Wednesday, November 22, 2023

In This Moment: Jewish Unity Was Fun While It Lasted; Two Yahrzeits: JFK and Tolstoy


In This Moment

60 Years Ago...

Mourning JFK in his native Brookline,

that's my father leading the procession,

and my childhood synagogue just up the street from his birthplace.

"Israel was not created in order to disappear - Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom."

- John F. Kennedy, who died 60 years ago today.

Speech to Zionists of America Convention, August 26, 1960

How can we be thankful on Thanksgiving this year?

One way is to affirm the Jewish value of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good, a stance in which we are able, even in difficult time, to acknowledge that which is good. 

Jews are eternally grateful.  The very word “Jew,” Yehudi, which is first mentioned in this week's portion, has within it the word for gratitude (connected to Todah, which in Hebrew means “thank you.”) This is the ethos that lies behind the great Talmudic proverb which asks, "Who is rich?" and then answers, "Those who rejoice in their own lot." (Avot 4:1)

On the left, see a lovely reading from our prayerbook, Siddur Lev Shalem.

See more on this important Jewish value of Hakarat HaTov here.

Jewish Unity Was Fun While It Lasted

I was perusing the front pages of the Jerusalem Post and Hebrew Ha'aretz on the same day last week and couldn't help but notice the bipolar nature of their advertising. See the ads below.

Here they are, expanded. Click on them to expand further.

This ad, by the left wing group "Yesh Gvul" ("There is a Limit") calls out the right's designs to "Transfer" Palestinians, asserting that six West Bank communities have been violently expelled since the start of the war.

This ad, by a right wing group, asserts a compelling need to reoccupy Gaza completely, assume permanent security control and sideline the Palestinian Authority.

Truthfully, I can make a case for defending each of those ads, to a degree, even though they come from polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yes, Israel must strengthen its hold on Gaza until such time as world forces Hamas to relinquish its rule and Israelis in the south can return and rebuild their communities. And yes, the settler violence in the West Bank is morally repugnant, and it has gotten worse in the wake of October 7.

But the point here is less the content of the ads, but rather that these battles are being fought openly on the front pages of the Israeli press, and on the back pages too, as well as in social media and here in the diaspora. We are seeing increasing public bellicosity not just toward Jews, in the form of antisemitism, but among Jews, in the form of pure vitriol.

Remember the unprecedented Jewish unity we were feeling? That was so last week. Whatever unity may have been achieved in the early stages of the conflict, up until last week's March in Washington, is now seriously waning. It is being replaced by sheer frustration and pent-up anger. People are at the end of their ropes and are acting out in ways that might be in character for their cause, but at the same time it's going way beyond the normal bounds of civility. Yes, even X (formally Twitter) has gotten even worse, if that is possible.

In Israel, the most popular song right now is a hip-hop war anthem. According to The Times of Israel, the song’s title, “Charbu Darbu,” comes from Syrian Arabic and means literally “swords and strikes.” In Hebrew slang, it is a reference to raining hell on one’s opponent — which is what the rappers promise the IDF will do to Hamas.

Left, right, left, how is it that the whole country is in uniform from Galilee to Eilat… We’ve brought the entire army against you and we swear there won’t be forgiveness, sons of Amalek.

Watch it here.

At the other extreme, we have a video circulating of a group of American rabbis who are pushing for an immediate ceasefire. As they are chanting last week's portion from the Torah, the reader deliberately lowers her voice when she reaches the part (Gen. 26:3) where God promises Jacob that his descendants will inherit the expanse of the land of Canaan.

Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.

Click to watch video

The idea of chanting from the Torah with a hushed undertone is typically reserved for the two long litanies of curses and consequences for disobeying the covenant, found in later books of the Torah. To feature it here is needlessly provocative. We can argue about the territorial promises made to our ancestors - no one is seeking conquest from the Nile to the Euphrates, and no biblical promise includes Gaza at all. But when Israelis and Palestinians are still burying their dead, what exactly is the point being made here? It's being done to send a message, to be sure, but is it a message of reconciliation or simply the progressive version of "owning the libs," the "libs" in this case being conservative columnists like Jeff Jacoby.

