9/11 as a Hurban

I wrote the following paper in 2002 as a participant in a Carnegie Endowment conference on peace in faith traditions. Along with our presentation at the conference, each of us was invited to write an essay for publication in a book. I was only onew of two participants who submitted an essay (the other was Rabbi Arthur Waskow) so this paper has never been published until now. Rabbi Marc Angel posted the opening section, which is appropriate to Tisha b’Av (today as I write this). You can find this at


For those interested, here is the entire 8000-word essay.

9-11 as a Hurban:

Lessons from Jewish History and Tradition

            Catastrophes like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9-11) are all too well known in Jewish history and therefore in the Jewish psyche and in the Jewish faith. There is even a Hebrew word for such an event: urban.  This word comes from a verb that means “to destroy” and is related to the Hebrew word for sword.  It means destruction and it is used primarily to refer to the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  By extension it can refer to any of the catastrophes in Jewish history: the Crusades (during which many Jewish communities in Europe were massacred), the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the Holocaust among others. There is an entire literature on the subject.  I will look at some of these events and the responses to them by those who witnessed them.  Then I will use them as models for what is happening in Israel today.  Finally I will use them to suggest the best reaction to the 9-11 attacks.

            I would divide the kinds of responses into three categories: lamentation, destruction (the desire for revenge or power), and construction (acts of faith and building for the future).  The second and third are two sides of the same coin, as each is a way of seeking empowerment in the wake of being overwhelmed by violence or oppression.  It is the choice between these two that is most crucial in drawing lessons from the catastrophes in Jewish history.

The Destruction of the First Temple

            The Temple of Solomon, known to Jews as the First Temple, was built at the point in Jewish history which is regarded as the ideal, the high point of our history.  Our borders were at their greatest extent, there were no wars, and the kingdom was prosperous, engaging in trade perhaps as far away as India.  As with most peoples in that part of the ancient world, the Jewish kingdom considered the temple to its G-d as the symbol of the power and welfare of the entire nation.  When one nation defeated another the loser’s G-d’s temple was often destroyed.  In 586 BCE the Babylonians attacked and besieged Jerusalem because of repeated rebellions against their empire.  They destroyed the city and the Temple with it.  The people were forced into exile as was often the case with rebellious subject nations.

            The book of Lamentations in the Bible, usually ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, is a lamentation over the destroyed city.  It begins


Lonely sits the city

Once great with people!

She that was great among nations

Is become like a widow… [1]

This powerful elegy does much more than weep and wail, however.  It does describe the horrors of the Destruction and what followed and Jeremiah howls with grief.  However Lamentations also tells of why G-d allowed this urban to occur.  It was the just punishment for a people that had strayed from faithfulness to its covenant with G-d.  Many prophets had warned that this would happen, beginning with Moses in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Jeremiah calls on the Eternal to forgive the people and to restore them to their land and to allow the city to be rebuilt.  Jeremiah calls on the people to repent.

                        Let us search and examine our ways.

                        And turn back to the Eternal.

                        Let us lift up our hearts with our hands

                        To G-d in Heaven.

                        We have transgressed and rebelled.

                        And you have not forgiven.[2]

The justification of Divine Justice (theodicy) and the appeals for repentance represent a revolutionary departure from the thinking of the time.  Most nations that suffered this kind of destruction simply disappeared from history, their very identities obliterated.  Jeremiah affirmed that there is only one G-d and that G-d is sovereign over all nations.  The covenant made at Mount Sinai is eternal and still stands.  If the people will repent it will be restored.  Against all the rules of history the Jewish people survived destruction and exile because they were made to see beyond themselves and beyond the present moment.

            Jeremiah himself performed an act shortly before the destruction, which he foresaw.  Following a legal obligation he wrote a contract that would redeem a piece of family property in the future.[3]  After following the most traditional form of the transaction he said to G-d,

…the city, because of sword and famine and pestilence, is at the mercy of the Chaldeans who are attacking it.  What You threatened has come to pass – as You see.  Yet You, Eternal One, O G-d, said to me, ‘buy the land for money and call in witnesses – when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans.’

Like many things Jeremiah did during his life, this was a symbolic act expressing faith that in the future what had been destroyed would be rebuilt and the people would return from their exile. 

The Destruction of the Second Temple

                After only seventy years the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and returned all of the exiled peoples to their homelands.  A contingent of Jews did go back and rebuilt Jerusalem.  The Majority, who remained in Babylonia and elsewhere became the beginning of the Diaspora community.  From that time until this a majority of the Jewish people, but never all the Jewish people, has lived outside of the Land of Israel.  The task of creating a national existence outside of the Land of Israel was successful. For example, it is believed that the synagogue was created in the Babylonian exile as a center for meeting both spiritual and social needs.

            It would be too much to recount the history of the Second Temple here, but in the year 66 CE there was a revolt by Jewish nationalists against the Roman Empire.  That war lasted four years and ended predictably with a Roman victory and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Once again this was a completely devastating event.  There is a very large literature of responses to it.[4] There were lamentations written.  These may be found within various works of Rabbinic literature that were edited and published long after this event.

            There were two primary reactions at the time.  The first was a continuing movement of rebellion against Rome.  The Zealots who started and led the revolt held out in the fortress of Masada for a few years, but were overwhelmed by the Romans.[5]   The following two generations saw Jewish revolts all over the Roman Empire –  in Alexandria and Cyprus, among other places.  None of these succeeded.  Finally there was another great revolt in the Land of Israel led by a man named Simon bar Koziba, better known as Bar Kochba.  His followers believed he was the Messiah who would drive out the Romans, restore Jewish independence and rebuild Jerusalem with its Temple.  This revolt was a spectacular and devastating failure.  The Romans were driven out, but they came back, defeated Bar Kochba, and committed such a great massacre of Jews that it was said the Mediterranean ran blood-red all the way to Cyprus.  Jewish self-government, which had been allowed after the first Great Revolt, was ended.  Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina dedicated to Jupiter.  Jews were not allowed to set foot there.  Bar Kochba has been rehabilitated as a heroic figure in modern times, but his contemporaries condemned him as an impious brute who brought destruction and exile on the Jewish people.[6]  This response was one of seeking empowerment after destruction through war and conflict.  It ignored reality and reached out for a messianic solution to the destruction of Jerusalem.  If this had been the only Jewish response, Jewish history would probably have ended there and then.

            It was, fortunately, not the only response.  There was another which was every bit as revolutionary as the one that had followed the destruction of the First Temple.  The most respected Rabbinic leader at the time was Yohanan ben Zakkai who was already eighty years old.  He pled with the Zealots who had completely taken over Jerusalem, which was then besieged by a Roman force, to offer some token of conciliation.  He wanted to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem, which he knew would occur if the Romans entered the city by force.  The Zealots’ response was to declare that anyone who went over to the Romans in any way would be executed. 

Rabbi Yohanan confided in his nephew Abba Sikra, a Zealot leader, and asked for his help.  On his advice they would give out the news that Rabbi Yohanan had become ill and then that he had died.  That meant that his body had to be carried outside the city walls, because the dead were not permitted burial within.  They got past the Zealot guards at a gate and went immediately to the Roman camp where they were taken to the general Vespasian.  Yohanan ben Zakkai greeted Vespasian, “Hail Caesar.”  The astonished general said, “I am not the Emperor.”  Just then a messenger arrived to announce that the Emperor Nero was dead and that the Roman legions had declared Vespasian his successor.  Vespasian told the Rabbi, “Since you were the first to address me as Caesar, I shall reward you.  What would you want as a reward?”  Rabbi Yohanan replied that he wanted to establish a school in the nearby town of Yavneh, which the Romans already controlled.  Vespasian granted his wish.[7]

The “school” that Yohanan ben Zakkai established was not a school in the sense of it being a place where students were educated.  Yavneh became the seat of the Jewish government that was allowed to govern after the Revolt.  At Yavneh the Rabbis created something new – a form of Judaism that could survive destruction and exile.  It would not require a central shrine or even a tribe of priests.  The practice of Judaism devolved to every Jew equally.  Rabbis would not be clergy, but teachers and judges.  The legal tradition, which existed mostly in oral form until then, was to be codified and published.  Community, family, and education, along with the synagogue would be the means of continuing the covenant tradition.  Essentially this group of scholars created Judaism as a religion.  This worked so well that it continues down to the present day, almost two millennia later.  The Dalai Lama, impressed with this history, consults with Jewish scholars to see if our history can serve as a model for Tibetans to have their identity, faith and culture survive in the long run outside of Tibet. 

There were two responses to the destruction of the Second Temple.  One was to try to recover what was lost by force.  That failed completely.  The other was to create something new.  That succeeded so well that the Jewish people far outlasted the Roman Empire.

The Diaspora

            From the mid-2nd century until the mid-20th the Jewish people lived under conditions that are unparalleled in human history.  Without territory, an army, or a national government the Jewish civilization continued in many lands around the world.  National and local communities were often granted a measure of autonomy, but they were also usually kept outside the mainstream of the host nation’s life.  Jews were sometimes forced to take on unpleasant roles such as moneylending and tax collecting.  Ownership of land and the bearing of arms by Jews were forbidden in most places and times.  There were, on the other hand, periods when Jews took an active part in national life and sometimes shared in great eras of civilization as active participants.  At other times Jews were singled out for terrible persecutions and suffered the worst that human beings can do to each other. 

            In the Midrash[8] on Lamentations there is a story that illustrates the attitude that allowed Jewish civilization and faith to continue as a living phenomenon for almost 2000 years against any precedent in human history.

