a copiously footnoted book intriguingly titled "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews." The Nation of Islam won’t say who wrote the book,...The book claimed to provide “irrefutable evidence that the most prominent of the Jewish pilgrim fathers [sic] used kidnapped Black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history.”
“'The Secret Relationship' gives a false and distorted picture,” said David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and author of a trilogy on slavery, the first part of which won the Pulitzer in 1967 and the second of which won the National Book Award in 1976. “Of course, some Jews were involved in the slave trade. Every European Western nation was.”
He writes: Much of the historical evidence regarding alleged Jewish or New Christian involvement in the slave system was biased by deliberate Spanish efforts to blame Jewish refugees for fostering Dutch commercial expansion at the expense of Spain. Given this long history of conspiratorial fantasy and collective scapegoating, a selective search for Jewish slave traders becomes inherently anti-Semitic unless one keeps in view the larger context and the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system. It is easy enough to point to a few Jewish slave traders in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, or Newport, Rhode Island. But far from suggesting that Jews constituted a major force behind the exploitation of Africa, closer investigation shows that these were highly exceptional merchants, far outnumbered by thousands of Catholics and Protestants who flocked to share in the great bonanza."
The "Crackpot Conspiracy" as one person described it, has been thoroughly debunked and belongs in the Jewish Space Laser section of your local crackpot library. Which isn't to say that there aren't issues between Blacks and Jews - this film exposes them awkwardly. The dismissing of the Holocaust, which happens more than once in the film (one bit involves a cheap wedding ring), is patently offensive. There are times nowadays when the Holocaust can be a subject of humor (see Larry David), but tread carefully (as David tries to do in those muddy shoes). This movie does not. Eddie Murphy's character needs to say more at the end to acknowledge that he truly sees the pain in the Jewish experience. But perhaps this film was completed before the Pittsburgh massacre (hard to believe) and, more likely, before Kanye's antics and last week's firebombing in New Jersey.
The entire portrayal of Jews and Judaism is a little to Philip Rothy for this era. It may or may not be truthful to make fun of the sexual perversions of an elderly shul-goer on Yom Kippur (ironically - or perhaps intentionally - played by Richard Benjamin, who played Alexander Portnoy in the film "Portnoy's Complaint."), but it's not helpful. We make fun of ourselves with the best of them. But this nebbishy, flabby self hatred has got to end. With Roth it was new and subversive. Now it's just lazy. There are people, both Jews and people who don't like Jews, who believe the stuff they are seeing. If we are really as shallow and entitled as this movie shows, well, there's a Super Bowl adcoming our way hoping to address our emptiness.
1) The most glaring and obvious lie was Netanyahu’s claim that in Israel, a panel of three judges controls judicial appointments, including Supreme Court justices. Netanyahu compared this imaginary system to the U.S. process of judicial appointments and managed to get a nod of agreement from Tapper. In reality, though, the Israeli appointment system is not controlled exclusively by the judges, but instead by a committee in which politicians, judges and the Israel Bar Association are all represented – and no side has the upper hand.
2) The issue on which Tapper pressed Netanyahu most was the “override clause,” and for good reason. This proposal would give the smallest possible Knesset majority, 61 lawmakers, the power to override any Supreme Court decision, creating a reality in which there would be no limitation on the powers of the government. Netanyahu responded by saying that Canada also has an override mechanism. However, he ignored the fact that Canada has a constitution guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms (Israel doesn’t have a constitution); that Canada’s override clause has specific limitations and constraints, while his suggestion is much broader; and that there are provincial legislatures in Canada that have varying degrees of influence and independence, whereas in Israel the government would be all-powerful if this plan became law.
3) Early in the interview, Tapper confronted Netanyahu with his own past quotes in favor of a strong, independent and undeterred Supreme Court, and asked why has he changed his mind. After Netanyahu claimed that he has not changed his mind on the subject, Tapper asked the inevitable question, addressing the large elephant in the room that so many pundits and journalists try to ignore: Netanyahu’s own corruption trial. The prime minister immediately responded that there is no connection between his government’s efforts to weaken the judiciary and the fact that his own fate lies in the hands of three judges at the Jerusalem District Court. But Netanyahu’s justice minister and the man pushing forward the plan, Yariv Levin, has said otherwise. He told the Knesset two weeks ago that Netanyahu’s indictment “contributed to a very broad public understanding that there are failures that need to be corrected” in the judicial system.
4) Tapper, who seemed at times genuinely worried about the direction all this is going, tried more than once to get Netanyahu to say that he’s willing to soften the plan and find a compromise with the opposition. Netanyahu, reluctantly, said he is “willing to hear counteroffers.” This quote follows the long tradition of Netanyahu saying nice things in English to foreign audiences and doing the opposite in Israel. There is no lack of counteroffers to discuss: softer and more balanced versions of a possible judicial reform that many opposition lawmakers could actually offer their support for.
Last weekend was a horrible one in Israel. This headline below reads, "Jerusalem's Bloody Shabbat" and shows photos of the victims of the synagogue shooting. To the right, as Sec of State Blinken visits Prime Minister Netanyahu, the headline augers a warning: "Blinken on the Judicial Reforms: "Seek Consensus" Like the term "status quo" last week, the term "consensus" is an English loan word. There's no Hebrew word for consensus. Do with that what you will...
Puzzle Time: Find the Scribal Error!
Next week, our B'nai Mitzvah class will participate in the annual World Wide Wrap, sponsored by our Men's Club and the Federation of Jewish Men's Clibs nationally. They will learn about tefillin (phylacteries). The handmade parchment in the photo below was designed to be placed in one of the tefillin's boxes. BUT... it has a huge scribal error. See if you can find it. Hint - chant the V'ahavta paragraph of the Sh'ma word by word and follow along in the Hebrew if you can. Answer next week...
Scribal error happens more often than one would suspect, given the thousands of years sacred texts were meticulously hand-copied, often with inferior light, long before the invention of the printer or Xerox machine. There's a whole field of manuscript studies having to do with scribal error. With biblical materials, we are dealing with handwritten Greek and Hebrew, two languages where letters can often be inadvertently switched, like resh and its nearly identical twin, dalet. Scribal error happens all the time, but once it is repeated a mistake becomes a tradition. That's when religion gets very interesting. When we repeat mistakes over and over simply because they are "traditions," we are living in a world devoid of critical thinking. This mindless repetition is what one might truly call the worst form of...Groundhog Day.