On the other hand, what is Jeff Jacoby trying to prove in assigning himself the role of judge and jury in slapping the "anti Zionist Jew" label on the group? He could say it's just "Twitter being Twitter," but it's not just Twitter (X) that's being nasty these days.

In a column published in The Times of Israel, Daniel Gordis announced that he is severing ties with the Conservative movement. The movement is "spineless," he announced, fundamentally more supportive of other marginalized groups than it is of Israeli Jews. I don't agree with that (the second assertion, not necessarily the "spineless" part, because being a centrist movement requires a whole lot of spinal fluidity), but having seen some of the rabbinical chat group comments he makes reference to, I can understand why he would be upset.

But not so upset as to make sweeping accusations, including personal attacks on other Jews with whom he had engaged in constructive dialogue in the past - like Peter Beinart (here!). Yes, the backstory behind Gordis's comments is gut wrenching and I can only feel deep empathy for the betrayal he is feeling. We are all flummoxed by the irrational backing - by people we considered allies - of a murderous, genocidal attack on Jews. He has every excuse to be blowing his stack at those who shortchange the overwhelming impact of Oct. 7, especially when some of the shortchangers are rabbis. But this example proves my point about the temperature level that has risen by several notches over the past few weeks, resulting in more than a little "friendly fire" among Jews.

Why is that?

Well, part of it is that after Covid, our baseline mood-temperature is already higher. It doesn't take much to set people off.

But even with that, can you blame Jews for being on edge? Can you blame Israelis?

Somehow, the sniping has got to stop. We Jews need to be much more sensitive to the raw feelings surrounding us. Each of us needs a hug, and we should hug our neighbors as ourselves.

We need to redirect our anger toward our common enemy. Hamas, that is, not the Prime Minister.

The unity that we enjoyed for all of a month needs to return, and there is more than enough that we all share to build upon. For one thing, we all share the feelings of despair and sadness that are so pervasive right now. Misery loves company, but we share so much more. it shouldn't take long to come up with a long list at your Thanksgiving table, of what all or most Jews have in common.

And number one on the list just might be the love of Israel.

Wednesday's Israel Headlines

Jerusalem Post

Ha'aretz (English)h)

Thursday's Headlines

(check Wednesday evening)

Jerusalem Post


Recommended Reading

The passage below by TBE's Risa Raich, in response to the March for Israel - and the journey to get there.

See other TBE photos and writings from the march

  • Ha'aretz: Daily Update - The four-day Israel-Hamas cease-fire is set to begin at 10 A.M. local time on Thursday.

  • The Rescuers (Tom Friedman, NYT) - The most courageous Israeli political leader today, Mansour Abbas. Abbas is a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel who happens to be a devout Muslim and a member of Israel’s parliament, where he leads the important United Arab List party. Abbas’s voice is even more vital now because he did not respond to the Hamas terrorism with silence. Abbas understands that while it’s right to be outraged at the pain Israel is inflicting on Gaza’s civilians, reserving all of your outrage for Gaza’s pain creates suspicion among Jews in Israel and worldwide, who notice when not a word is uttered about the Hamas atrocities that triggered this war. The first thing Abbas said to me about the Hamas onslaught was this: “No one can accept what happened on that day. And we cannot condemn it and say ‘but’ — that word ‘but’ has become immoral.” (Recent polls show overwhelming Israeli Arab condemnation of the Hamas attack.)

  • Holding Complexity: A Lesson We Must Learn From Israel (Gary Rosenblatt, Substack) I have been covering Jewish life professionally for almost all of my adult life and I have never seen, or even imagined, the grim, frightening reality we are facing. Israel is engaged in a potentially existential fight at home, where the enemy’s target is the citizens of the state, not just the IDF, and anti-Semitism is rampant not only around the world but here in the U.S., and, especially disturbing, on college campuses. Despite the heroic embrace of Israel by President Biden, who has passionately supported Jerusalem’s right to defend its citizens and put an end to Hamas terror, large numbers of our countrymen have taken up the cause of Hamas, chanting, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Free of Jews, that is. “We are living the ultimate Jewish nightmare,” author and educator Yossi Klein Halevi has written. “To be slaughtered and then branded the criminal.”