Rabbi[9] sent Rabbi Assi and Rabbi Ammi on a mission to organize [religious education in] the cities of the land of Israel. They came to a city and said to the people, ‘ Bring us the guardians of the city.’ They fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The Rabbis exclaimed, ‘ These the guardians of the city? They are its destroyers!’   The people inquired, ‘Who, then, are its guardians?’ and they answered, ‘The instructors in Bible and Mishnah[10], who meditate upon, teach and preserve the Torah day and night.’ This is in accordance with what is said, You shall meditate therein day and night (Joshua 1:8); and it is similarly stated, Except the Lord build the house, they, labor in vain that build it (Psalms 127:1).[11]

In order to continue as a living civilization the Jewish people had to find a new way to respond to difficult times without resorting to violence or threats of violence.  The main instruments of survival were to be universal education and effective communal organization. [12]

            The Crusades are remembered in European history as great wars against the Muslim world that had encroached on some of Europe.  The Crusaders conquered some cities in the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem.  What is often forgotten is how, on their way from Europe to the Holy Land, especially in the Rhineland, the Crusaders sacked Jewish communities, looting, raping and murdering as they went.         Isaac bar Shalom wrote a dirge in response to the havoc wreaked in the Second Crusade (1146).  In it the poet bewails G-d’s silence echoing words from the Talmudic response to the Destruction of the Second Temple.[13] 

                                    The foe was strutting with his sword,

                                    Destroyed my precious ones, made them naught.

                                    And he slew all who did my eye delight

The year: four thousand nine hundred and seven,

                                    When trouble closely followed trouble,

                                    And for my feet they set a snare

                                                Do not be silent![14]

The Jewish memorial ritual called Yizkor was created in response to the Crusades and this martyrology was expanded to include remembrance for one’s own kin much later.

            Yet during this same period in this same region of Europe creative Jewish scholarship flourished.  The commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) on the Scriptures and the Talmud were written along with many other important works of Jewish law and tradition.  The response to catastrophe was not just understandable lamentations, but a great intellectual and spiritual creativity.

            The Jewish community of Spain dated back to Roman times.  In the 8th century, when the Moors conquered Spain for Islam, it was with the help of the Jews who had been persecuted by their Visigoth rulers.  From that time until the end of the 14th century the Jews of the Iberian peninsula played a key role in the greatest civilization in Europe at that time.  The Jewish civilization in Spain gave rise to a major branch of Jewish culture and religion, the Sephardi; just as the Jews of the Rhineland gave rise to the Ashkenazi branch of Judaism.  Even under the Christian reconquest Jews flourished in every way, although sometimes persecuted by the Church. 

The beginning of the end in Spain came in the summer of 1391 when anti-Jewish riots in several cities saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews and the forced conversion to Christianity of tens of thousands more.  The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church does not permit forced conversion, but once a conversion had taken place an individual could not “backslide” to his or her former faith.  An underground Jewish culture came into being.  New Christians, also known as Conversos or Marranos[15], lived publicly as Christians but maintained their Judaism in secret.  As Christians society was supposedly open to them and many became wealthy and powerful, even in the Church itself.  The Old Christians, especially those who now felt displaced, resented this.  In 1478 the Church established an office of the Holy Inquisition, an institution that dealt with heresies of all kinds, to root out what they called Judaizing among the Conversos.  The secret practice of Judaism by people who were supposed to be Christians came under severe penalties including loss of property and death by burning at the stake.  In January of 1492 the joint Christian monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, drove the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada.  A few months later they promulgated the Edict of Expulsion which proclaimed that after August 1 of that year all Jews must either convert or leave Spain.  The Expulsion of 1492 was almost as great a trauma to the Jewish people as the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples.  The Jews of Spain fled to neighboring Portugal[16] and to may different lands around the Mediterranean Sea, especially Italy, Turkey, Greece, and Morocco. 

There were of course lamentations.  A Jewish poet, Judah ben David, in the exile community of Venice, wrote a dirge mourning the loss of Jewish life in Spain.

                        Know Judah and Israel, I am exceedingly bitter;

                        Therefore I tremble for all my sins.

                        My heart revives within me when I hear weeping;

                        On seeing laughter I recoil, yes recoil.

                        Son, brother, sister, mother, all kin –

                        Weep you your families, gash you your flesh.

                        Good uncle, all men, all women weep;

                        I, weeping, will make all men tremble, tremble.

                        Gone my song, gone my joy when I bring to my mind

                        Seville: it is lost, utterly lost.[17]

Once again lament was not the only response.  Once again there was a flowering of Jewish civilization and creativity.  The culture and traditions of Spanish Jewry were successfully replanted in many communities from the Netherlands to Ottoman Turkey.  The new state of Exile within Exile was responded to with a new form of Jewish mysticism, the Lurianic Kabbalah.  The spirit of Jewish renewal was epitomized by Solomon Ibn Verga in a famous story.

I heard tell from aged exiles of Spain that a certain ship was struck with plague and that the ship’s owner cast the passengers off onto uninhabited terrain. Most died there of hunger; only a few found the strength to proceed on foot in search of civilization.

Now among these was a certain Jew who struggled on with his wife and two sons. The wife, whose feet were untried, fainted and perished, leaving her husband, who was carrying the boys. He and his sons also fainted from hunger; when he awoke he found the two dead. In agony, he rose to his feet and cried, “Master of the Universe! You go to great lengths to force me to desert my faith. Know for a certainty that in the face of the dwellers of heaven, a Jew I am and a Jew I shall remain; all that You have brought upon me or will bring upon me shall be of no avail!” Then he gathered dirt and grasses, covered the boys, and went off in search of a settlement.[18]

            The accounts of persecutions, expulsions and massacres in the Diaspora seem endless.  Communal leaders became expert at dealing with harsh realities from seemingly powerless positions.  Even when Jews were placed in positions of evident power it was because no Jew could ever threaten the throne or the power of the Church.  Furthermore, when things went wrong the Jews could be blamed rather than the king or the Church.  The best known power fantasy in Diaspora tradition is the legend of the Golem, a powerful gigantic homunculus made by the historic Rabbi and Kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Loew (1526-1609, also known as the Maharal).  He built the Golem in order to protect the Jews of Prague, but soon found that while this creature could protect Jews with its great physical strength, it could not be reliably controlled and had to be destroyed by its creator.[19]  Diaspora culture developed a dislike for and distrust of physical and military power.  In an important sense the Diaspora became a pacifist civilization out of necessity.

            Despite the outrageous treatment they suffered and the calamities they were forced to endure, Diaspora communities and cultures flourished.  Usually this was on their own terms, within closed-off communities, but there were times and places that brought Diaspora Jews into important local, national, and even international roles in culture, commerce, and society.  It would be very inaccurate to depict Diaspora history only in terms of powerlessness and victimhood. Salo Baron, an important 20th century Jewish historian cautioned against depicting it as a catalogue of sorrows: “I oppose the lachrymose conception of Jewish history that treats Judaism as a sheer succession of miseries and persecutions.”[20]

David Biale recently argued that Jews were not powerless, but exhibited “a wide spectrum of persistent and on-going political activism.” To survive two millennia of hostility, emerging with an undiminished sense of self-identity, required not only spiritual strength, but also a capacity for organization and for the assertion of collective interests: in other words, a capacity for politics. As Biale contends, “without some modicum of political strength and the ability to use it, the Jewish people would certainly have vanished.”[21]

The Holocaust

            The Holocaust, now usually referred to by its Hebrew name Shoah, stands in a class by itself.  This is only partly because it happened so recently in history that some of its witnesses are still alive telling their stories and influencing opinions and events.  One out of three Jews in the world were murdered and most of Jewish civilization was destroyed in its European centers.  There is an entire literature that has grown from this historic trauma.  There are laments, books of theological and political argument, histories, personal memoirs, fiction, poetry, drama, music, and dance.  Virtually every form of scholarship and art has attempted to express our feelings and to try to understand what has happened to the Jewish people and to the world. 

            The destructive responses are well-known.  Organizations like the Jewish Defense League call for arming Jews to protect their communities against anti-Semites.  These organizations do not shrink even from terrorism, even against fellow Jews who disagree with them.  Another response has been to reject the modern world.  Hasidim and other so-called Ultra-Orthodox Jews socially fence themselves off from the world, even the rest of the Jewish world.  They strive to recreate the murdered communities of Europe at some time in an idealized past.  They do not go as far as the Amish, forgoing the use of modern technology.  On the contrary, they often make strong and effective use of the best of what they find.  It is not at all hard to find them on the Internet.  They do not keep out of national secular politics, but involve themselves and sometimes even make of their communities an effective political force.  What they do is limit their contact with the outside world as much as possible.  Then they dress in distinctive costumes and speak Yiddish among themselves.  They avoid secular education along with secular entertainment and culture.  Their belief is that they are a saving remnant of Judaism’s truest form and that they are obligated to keep it alive, even if that means ghettoizing themselves from their fellow Jews as well as the rest of the modern world.

            There are also constructive responses.  Holocaust museums make it a point to depict the world that was destroyed and to find ways to pick up what threads of the fabric of that world they can.  Much of Jewish social justice activity is a response to the Shoah.  At a 25th anniversary commemoration of the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, two of them Jewish, civil rights activist James Farmer said it very well.  “Why were these New York Jews along with many other Jews working for civil rights in Mississippi that summer?  Because six million of their people had just been lynched.”[22]  Many Jews understood that what allowed the Shoah to happen was the silence of good people who should have known better.  Nobelist Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote, “

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Peace is our gift to each other.”[23]

Even in speaking about the Holocaust and to an audience of survivors,[24] Wiesel proclaimed a wider meaning for the destruction suffered by the Jewish people.

Though uniquely Jewish, the Holocaust has universal implication.  What was done to one people affected mankind’s destiny.  Once unleashed, evil will recognize no boundaries.  Auschwitz may belong to the past, but Hiroshima is part of our future – it may be the ultimate punishment for Auschwitz.

It is often said that the main lesson from the Holocaust is “Never Again!”  The question is does that mean, “never again will this happen to us” or “never again will we allow this to happen to anyone?”  For some the Shoah is a reason to distrust the whole world and act accordingly.  For others it means that we must work together with the rest of the world to make sure this never happens again.  Both kinds of responses are still strong among the world’s Jews today.

The State of Israel

            Without doubt the single most important response to the Holocaust is the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.  There, most of all, the two kinds of responses – destructive and constructive – are expressed.

            Early Zionist settlers in Palestine a century ago used to sing a song whose words mean, “We have come to the Land to build and to be rebuilt.”  What that meant is that Diaspora Jews had been suffering because they had been weakened by living without what nationalists of the time insisted every people needs: land and a state.  These pioneers were committed to a return to the soil and to building a utopian society based on the Tolstoyan, socialist and anarchist movements principles they had embraced in Europe.[25] 

The rise of fascism, and especially Nazism, in Europe gave urgency to the Zionist movement.  Unfortunately Palestine’s British overseers wanted to placate Arab nationalists and issues a series of “white papers” that severely limited legal Jewish immigration.  Immediately after World War II the truth about the genocide committed against Europe’s Jews became known to the world.  The newly organized United Nations took on the issue of Jewish statehood and called for the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine.  The Zionist movement accepted this partitioning of the Land of Israel, but the Arabs rejected the presence of any non-Arab state in Palestine.  The result was Israel’s War for Independence fought against the armies of six Arab states.  To the world’s amazement the new Jewish state not only survived but established itself.  The Palestinian Arabs found themselves without their promised state, forced to live under Jewish sovereignty or as refugees in UN camps.  As many as 200,000 Arabs left their homes and villages either in flight from wartime conditions or forced out by Israeli forces.  The truth about this is still a matter of bitter controversy.[26]

Now there were two traumatized peoples.  Israel took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Displaced Persons camps in post-war Europe and from such Arab states as Iraq and Yemen among others.  The latter were in flight from anti-Jewish laws and persecutions that were “the Arab street’s” reaction to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Palestinian Arab nationalism was completely frustrated and a large portion of that people lost land, houses, and communities as well as the nationhood they had rejected.

The Jews of Israel from the beginning have faced a terrible dilemma, caught between the need to feel safe in a hostile world and the need to live up to the ethical teachings that have been basic to Judaism since Biblical times.  Should Israel be “like any other nation” (k’khol ha-goiim) or, as the prophet Isaiah phrased it,[27] “a light to the nations” (l’or goiim)?  Israel’s Declaration of Independence seeks a way to include both visions of what the Jewish state would be.  In the preamble there is a call for the establishment of a new Jewish state to be a part of the world community of nations.

The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

In the Declaration we read an affirmation of Jewish traditions of ethics as a basis for the new state.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. [28]

The role of Jewish religion in Israel was and is problematic.  Israel was always supposed to be a secular state and most of its founders were secular people, some of whom were quite hostile to religion.  Certain religious sects even maintained that a Jewish state before the advent of the Messiah is an affront to G-d, especially a state founded by socialists and secularists.  On the other hand there have always been religious political parties in the government.  In the past three decades these have become increasingly involved in foreign affairs and security issues.

            The first dilemma leads to a second.  As soon as the State of Israel’s independence was declared the armies of five neighboring nations attacked with the explicit intention of not allowing the new Jewish State to come into existence.  Some of those nations have held to a formal state of war with Israel for the past fifty-four years.  As much as Judaism and Zionism hold up an ideal of peace, the reality of war or the threat of war has been constant all this time.  This yearning for peace and security has had to dwell side by side with the feeling that any sign of weakness could be the end.  Some even held up the image of Masada[29] to describe Israel’s situation.  Paratroopers used to be inducted into their elite corps at Masada proclaiming, “Masada shall not fall again.”   Others looked to the image of Bar Kochba, despite the terrible failure of his rebellion against Rome. 

How does Judaism in Israel respond to these two dilemmas?  Should a Jewish state be a model of what a nation could be or should it play by the rules of the “tough neighborhood” it is part of?  Should Israel see itself as always at war with implacable enemies or as constantly seeking reconciliation with them?  Since this paper’s subject is religious responses to war, I will refer to the thinking of religious thinkers and personalities only, even though discussion of these issues is found among secular Israelis as well.

Israel is haunted by the Diaspora experience in general and by the Holocaust in particular.  Many Israelis feel that for 1800 years Jews led an abnormal existence and continue to do so outside the land of Israel.  They believe that the Exile will eventually whither away through assimilation or be destroyed by persecution and only Israel will be home to a living Jewish community.  This belief gives great urgency to the issue of Israel’s physical survival and to its nature. 

Yeshayahu Liebowitz was an Orthodox Jewish philosopher known for the sharp questions he raised about the place a secular Jewish state should have in Jewish religion.  He regarded nationalism as a form of idolatry when the state becomes a sacred value in and of itself.  In 1953 there was a series of Arab terrorist attacks against Jewish villages in Israel.  An Israeli commando unit led by Ariel Sharon went over the armistice line to the village of Kibiyeh and in attacking it killed over fifty Arabs and destroyed about forty houses.  There was a public outcry and the UN issued a resolution of condemnation of Israel.  Liebowitz wrote, at the time, about the moral implications of the attack.

Kibiyeh, its causes, implications, and the action itself are part of the great test to which we as a nation are put as a result of our national liberation, political independence, and our military power – for we were bearers of a culture which, for many generations, derived certain spiritual benefits from the conditions of exile, foreign rule and political impotence.  Our morality and conscience were conditioned by an insulated existence in which we could cultivate values and sensibilities that did not have to be tested in the crucible of reality.[30]

Judaism, as the religion of a people with a unique history, was first forced to learn in exile and then to create a new independent national existence.  The debate about what the nature of a modern Jewish state would be and its relationship to Jewish religious traditions and laws has now gone on for over a century.

For some the challenge of survival means “whatever it takes.”  For others it means creating a Jewish society that will learn how to survive as part of a region that has been mostly hostile up until now.  For some the lesson of the Holocaust is that the Jewish people is alone in the world and must become self-reliant and as powerful as possible.  For others the lesson of the Holocaust is that we must be among the first to protest injustice and must never be guilty of injustice.

In the context of Jewish existence today, what does it mean to preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel? Does it mean preserving a Jewish demographic majority through any means and continued Jewish domination of the Palestinian people and their land? What is the narrative that we as a people are creating, and what kind of voice are we seeking? What sort of meaning do we as Jews derive from the debasement and humiliation of Palestinians? What is at the center of our moral and ethical discourse? What is the source of our moral and spiritual legacy? What is the source of our redemption? Has the process of creating and rebuilding ended for us?[31]

            The following two quotes are from Orthodox Jews who are very personally involved in the meaning of the conflict with the Palestinians.  The first is by Shamai Liebowitz, an attorney[32]; and the second is by Yitzchak Frankenthal, the father of a victim of Arab terrorism and a founder of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, an organization of those who have suffered the deaths of family members in the conflict and who believe that their best response is to work for peace.

I am an Orthodox Jew and a criminal defense attorney in Tel Aviv. I am also a tank gunner in reserve duty, and part of a group of 1000 soldiers who have refused to serve in the occupied territories.  Our Jewish sources teach us that where there is no justice, there is no peace. The idea behind the Oslo accords, namely that we could “negotiate” a peace agreement while remaining the Occupying Power, has proven to be romantic nonsense.  Can you expect a rape victim to negotiate with her attacker?  Can you expect a slave to negotiate with his master a “contract of freedom”?[33]

It is unethical to kill innocent Israeli or Palestinian women and children. It is also unethical to control another nation and to lead it to lose its humane-ness. It is patently unethical to drop a bomb that kills innocent Palestinians. It is blatantly unethical to wreak vengeance upon innocent bystanders. It is, on the other hand, supremely ethical to prevent the death of any human being. But if such prevention causes the futile death of others, the ethical foundation for such prevention is lost.[34]

These questions are studied by many scholars and rabbis in Israel with an existential urgency.  Netivot Shalom / Oz v’Shalom (NS/OS)[35] is an Orthodox Jewish organization in Israel that supports reconciliation with the Palestinians on religious grounds.  In order to defend their position they must first respond to those in the Israeli Orthodox community who hold to a nationalist territorial stand.  That stand is characterized by such opinions as there being a prohibition in Jewish law against a Jewish landowner in the Land of Israel selling any property to a non-Jew.  Many publications by NS/OS rebut such assertions in the technical manner necessary in the rabbinic world.  Other publications grapple with the philosophical issues.  Since most of this literature is unknown outside of Israel, I will let these thinkers speak for themselves.

Aviezer Ravitzky comments on the problem of Zionism as a kind of secular messianism.[36] 

In the past generation, the difference of opinion has widened, and the ideological extremes have grown further apart (while in between them have developed various middle-ground opinions). What appears to one group as the fulfillment of the sought-after goal, appears to the other as a betrayal of the goal; what appears to one as the Messiah, appears to the other as the anti-Messiah. This is so because, on the one hand, many elements of the Zionist vision and fulfillment bordered on Messianic anticipations: the ingathering of the exiles, the end of our subjugation by the nations, sociological progress, the blossoming of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, many other elements in the Zionist dream and enterprise threatened to shake the foundations of the Messianic expectations: the secular basis of the State, the “forcing of the End of Days,” a gradual and non-miraculous redemption process.

Messianism has been a problem in Judaism since Biblical days.  Originally it was the vision of the Prophets, especially Isaiah, that a descendant of King David would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people as in the time of King David and King Solomon.  This idea evolved to embrace a world-wide eschatology in the later prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah).  Over the past two millennia dozens of Jews have either claimed to be the Messiah or the forerunner of the Messiah.  Their followers often engaged in extreme activities because of a belief that the end of history had come.  Ravitzky shows how peace is considered an unattainable goal by those who think the Jewish State in messianic terms.