Tolstoy, JFK and the Jews

We recall the deaths of two giants this week, Leo Tolstoy, who died on November 20, 1910, and John F Kennedy, who of course died 60 years ago today, on November 22, 1963. At a time when some Jews may be questioning just what it is that we are fighting for - and why we should be proud of who we are, I share some of their comments about Jews and the Jewish people. I quoted JFK with regard to Israel at the top of this email. As for Tolstoy - above, see excerpts from an interview in the New York Times, less than two years before his death. Although he had a complicated relationship with the Jews in his life and in his writing, here he is clear in his admiration for our resilience and moral acuity.

What is a Jew?

by Leo Tolstoy

This question is not as strange as it may seem at first glance. Let’s examine this free creature that was insulated and oppressed, trampled on and pursued, burned and drowned by all the rulers and the nations, but is nevertheless living and thriving in spite of the whole world.

What is a Jew that did not succumb to any worldly temptations offered by his oppressors and persecutors so that he would renounce his religion and abandon the faith of his fathers?

A Jew is a sacred being who procured an eternal fire from the heavens and with it illuminated the earth and those who live on it. He is the spring and the source from which the rest of the nations drew their religions and beliefs.

A Jew is a pioneer of culture. From time immemorial, ignorance was impossible in the Holy Land, even more so than nowadays in civilized Europe. Moreover, at the time when the life and death of a human being was worth nothing, Rabbi Akiva spoke against the death penalty which is now considered to be an acceptable punishment in the most civilized countries.

A Jew is a pioneer of freedom. Back in primitive times, when the nation was divided into two classes, masters and slaves, Moses’ teaching forbid holding a person as a slave for more than six years.

A Jew is a symbol of civil and religious tolerance, “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” These words were uttered during distant, barbarian times when it was commonly acceptable among the nations to enslave each other.

In terms of tolerance, the Jewish religion is far from recruiting adherents. Quite the

opposite, the Talmud prescribes that if a non-Jew wants to convert to the Jewish faith, then it has to be explained to him how difficult it is to be a Jew and that the righteous of other religions also inherit the heavenly kingdom. A Jew is a symbol of eternity.

The nation which neither slaughter nor torture could exterminate, which neither fire nor sword of civilizations were able to erase from the face of earth, the nation which first proclaimed the word of Lord, the nation which preserved the prophecy for so long and passed it on to the rest of humanity, such a nation cannot vanish.

A Jew is eternal; he is an embodiment of eternity.

Tweet Thread of the Day:

The Evidence of Hamas Atrocities

On Their Own People


And Finally, for Thanksgiving, these Shabbat-O-Gram classics:

Some suggestions for your dinner table conversations:

The Four Freedoms

It's at times like these when I look back for moments of inspirational oratory, like FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech, as a reminder of what America is meant to symbolize, for ourselves and for the world. 

You can read about that famous speech here, and see the original manuscript

Here you can read the full text of the speech

As America stood on the brink of entering the war these freedoms - the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear - symbolized America's war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom. 

Here are some passages that I find most compelling today, even as the situation is so different. Read these words at your Thanksgiving table:

I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world-assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.

...Let us say to the democracies: "We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.

In fulfillment of this purpose we will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators...

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

- Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

- Jobs for those who can work.

- Security for those who need it.

- The ending of special privilege for the few.

- The preservation of civil liberties for all.

- The enjoyment . . . the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression-everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way-everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want-which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear-which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor-anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception-the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

And here is an updated version of the famous Norman Rockwell paintings, applying the Four Freedoms to today's more diverse and inclusive America.

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