The concept of “peace” is also understood in the Biblical sense – prophetic, final, absolute. Any other peace is liable to be viewed as insignificant, worthless. It is worth noting that the Hebrew words for peace (shalom) and completeness (shlemut) come from the same root. On the one hand, this phenomenon has ethical clout: it establishes a noble goal, and encourages us not to let up, even in the hardest conditions, from seeking the highest social perfection that we can. On the other hand, though, the translation of this way of thinking into political and diplomatic terms may very well hinder and forestall any realistic attempt to achieve political, earthy, historical peace. For such a peace will leave smoldering tensions; it will not beat swords into plowshares, and it will not lead to idyllic harmony. Such a peace is not more than an illusory bluff, whereas true peace is an absolute. Paradoxically, it could very well be that the maximalist quest for the true peace, the love of complete harmony, is that which will neutralize the value of any real arrangement for here-and-now peace. “Such a peace,” say the proponents of the absolute, “will be based on a balance of interests and not on a love of truth, and is therefore transient, while we are on the path towards the fulfillment of the ideal and the eternal.”

The practical result of such beliefs is that the peace movement is engaged in an impossible task, one that may even thwart the divine will.  Peace for a messianic enterprise must be perfect, therefore its enemies are much more than ordinary enemies.

Herein lies an additional danger: the enemy will no longer be viewed as a political, here-and-now enemy, but as a mythological, demonic, eternal enemy; the enemy of the Divine Messianic scheme, the final obstacle before the Redemption. He is not only the temporary enemy of the Jewish people, but also the enemy of G-d, who stands as a Satan against the perfection of the nation, mankind, and the entire world. In other words, he is Amalek, and “the L-rd will have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17).” There is no compromising or making peace with such an enemy, under any circumstances.

            Uriel Simone posits a different view of the nature and purpose of the Zionist movement. [37]  The relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is that we are privileged to live there in peace and security so long as we fulfill the terms of our covenant with G-d.  For those who see the Jewish State in messianic terms that means it should be a theocracy ruled by Orthodox authorities.  For Simone it means creating a society based on the high social ideals demanded by the Torah.

It seems that it would be very difficult to deny that the adherence of some to the concept of the wholeness of the Land has already severely affected their loyalty to the People and to the Nation. The objective of the Zionist movement is not merely to enable the aliyah of Jews to the Land, in order that they may fulfill the Land-related commandments and exercise their personal and communal freedoms, just as do their brethren in Brooklyn; but also “to be a free nation in our Land” (as we sing in Hatikvah). Our goal is to establish an independent Jewish society that is responsible – under the aegis of our sovereign State – for all areas of life. The State is an indispensable tool for the realization of our national goals, and it is the required framework for the maximal implementation of our unique values.

“A kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19,6) will be established only in the Holy Land. The holiness of the Land is an integral part of the holiness of our society, but under no circumstances can the former override the latter. On the contrary, it is our obligation to ensure that our intense adherence to the ideal of the integrity of the Land does not affect our fulfillment of the dictate, “Your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23,15). It is engraved upon our consciousness that “because of our sins we were exiled from our Land,” and Jeremiah’s prophecy of the “Temple of the L-rd” (Jeremiah 7) was set down in writing as a constant reminder against the false reliance upon a protective sanctity, that may cause us to err and to sin. The Torah, too, repeats often that our hold upon the Land is contingent upon the sanctity of the camp, as is written: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue, that thou may live and inherit the Land which the L-rd thy G-d gives you.” (Deut. 16,20).

            The intensity and immediacy of this debate have been heightened by the current violent situation in Israel.  There are some who support the settlers in the Occupied Territories who hold that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people as a grant from G-d.  Some even call for a theocracy in which non-Jews must accept a secondary status if they are to live in the Jewish State.  There are also many Israelis who believe that if the choice is between an undemocratic state in all of the Land of Israel or a democratic Jewish state in part of the Land, the choice is clear.  The people that came up from slavery and suffered every outrage humans visit on each other must never become an oppressor of other peoples.  Israel and the Jewish people must choose between these two options.  Both choices involve risks.  Neither one assures the future for Israel.  Only the choice that frees Israel from its domination of another people will be true to our history of survival through proactive and creative solutions to our dilemmas.

A Jewish Response to  9-11

            Like Israel, The United States was founded with the vision of creating an ideal society.  As in Israel, America has to respond to the internal contradictions of its ideals over against the realities of society and history.  Just as the Jewish people went for many generations without having to deal with the practicalities of national government, our nation has not suffered war on its soil for almost a century and a half or a serious foreign invasion for almost 200 years.  The attacks on September 11, 2001 were thus a double trauma.  Being the greatest military power in human history did not spare us from attack.  There are people in the world who regard us as so evil as a nation that they think it right to kill thousands of us and attempt to destroy symbols of our society and our nationhood.

            Our most obvious response has been to declare war on terrorism and to place our entire society under restrictions that run counter to our democratic traditions.  Fear and anger have been the primary responses of our government and our people.  However these have not been the only responses.  In New York City there is a focus on rebuilding and renewing the area where the World Trade Center stood.  American Arabs and American Muslims have begun to engage in much more dialogue with others.  September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was organized by survivors of victims of the terrorist attacks to counter the trend toward war and oppressive security measures.  Grassroots movements for peace, civil rights and political reform seem to have risen from the ashes. 

            When the First Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled, the synagogue was created along with a Jewish community that could persist in foreign exile.  When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and national life for Jews in the Land of Israel was ended, the Rabbis recreated Judaism so that it would continue not only to survive but to be a living tradition wherever Jewish communities would live.  When we suffered persecutions we mourned our dead and recreated our lives, sometimes in new places.  If the story of the Jewish faith and people teaches us anything, it teaches us that real strength lies not in the power to destroy, but in the power to create.

            The choice is before us.  On one side we could declare war on all who oppose us as a nation or crawl into a self-protective shell and abandon the openness that marks our society and culture.  On the other side we could learn from Jewish history and tradition how to use catastrophe as an occasion for creativity and progress.  It is as simple and basic a choice as that offered in the Torah.

I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse, therefore choose like, that you and your offspring may live.[38]

[1] Lamentations 1:1

[2] ibid. 3:40-42

[3] Jeremiah 32:6-25

[4] The author’s Rabbinic thesis, entitled “Tannaitic Reactions to Persecution”, deals with some of this literature, especially the Midrash on Lamentations, Eykhah Rabbati.  That work is available at the HUC-JIR library in New York City.

[5] For reasons far too complex to go into here the author does not believe that the famous mass suicide actually occurred.

[6] This historic lesson is discussed and applied to modern Israel by Yehoshfat Harkabi in The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics, Rossel Books, Chappequa NY 1983.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56a and Lamentations Rabbah I:33

[8] The Midrash is a body of exegetical Rabbinic literature built on the scriptures.  It often reflects the time and place of its composition.

[9] Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah (see following note) and President of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the 3rd century CE.  He was the premier leader of Judaism at the time that the center of Jewish life was moving from the Land of Israel to the Diaspora centered in Babylonia (modern Iraq).

[10] The Mishnah is the codification of the Oral Law that was 200 years in its preparation and was edited by Rabbi (see previous note).

[11] Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 2.

[12] In our day the Dalai Lama studies Judaism and Jewish history to see if the same approach will save Tibetan civilization in exile over the long term.

[13] Gittin, Ibid.

[14] as translated by Jacob Petuchowski and published in The Literature of Destruction, David Roskies, Editor, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1988, p. 84

[15] The descendants of these people prefer the term Converso, which means simply Convert, as opposed to the better known but insulting Marrano, which means swine.

[16] Where they suffered a similar edict of Expulsion in 1498, but most were forced to convert rather than go into exile.

[17] As translated by David S. Segal and published in Roskies, op.cit, p. 104

[18] Ibid., p. 98

[19] The Golem stories include some that are very similar to the well-known Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  It is also believed that Mary Shelley knew of this legend and it was the basis for her novel “Frankenstein.”

[20] “Ghetto and Emancipation,” Menorah Journal, 14 (1928) 515-26) on p. 211

[21] Alan Dowty, “Zionism’s Greatest Conceit, Israel Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 quoting from Biale’s Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, Schocken Books, Tel-Aviv, 1986

[22] The  quote is as remembered by the author, who was there.

[23]New York, October 1986

[24] Second International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, 1983

[25] Jewish participation in these movements is discussed in Nora Levin’s While Messiah Tarried, Schocken Books, New York  1977.

[26] A reasonably objective account of this period may be found online at <http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/History/refugees.html&gt;

[27] Isaiah 42:6 “I, the LORD, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand.  I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” Also 49:6 “I will make you a light of nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

[28] Emphasis by the author

[29] see above

[30] Yeshayahu Liebowitz Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1992, p. 185

[31] Sara Roy, “Living with the Holocaust: The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors” ; lecture published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Volume 32, Number 1, Autumn 2002, pp. 5-12]

[32] Shamai Liebowitz is a grandson of Yeshayahu Liebowitz.

[33] The complete text of the statement, entitled “An Israeli Refusnik Replies to President Bush” (June 27, 2002) may be found online at http://www.seruv.org.il/MoreArticles/English/ShamaiLeibowitz_Bush.htm&nbsp; This is part of the site http://www.seruv.org which is the home page of the Israelis who refuse to serve in military operations in the Occupied Territories.

[34] The complete statement, “The Ethics of Revenge,”  (July 27, 2002) and many others may be found online at http://www.theparentscircle.com

[35] The name is a combination of the names of two similar groups that chose to unite: Paths of Peace / Strength and Peace.  Their website, which is the source of several quotes in this paper, is at http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/&nbsp;

[36] The extracts are from “The Redemption and the Covenant” posted in full on the NS/OS site.

[37] The extracts are from “The Land of Israel and the State of Israel” posted in full on the NS/OS site.

[38] Deuteronomy 30:19

Thoughts on Tisha b’Av 5780

Today is a significant date on the Jewish calendar.  The ninth of the month of Av (in Hebrew Tisha b’Av) is a day on which we remember calamities in our history and in world history.- Destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem – 586 BCE- Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans – 70 CE-Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290- Last day on which a Jew could be in Spain in 1492 (and not coincidentally in my opinion) the day that Columbus embarked on his first voyage.`- The start of WWI (The dates on the Gregorian calendar we use are different, of course – the Jewish calendar is primarily lunar with a cycle to correct for the seasons and the solar year)

Traditional Jews observe this as a sunset to sunset fast (I stopped that some time ago). It is a day to remember the dark side of our history.  Now my tendency is to agree with Jewish historian Salo Baron whose approach was to avoid what he called a lachrymose vision of our history.
Our tradition says that the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem was punishment for sins.  The Temple of Solomon was destroyed because society had become corrupted by the sins of bloodshed, sexual immorality, and idolatry.  Jewish law says one should die rather than commit these sins.  That gives us the origin of the idea of martyrdom starting during the Hasmonean Revolt (remembered on Hanukkah).

The Second Temple was destroyed because society had become corrupted by baseless hatred.  Bigotry is one form of baseless hatred, but there are others.  Hatred based on politics and on religion are also included.  Personal animus is also included.  Here is a story illustrating that.
In those days in Jerusalem there was a wealthy man who had a friend by the name of Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza (son of Kamtza).  One day the rich man decided to hold a banquet for himself and his friends.  He sent a servant with a list of invited guests telling him to go to each of their homes to extend the invitation for that evening.  The servant mistakenly went to the house of Bar Kamtza to extend that invitation and Bar Kamtza, thinking the rich man sought reconciliation, went to the rich man’s house at the appointed hour.  Immediately the host demanded this unwanted guest should leave.  Bar Kamtza did not want to be embarrassed by being sent away.  He offered to pay for his dinner and even offered to pay for the entire banquet.  He was sent away.  Bar Kamtza was now angry at being shamed so he planned his revenge based on the rich man’s close association with the Roman occupiers.  He stole into the place in the Temple where the sheep to be sacrificed were kept.  He found the sheep that was to be dedicated to the Emperor that day (this was done every day during the Roman occupation).  He clipped off part of that5 sheep’s ear making him invalid for sacrifice.  When there was no offering on behalf of the emperor that day it was considered by the Romans an act of rebellion.  That is how the revolt of 66-70 started with the resulting destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  This calamity occurred first because of the baseless hatred of that rich man and because the priests insisted on following the rules rather than bending them so that the offering for the Emperor could take place.
(I should mention that my masters thesis was a study of the rabbinic literature about the destruction of the Temple, but this is a well-known story)

Today I read Walter Williams’ column in T-N.  It was his usual argument about racism not being the source of problems with police with his usual questionable use of statistics.  At the end of the essay he wrote, “Destruction of symbols of American history might help relieve the frustrations of all those white college students and their professors frustrated by the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. Problems that black people face give white leftists cover for their anti-American agenda.”
Here he reveals nothing but hatred for those opposed to Trump and to his views. This is, in my view, an example of baseless hatred.  To specify “white students” is a racist statement.  There are obvkiously many Black Americans involved.  To call protesters anti-American is plainly an expression of hatred and, I will say, not at all deserved.

Last night (last night Tisha b’Av had begun) I watched an episode of HBO’s dramatization of a Philip Roth book “The Plot Against America.”  In that alternate history Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 election and makes Hitler an ally of this country.  (Lindbergh’s party was called “America First”)  One of the main characters in the story is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.  The rabbi believes Jews need to assimilate in order to be accepted by Amercans and thus end anti-Semitism.  Lindbergh uses him to “resettle” Jews in small isolated towns.  I think he was partly based on Rabbi Elmer Berger founder of an anti-Zionist organization which also called for assimilationism.  It is in that spirit that I think I understand Black thinkers like Williams..  They believe the solution to their troubles is in denial of Black identity and assimilation.  I get that.  The history of my people tells me that will not end racism.  It certsainly has not ended anti-Semitism even though most of us in this country are white.

Also today I watched John Lewis’ funeral.  I was most movede by the eulogy delivered by James Lawson, a man I knew as national chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a multi-faith peace and rights organization I have belonged to since 1967).  In twenty minutes he spoke of the positive strength o0f nonviolent direct action.  Much of what he said is in accord with my thinking and beliefs.  Political parties and ideologies are irrelevant under that mind-set.  Here is a link if you will invest 20 minutes to hear him.
“There is no way to peace.  Peace is the way.”

Guides to Living

It has been close to a year since I posted on this blog. Today one of my fellow Curmudgeons sent an essay which I want to share. It is a neat summary of ways to make life better for each of us.

Nine Evidence-Based Guidelines for a ‘Good Life’

I also recommend Gary Gunderson’s book “Leading Causes of Life” which does the same at greater length.

I also recommend a book I read on my mother’s recommendation at least half a century ago. “You Are Not The Target” by Laura Archera Huxley (wife of Aldous) which contains 33 recipes for living.

Waskow Giving Thanks

Art Waskow and I go back a very long way. In many ways he is more like me than any other leader in the Jewish peace movement. That goes back to our teacher Reb Zalman who saw the links between spirituality and Tikkun Olam.

This week’s blog at his Shalom Center is worth reading as a commentary on over half a century of activism and how we are far from done.


While you are at the Shalom Center, please look around the site.

A Prayer for Voting

Behold, I am intending through my vote | my prayer today
to seek peace for this country, as it is written (Jer. 29:7):
“Seek the peace of the city where I cause you to roam
and pray for her to YHVH (Adonai/God), for in her peace you all will
have peace.”
May it be Your will, YHVH, that votes be counted faithfully,
and may You count my vote as if I had fulfilled this verse with all my power.
May You give a listening heart to whomever we elect today
and may it be good in Your eyes to raise for us a good government
to bring justice and peace to all living in this land
and all the world, and to Jerusalem
and to honor the image of God in all humanity and in Creation,
for rulership is Yours.
Just as I have participated in elections,
so may I merit to do good works and to repair the world through all my efforts,
and through the act of…[fill in your pledge]…which I pledge to do today
on behalf of all living creatures, in remembrance of the covenant of
Noah’s waters
to protect and to not destroy the earth and her plenitude.
May You give to all the peoples of this country the strength and the will
to pursue righteousness and to seek peace as a unified force
in order to cause to flourish throughout the world good life and peace,
and fulfill for us the verse: “May the pleasure of Adonai our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands for us; make the work of our hands
endure.” (Ps. 90:17)

[from Neohasid.org]


[NOTE TO MY READERS:  This is a chapter from a book that I never got published.  I think it is a response to the legal doctrine of Originalism.  What authority do foundational documents have and how are these documents part of making decisions in today’s world?]





At one time the Jewish calendar did not come ready-made from funeral directors and kosher butchers.  The 150-year calendar did not exist.  In fact, the calendar was proclaimed from month to month.  The moon takes about twenty-nine and a half days to orbit the earth and the ancient rabbis were well aware of this fact.  Instead of pre-determining that this month would be 29 days and that one would last 30 days the new month was proclaimed by the President of the Sanhedrin based on sightings of the new moon.  The most likely reason for traditional Jews observing two days of the festivals is that the proclamation in Jerusalem or Yavneh might arrive in distant communities too late to determine the holiday.


One year the President of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamaiel, announces that a certain day was the first day of Tishri and was, therefore, Rosh HaShanah.  Rabbi Joshua (who we have already met) however, believed that the testimony of the witnesses was wrong and that Rosh HaShanah was actually later.  When Rabban Gamaliel heard about this, he ordered that Rabbi Joshua appear before him on the day that Rabbi Joshua said would be Yom Kippur with staff in hand and money in his pocket, something no religious Jew would do if it were actually Yom Kippur.  Rabbi Joshua as very distressed.  He was sure that he was right and that the President was wrong.


Rabbi Akiva went to talk with Rabbi Joshua and said that whatever Rabban Gameliel did was right by definition. The Torah says, “These are the feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations which YOU shall proclaim.”  (Lev. 23:4)  Ever since God told Moses in Egypt, “This month shall mark FOR YOU the beginning of months” (Ex. 12:2) that calendar was in the hands of human courts.   Right or wrong, the court determined what the calendar would be.


Rabbi Joshua then went to confer with his colleague Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos, whose opinion had been the basis of Rabbi Joshua’s dissent and told him the whole story.  Rabbi Dosa said to him, “If we question the decision of the court of Rabban Gamaliel, then we will have to question the decision of every court all the way back to Moses.  Every court in its day is as authoritative as that of Moses was in his day.”  Rabbi Joshua then went to Rabban Gamaliel on day which, according to his own calculation, should have been Yom Kippur.  Rabbban Gamaliel greeted him with a kiss and called him, “my master and my student – my teacher in knowledge and my student in your fulfillment of my words.”


This story illustrates a basic principle of Jewish law, but also raises some difficult problems which still perplex us today.  On the one hand, we learn that the authority of the rabbis of our day is decisive.  On the other hand, it is a basic principle of Jewish law that the older an authority is, that is, the closer an authority is in generations to Mount Sinai, the more authoritative the opinion.  The opinions of more recent generations in the Talmud always defer to those of earlier generations; and the earliest rabbinic generations


defer to the decisions of the pre-rabbinic Sanhedrin’s and even more to opinions which are found in scripture with the Torah being the absolute source of authority which may not be contradicted.


The problem is that a tradition, any tradition, needs both sides of the equation in order to be a living tradition.  There has to be a transcendent basis for the tradition – an origin which says that the tradition has a basis beyond human argument.  On the other hand that tradition must be interpreted in order to meet the practical needs of each generation as new situations arise.  Without the first, the tradition had no reason to exist beyond the generation that initiated it.  Without the second, it would disappear because it will have ceased to be relevant.


Martin Buber illustrates this idea beautifully with a Hasidic teaching.  In a little book of Hasidic sayings called The Ten Rungs, the first teaching in the first “Rung” is as follows:  Why do we say in our prayers “our God AND God of our ancestors?”  This seems redundant since we worship the same God worshipped by our ancestors.  Why do we use both phrases?  “Our God” is the God we believe in because of our own faith and our own experience.  “God of our ancestors” refers to the God we believe in because of the tradition which has been handed down to us.  Experiences which bring us to belief in God when we abrogated by other experiences (see the previous chapter), so we need to be able to fall back on the religious tradition we have because it is tradition.  Tradition by itself, however, is not enough because it does not include any personal experiences.  We need both.


The history of every religion begins with a revelation made to one person in one generation.  That initial revelation, usually preserved in a scripture, is the continuing basis for that religion.  In later generations, some will rise and will claim either to receive a new revelation or to teach a return to the original revelation.  Every religion needs to respond to changing times and circumstances if it is to survive, but cannot afford to be constantly challenged by new claims to transcendent truths.  Every branch of Judaism claims to be the authentic heir to the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Every Christian church claims to be the true church.  Every Islamic sect claims to be the true bearer of the teachings of the Prophet.  Moreover, Christianity claims to be the true Israel and Islam claims to he the true heir to Abraham.


How does Judaism meet this challenge?  Our tradition teaches that the Torah existed before Creation and was actually the blue-print for Creation.  When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he went up into Heaven and met the challenges of one host of angels after another until he arrived at the Throne of Glory.  Under the Throne of Glory was the Torah which was given to him over the protests of the angels.  They wanted the Torah to stay in Heaven, but God reminded them that they did not need teachings concerning eating and conducting business and so forth because angels do none of these things.  The Torah was for humanity’s needs.


Moses brought the Torah down from Sinai and gave it to the people.  What did the people hear?  The Torah says it was only the Ten Commandments.  Some rabbis taught that it was only the first two or even the first of the commandments or perhaps only the first words, anokhi (I).  It was a Hasidic teacher who said that all that the people heard was the sound of the first letter; but the first letter is an alef whose sound is that opening of the throat –the beginning of sound in which all words are possible.  Tradition says that Moses did not bring down just the written Torah, but the Oral Torah which includes all of the teachings and decisions that would grow out of Torah.


Did the Torah received by Moses then include instructions for a Jewish astronaut observing Shabbat on the Moon?  Did Moses receive information on the law concerning test-tube babies and insider stock trading?  There is a tradition that before he died Moses asked whether future generations would learn the same Torah he had taught the people.  God took Moses through time to the classroom of Rabbi Akiva almost a millennium and a half after the death of Moses.  Rabi Akiva taught a lesson on the crowns which appear on certain letters in the Torah and Moses did not understand anything Akiva was saying.  “Where did his teaching come from,” Moses asked God?  Then Rabi Akiva announced, “and this is Torah which Moses received at Sinai.”  Even though he could not understand what was taught as Torah after so many generations, he understood that what he had taught contained the potential for teachings that would still be understood after so much time.


The process of interpretation of Torah begins already in the Torah.  When the case of the daughters of Zelopahad arose, Moses himself already had to modify the law.  Inheritance was to be only through sons, but Zelophhad had only daughters and, therefore, Moses had to correct the law to allow for inheritance by daughters.  Ezekiel the prophet was of priestly family and may even have witnessed the destruction of the First Temple.  In his vision of a rebuilt temple he described rules and rituals that did not exist in the time of the First Temple.  Later authorities were so disturbed by this that they tried to exclude parts of the writings of Ezekiel from the Biblical canon.  Others said that his vision referred to the Third Temple, which will be built by the Messiah, and not to the Second Temple which was built in the generations following Ezekiel.  When the Second Temple was built, it was decreed that prophecy was no more.  Even the voice from Heaven, which was heard by the Sanhedrin to support Rabbi Eliezer against Rabbi Joshua (see above page), was ignored.  “It is not in Heaven.”


Hillel taught that in deciding the law one had to go to the people to see what their needs are.  He is famous for his taqqanot, corrections in the law.  The most famous of these, the prozbul, is a good illustration of the taqqanah.  The Torah teaches that all debts are to be forgiven in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1-2).  This was fine while we were an agrarian people among whom debt was incurred only in times of trouble.  By Hillel’s time, however, we are more urban and Jews were engaged in trade.  Debts were undertaken as a means of expanding one’s business or for increased participation in trade.  To forgive all debts every seven years would have effectively barred Jews from many business activities.  Hillel therefore taught that a debt could be turned over to a court to be


collected by the court for the creditor eve after the Sabbatical year.  In this way the Torah was kept, but a loop-hole had been created so that a Jew would not have to decide between earning a living and keeping the Torah.


About one thousand years ago in Rhineland, Rabbenu Gershom, the great legal authority of his age, noted that there were certain deficiencies in the laws regarding women’s rights.  Men could divorce them without their consent and, theoretically at least, could even remarry without divorcing (while women could neither initiate divorce nor remarry without a divorce).  Rabbenu Gershom, therefore, decreed a taqqanah to the law which required the consent of a wife before a divorce could be final and also forbade a husband to remarry without a divorce being final (but women still could not initiate a divorce or remarry without a divorce – which we will come back to).  Although technically limited in scope, this decision is still considered binding on all Ashkenzi Jews, even today.


It seems apparent that Jewish tradition holds the Torah sacrosanct even while allowing for changes in how the laws are applied which seem to violate the plain sense of what is stated in the Torah.  This was true and there are many examples to prove it beyond those given here.  Why is it no longer true that traditional Jews are known for such dynamic and creative responses to modern problems in applying the law?  Why are there streams of Judaism with differences among themselves as to how to interpret the Torah and apply it to Jewish lives?


Two centuries ago the world was shaken by great revolutions which had a profound effect on Judaism.  The enlightenment suggested new ways of thinking, even new ways of thinking about religion.  The American and French Revolutions for the first time made large numbers of Diaspora Jews full citizens of secular states.  The founder of Habad Hasidism once commented that Napoleon (who exported the French Revolution all over Europe) was good for the Jews and bad for Judaism.  Jews would now have civil rights more or less equal to the rights of the majority.  However, Jews also had the right to simply drop out of Judaism into a secular society.  At one time a Jew had to become Christian to be accepted in the larger society.  Now a Jew simply had to agree to live by the same laws as everyone else and could remain a Jew.


Almost immediately Reform Judaism came into being.  Napoleon brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire in 1809, declaring an end to Jewish legal disabilities.  Already in 1808 a Jewish activist, Israel Jacobson, who was much influenced by Enlightenment thinking, began to organize the Reform movement in Judaism.  Even though reactionary forces tried to turn back the clock after Napoleon’s fall, Reform Judaism survived and flourished.  The idea of being a “German of the Mosaid religion” began to take hold.  By the 1830’s, there were Reform congregations all over Central Europe and the movement crossed the Atlantic with émigrés fleeing reactionary regimes and began to establish this new movement in the New World.


The Reform movement sought to create a form of Judaism which would meet the needs of Jews who would be actively involved in an emancipated society as equals.  Many


prayers were read in German and sermons likewise were preached in German (or whatever the local vernacular was as the movement spread).  Mixed choirs performed, the liturgy was shortened with most nationalistic and messianic references deleted.  Bar Mitzvah was replaced by Confirmation which included girls.  In these and in other ways, Judaism was reformed so as to make it appealing to Jews who wanted to blend in with the broader society and who did not want to seem to be too exotic.


Of course, the traditional rabbis did their best to quash this new development.  They had the sympathy of the authorities in many places and Reform congregations were sometimes closed by government decree.  However, Reform was an idea whose time had come and it would not disappear.  Then a German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh, became a new kind of opponent to Reform  He taught that one could be an observant traditional Jew and a full participant in a modern emancipated society at the same time.  It would not be necessary to abandon tradition, only to distinguish between Torah tradition and customs which did not have the force of law but which had served to make traditional Jews seem alien.  Orthodox Judaism was born.


In America, the Reform movement became a broad umbrella under the creative leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  This important leader founded the first American Yeshivah, congregational organization, and rabbinic association which were respectively called Hebrew Union College, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  The term “Reform” appeared in none of these names for a reason – Wise hoped to include all varieties of interpretation of Judaism under one banner which would be American Judaism.  Unfortunately, there were very real divisions in American Jewry and when the banquet for the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College featured treyfe seafood on the menu (an obvious set-up by the radicals), the traditionalists left to create their own movement which became the Conservative movement.


The proliferation of movements in American Judaism did not stop there.  A Reform rabbi, Felix Adler, created the Society for Ethical Culture, which is intended to be the rational and ethical elements of Judaism, without any of Judaism’s ethnic or particularistic elements.  This movement is not considered part of Judaism.  A Conservative rabbi, Mordechai Kaplan founded Reconstructionalism which is a branch of Judaism that emphasizes community and Jewish civilization with a somewhat radical theology.  Since World War II, a number of Hasidic sects, including one effectively founded in America (the Bostoner), have tried to maintain the cultural and religious life they knew in Eastern Europe maintaining that only in this way will Judaism survive in America.  The Havurah, or fellowship movement, that arose out of the ideals of the late sixties and early seventies has, in effect, constituted itself as a movement.  There is even a Humanistic Judaism and “Jewish Science.”  All of these in one way or another are providing responses to the challenges of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation.  Within these movements, at least the larger ones, there are sharp divisions of opinion on how to solve the challenges of Jews living in an open but non-Jewish society.



The problem of divorce, for example, has bee very much aggravated by the existence of marriage and divorce as civil institutions.  Marriage is easy.  If a Jewish couple lives together, they are, de facto, and therefore, de jure, married.  It does not matter who officiated or even if no one officiated.  Divorce, however, requires a specific legal procedure with an Orthodox court of rabbis.  Only about 10% of American Jews call themselves Orthodox.  The rest belong to other movements or to no movement.  Since the divorce rate for Jews approaches that for non-Jews in America and is, therefore, very high and since a great many divorcees remarry, a very serious problem arises.  If a Jewish woman marries, divorces, remarries and has children in the second marriage, if there was no religious divorce, the children of the second marriage are illegitimate, mamzerimMamzerim are not allowed to marry any Jew, except another mamzer or a convert to Judaism, and their children would also be mamzerim essentially forever.  This problem is so serious that the Talmud suggests (Kiddushin) intermarriage in his case.  If a male mamzer marries a non-Jewish woman, their children will not be Jewish and, therefore, not mamzerim.  These non-Jewish children can convert to Judaism and marry any Jew and the family line is saved.  There is no other remedy once the status of being a mamzer has been determined.


The Reform movement simply opted out of the entire situation by declaring long ago that civil divorce is accepted as binding.  The Conservative movement has included, after a good deal of controversy, a clause in the wedding contract that requires a couple to go to the Conservative rabbinical court in case of a civil divorce.  Orthodoxy has found no remedy.  Rav Moshe Feinstein, the most authoritative legal decisor of the twentieth century in America, decided that if the original ceremony had had a non-Orthodox rabbi as officiant, it was null and void as from the beginning.  Only kosher Orthodox weddings would require a get (religious divorce).  This decision, of course, raises other problems, but it does not solve all of the problems even for the Orthodox.  First of all, not all Orthodox rabbis accept Rav Feinstein’s decision.  Second, it is still only the man who can bring a divorce into a Jewish court.  If a man refuses or if he becomes incompetent or if he simply disappears, the wife is stuck, an Agunah (literally “chained”).  Some Jewish husbands even hold up civilly divorced wives for blackmail before they will grant a get.  The result is an unknown number of manzerim who may be in for a shock if they want to marry someone from a traditional family or if they want to marry in Israel.  These days Orthodox rabbis investigate the background of brides and grooms who come to them which also aggravates the problem.  Some Orthodox rabbis are offering legal devices to solve the problem, but none is widely accepted and none grants to women equal rights and protections.


Why is it that the Orthodox will not write a taqqanah to solve a problem of such great proportions?  Essentially, they maintain that there is no rabbi alive who has the authority to write a taqqanah that will be widely accepted.  The principle of the authority of a rabbinic court having authority in its own day has effectively been abandoned.  The scope of the problem is so overwhelming that most Orthodox authorities and many traditional Conservative authorities as well believe that to make accommodations to an open society in this way is to give in and to abandon the tradition to assimilation.



There are many other issues which lack solutions because of this quandary.  Intermarriage is widespread.  Should conversion to Judaism be made easier?  Should converts be actively sought as they once were but have not been for at least a millennium and a half?  Should children raised as Jews by Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers be accepted as Jews?  Can a common standard for conversion to Judaism be found?  These issues are hotly debated between the movements and even within the movements.  It seems vital to the future of Judaism that we regain a sense of balance between the demands of Sinai and demands of the world in which we live.  The restoration of the co-existence of these opposites is essential to the future of Judaism.





Extremism of All Kinds

The underlying problem here is that most people seem to want firm and pure responses to life’s questions and problems.  It is no surprise that youths (e.g., college students) hold to strong ideals.  They have not, most of them, encountered the challenges to safe beliefs and pure ideals.  Mark Twain is credited (probably falsely with the following quip.
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
All those complaints about behavior on campus, which have been around as long as there have been universities (around a millennium) and even before.  Some people never outgrow this immature need for certainty.  It comes out in their politics and their religion and in their cultural tastes and more.  That we are experiencing this political extremism is a sign of an ailment in our society and culture.  It is one that, for example, was warned of in the Federalist Papers.  Religious fundamentalists become zealots who are intolerant of any belief system but their own.  The same happens in politics.   People, in effect, stop thinking and seek their answers from a source.  The worst of these sources is when it is a single person.
This applies to all belief systems and all the important issues.  It is therefore found on both the left and the right.   Much of my work has been to get fellow rights and peace activists to be realistic and to figure out what is possible as well as what is desireable.  That blend of realism and idealism can come from the practice of critical thinking, which requires one to question even one’s own beliefs.  That is an important aspect of what our little group is all about.  We ought to be learning from each other even as we argue our own beliefs and opinions.

Mugwumps Redux

I remember in college studying political science and history that I thought countries whose political parties were bound by ideology was better than the chaos I saw in our parties. Each of the two of them had fairly broad ideological umbrellas.  Later I came to appreciate the value of diversity within parties.  Now I deeply miss those broad ideological umbrellas within each party.  Both of our major parties are bound by increasingly extreme versions of their ideologies.  Watching TV ads from South Carolina where GOP candidates are trying to outdo each other in right-wing extremism I feel our Republic is in danger of abandoning democracy.
And please don’t give me that nonsense about “we are a republic, not a democracy.”  All the term “republic” means is that we do not have a hereditary monarchy.  Every tyranny of every stripe calls itself a republic.  The term comes from Roman history.  When they overthrew the last of the seven kings who were the first rulers of Rome, they declared the new government “res publica,” which means law by the public.  So we are a republic just like the USSR, the GDR, the PRC, etc.  What distinguishes us from them is that we are a representative democracy.  The term “republic” only means that our government governs by common popular consent.  What those who say, “we are not a democracy but a republic are saying” is disturbing to me.  That seems to indicate real discomfort with the complexity and uncertainties, the messiness of democracy.  To me that represents a very real danger to our society as well as our system of government.  Plato was the first to explain how democracy gives way to tyranny.  We saw it in the artificial democracies imposed on much of Europe by Wilson and Versailles that almost all became fascist regimes between the world wars.  We are seeing a resurgence of this all over the world today and our President and his minions seems to favor those regimes over our traditional allies.
Both parties are in need of reformers and moderates.  I have said many times that this is the most credible way out of the current situation.  TR led the way at the start of the last century out of a very similar political and social malaise remembered as The Gilded Age (shiny on the surface and rotten beneath).  I think we are experiencing a second gildeed age and the political extremism we see is a symptom of that.  So is government by self-serving billionaires.
There are several efforts to get us out of this situation and No Labels is just one of them.  Public Citizen is another which has been around for a long time.
You may remember my essay about Mugwumps and why we should be Mugwumps. https://pearleafblog.com/?s=mugwumps
These were mostly Republican political activists in the last quarter of the 19th century.  I’ll close with Mark Twain on partisanship as “normal insanity.”  (Do not mistake his comments on Islam as anything but how an ideological Christian sees another faith.  Twain hated all forms of bigotry, including that based on faith).  The introductory sentence is by Jonathan Haidt.

[In a 1907 essay title Christian Science, Mark Twain explains the normal psychology of group identity, and spins it into a plea for moral humility:]

“Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other, it will unriddle many riddles, it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now…

“That is a simple rule, and easy to remember. When I, a thoughtful and unbiased Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unbiased Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic–for that is part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the republicans and mugwumps know it. All the republicans are insane, but only the democrats and mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect; in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. When I look around me I am often troubled to see how many people are mad [gives long list]… This should move us to be charitable toward one anothers lunacies.”

The Most Important Biblical Verse


Being asked to preach at the Sunday morning closing service of an interfaith conference was, for me, a very great honor.  It was also a great challenge.  This was the ninth in a series of Interfaith Peace Conferences at the United Methodist Conference Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.  Usually the preacher at this service has been a Christian guest speaker.  It would be my task to bring the conference to an inspiring close with thoughts people could take home with them.  I took that very seriously.

This series of conferences was the brainchild of Rev. Wright Spears, a pulpit minister who had done much for inter-racial and interfaith relations in his career.  The format involved bringing together religious figures from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to address a theme.  Having attended, planned, or lead many conferences in my career I can say that nothing I had ever been a part of was like these events.  We were able to bring leading experts from all over the world to speak at our conferences.  Perhaps it has been the beautiful setting of Lake Junaluska, but there was something very special about the spirit I felt there.

The theme of this conference was “Meeting The Other: Can We Talk?”  This idea of finding ways to help different kinds of people, people who believe different things, talk with and understand each other is on many people’s minds right now.  I know that there are many programs and projects around the country addressing this theme.

I have been involved with one such for decades – The Compassionate Listening Project.  Their motto is, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.”

Together with a friend who is about 180 degrees from my political views I started a discussion group to facilitate dialogue among people who hold a variety of political and social beliefs.  We call ourselves the Curmudgeons.  I hold very strong views, but cannot regard myself as having a monopoly on right thinking.  I learn far more from people I disagree with than from people I agree with.

What was my sermon’s theme going to be?  We would have had three days of talking about dialogue among people of different faiths as well as social and political views.  Many of our regulars would be fairly described as liberal Christians, but at this conference we also had forty rural pastors from all over the country who decided to combine their annual meeting with ours.  That certainly increased the mix.

I asked myself, “What is the prerequisite for dialogue among different kinds of people?”  My answer was that we are all people.  We have our humanity in common.  Each of the three Abrahamic traditions shares that idea.  For several years I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about how I see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three faces of one faith, the faith of Abraham.  This is hardly novel.  Others have long pointed out that these three faiths have one common origin and one sense of tradition.  The New Testament relies on the truth of the Jewish scriptures and the truth of Islam likewise rests on the prophets who came before Mohammed from Adam to Jesus.

My method of presenting this idea would use sources from all three faiths as if they were one source, which, in my thinking, they are.  The result is the sermon that follows.  I do not preach from a written out text, but from notes.  In order to present this sermon here, I have gone back to my notes and made of them a readable (I hope) text.



One day Jesus was talking with some Pharisees[1] and one of them asked him a question.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 22:36-40)

Jesus’ answer was the Jewish answer and, what is more, the Pharisee answer to that question.  A century later a group of Rabbis was holding a similar discussion on the same question.  This was in the time of Rabbi Akiva, who usually gave the best and final answer, but not in this case.

Rabbi Akiva said the most important verse is, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. יי (Lev. 19:18).   But this time he colleague Ben Azzai bested him.  “Ben Azzai teaches: ‘This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.”, (Gen. 5:1) this principle is the most fundamental.  (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18)

If you ask most people who know scripture  which is the most important, the most fundamental verse in the Torah, they are very likely to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” because it is the Torah’s version of The Golden Rule.  Why would a verse most people would pay little attention to top that?  Martin Buber noted that this verse could be correctly read, “You shall love your neighbor – he is like you.”  The lack of clarity in Hebrew makes TaNaKh difficult to translate, but that opens the way to multiple readings of the text.  Rabbinic tradition says that every word in the Torah has seventy meanings, which is a way of saying countless meanings.

Here are the two verses that together show the principle at work here.  This is the record of Adam’s line – When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness of God; male and female were they created. And, when they were created, [God] blessed them and called them Humankind. (Genesis 5:1-2)[2]  The basis for the Golden Rule, in whatever form, is that every human being is the same, an avatar of the divine.  We are all, every one of us, part of one family.

After Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Of course we all remember Cain’s answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds, “What have you done?  Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) The commentary on this found in the Talmud leads to a well-known principle of Jewish ethics that follows this idea of the unity of humanity.  The word translated as “blood” is actually in the plural form in the text.

For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of your brother cry unto me: not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants.  For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul…, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul…, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.  Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my ancestor was greater than yours, …; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one of blessing: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one of blessing, fashioned every person in the stamp op the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake. (SANH. 37a)

If we were all created the same in one mold or image, why is there so much diversity among human beings?  That Biblical story is familiar – The Tower of Babel.  After the Flood all of humanity was living in one place under one king.  They all spoke one language.  They got the idea of building a great tower to challenge Heaven.  God looked and said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach.  Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7)  This text raises many intriguing questions, but for us it is the story of why humanity is so culturally diverse despite all being of one kind.[3]

Why would god do this?  Why divide humanity in a way that causes us not to understand each other?  Isn’t this the cause of wars, oppression, hatred, and injustice?  It seems that we were not ready for a united humanity and are required to go through thousands of years of conflict.  Does this make any sense at all?  We find a wonderful answer in two passages from the Koran.

We have revealed the Book to you (Muhammad) in all Truth. It confirms the (original) Bible and has the authority to preserve or abrogate what the Bible contains. Judge among them by what God has revealed to you and do not follow their desires instead of the Truth which has come to you. We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but He wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you. Compete with each other in righteousness. All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences.”  (5:48)

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you….(49:13)


Recently I reread one of Teilhard de Chardin’s books about his vision of a common human destiny.  He saw us as on an evolutionary path towards what he called The Omega Point.  This would be the culmination of Creation and, among other things, would bring all of humanity together as God intended.  Pope Benedict XVI explained this vision beautifully.

“And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history. Against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the “Noosphere” in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism.”

Physics tells us that the universe is undergoing an inevitable process of increasing disorder in the universe called Entropy.  What de Chardin, who was a scientist as well as a priest, taught that human activity can reverse entropy itself.   “This will be the end and the fulfillment of the spirit of the Earth. The end of the world: the wholesale internal introversion upon itself of the noosphere, which has simultaneously reached the uttermost limit of its complexity and centrality. The end of the world: the overthrow of equilibrium [the Heat Death], detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weigh on God-Omega.”

Our teacher A. J. Heschel put it this way. “For whom does he plant who plants a tree?  For generations to come, for faces he has never seen.  Higher purposes are shrewdly disguised as ends of immediate usefulness.  It is as if divine cunning operated in human history, using our instincts as pretexts for the attainment of goals which are universally valid, a scheme to harness man’s lower forces in the service of higher ends.”

So where do we, you and I, fit into all of this?  Each of us is so small in the scheme of things.   It is essential that we go through our days encountering other people and recognizing them as being just like us, even though they are different.   Every single person is a living avatar of god – that is what it means that we are made in the divine image.  Some like to say, “we are in god’s hands.”  I see that differently, as did and do so many of the spiritually great people we try to learn from.  We are not in god’s hands – we are god’s hands.

In closing I want to share with you my favorite teaching on dialogue between people of differing opinions.  It comes from Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Kotzk and was taught to me in this form by my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l).

If I am I because you are you


you are you because I am I


I am not I and you are not you


If I am I because I am I


you are you because you are you


I am I and you are you

[And we can talk.]

May each of us be able to see in our human encounters the face of God.



If anyone reading this wants to hear the original sermon from the conference, it is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZ0Ga9N5YY&t=33s   My sermon begins an hour into the recording and nothing much happens for the first forty minutes or so.  However I do recommend listening to the music of the resident musical group on the recording.  They were very much the heart of our conference – Abraham Jam.  They are three accomplished singer-songwriters, one from each of the Abrahamic faiths.  You can find them on Youtube as well.  Also on Youtube there are major addresses from our last three conferences.

If anyone reading this would like to know about our next conference, which will take place on November 21-24, 2019 at Lake Junaluska.  The theme will be “Peace and The Arts”  There isn’t much posted on it yet, but go to http://www.lakejunaluska.com/peace for information.





[1] This is usually a misunderstood term.  The Pharisees had nothing to do with the Priests who ran the Temple in Jerusalem, but were actually their opponents.  During Jesus’ lifetime the Pharisee party was engaged in creating a form of Judaism that took much of Jewish practice from the Temple and put it in the hands of individual Jews.  They taught that Moses received an Oral Torah in addition to the written Torah (the five book of Moses) which had been handed down from one generation to the next and which they were in the process of writing down.  The arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees were all typical of Pharisaic arguments that actually continued for centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the rise of the Rabbinic Judaism which we still have today.  I believe Jesus himself was a Pharisee and these conversations and arguments were the conversations and arguments of colleagues, even when Jesus says, “you Pharisees…”

[2] The Torah translation I am using  is “The Contemporary Torah,” a gender-sensitive version published by JPS.

[3] I cannot resist the temptation of quoting my favorite comment on the story, which is by Franz Kafka.  He wrote, “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.”

Thanksgiving – Light and Dark

There has been an exchange on the Curmudgeons list about whether Thanksgiving should be regarded as a day of mourning and fasting as atonement for the genocide of Native Americans.  My own response comes from the gut as much as from the mind.  One who needs to never forget the Shoah (the proper Hebrew term for the Holocaust) should acknowledge the other genocides that have been attempted or accomplished.
I will not share here the exchange, which I regard as private communications (as private as anything on the Internet is anyway).  Here is most of my response to complaints about my position that I wrote today (Thanksgiving morning).  I start with the link to one of the offending articles explaining the call for making Thanksgiving a day of mourning.
Here is the relevant passage from it giving a bit of the real story.

“One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

“Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.”

Since 1970 Native Americans have observed our Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.  They consider this day as the start of a pattern of genocidal behavior that continued for centuries and was followed in the 20th century by a campaign to destroy Native American culture and languages.  Meanwhile our popular culture ignores this history.  It took the Pine Ridge Reservation revolt and AIM (whose violence I was against) to wake up at least some Americans to this dark aspect of our national history.  Saying it is past time to remember it and seek atonement is a moral statement, not a political one.  It is being used for political purposes however.

There is a big difference between actual history and nationalist indoctrination, which is largely what the teaching of US history in our school system consists of.

We should know what kind of religion and society the Puritans lived in.  They were too narrow-minded even to tolerate other kinds of Christians.  They believed that God is eternally angry with even the most virtuous of us (see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” which is considered the beginning of American religious literature.  here is a site with quotes  https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/618854-sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god)  These are the people who carried out the Salem witch trials.  They certainly did not respect the native peoples who allowed the survival of their first group.

Again – Having said all of that, I regard Thanksgiving as important, just not for the story of “the first Thanksgiving.”

Here is an excerpt from Kirkpatrick’s book posted on her web site.

Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.

At a time when this nation is more divided than ever with a POTUS who feeds on that division, we need Thanksgiving as much as we did when Lincoln first made it a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War.

The ability to give thanks is the only real source of happiness, because otherwise no one will ever be satiated enough to be happy.  Giving thanks to God, if you believe in God, is one of the best things about faith.  Being able to acknowledge the support we have from other people and also from society is part of that too.

Those who cannot acknowledge how other people and society (including government when it functions as it should) are not going to be happy.  They will be afraid, sad, and angry.  This misreading of “Self-Reliance” (Emerson’s essay that we all probably read in high school).  I admire the local culture which is one of interdependence.  People mind their own business.  Most respect others.  Many stand ready to help when they are needed.  This is based on the idea that each of us is an independent being but we are all connected and we all rely on each other.  I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).

If some Americans see the dark side of our history as predominant, I think that is wrong.  I do not agree that Thanksgiving should be observed as a day of fasting (far from it).  On the other hand those who feel this way do not deserve to be condemned for taking a moral stance.  Either you believe that this is a free society which allows diversity of opinion, which is what Thanksgiving was made to celebrate, or you think we should all march in lock-step following our national mythos.  We condemn other societies for doing that (USSR, PRC, etc.)  We should guard against that temptation in our own.

Jewish history is a mix of dark and light.  Here’s how we regard our holidays in a well-known (among us anyway) quip.  “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Lat’s eat.”  Denial is wrong but so is wallowing in victimhood.

Eat with good appetite and give thanks to the thousands of working people who made the bounty on your table possible.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.