Archive | December 2012

Jews in The South



            If someone had told me I would take a pulpit, let alone retire, in the South I would have responded, “Impossible.”  My only experience in the South had been the march in Selma where I faced a strange and hostile environment.  Then, about twenty-five years ago, I insisted that my family include Asheville in a summer car trip.  I’ve been singing  Appalachian songs since my early teens and greatly admired singers like Doc Watson.  I wanted to see where this music came from.  Like so many who visit I fell in love with western North Carolina and said on that trip, “This is where I’d like to end up.”  By some happy stroke of luck I came to Hendersonville.

            Wherever I have lived I have studied its history and especially its Jewish history.  I have learned something about the local Jewish history and also read about Jewish history in the South.  This week-end I participated on the committee that hosted the annual conference of the Southern Jewish Historical Society.  Papers were presented but the program included a lot about our local history, including a program on Hendersonville as the Southern Catskills.  Jews have been spending summers here for well over a century.  A great many businesses in downtown Asheville were owned by Jews and, of course, Main Street in Hendersonville had many Jewish shops and businesses for much of the 20th century.

            Southern Jewish history is often surprising.  During the Civil War, in proportion to their numbers, Jews were equally represented in the Union and the Confederate armies.  I already knew about Judah P. Benjamin who had served as Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of War, Secretary of The Treasury, and Secretary of State (and turned down a nomination to be the first Jewish Supreme Court justice).  It was General Grant who issued General Order 11 singling out Jews for black market trading in Tennessee.  No such orders were issued by the Confederacy.  One of the most important Jewish pro-slavery sermons was delivered by Rabbi Morris Raphall on January 4, 1861, months before Fort Sumter fell.  He feared the break-up of the Union and said he was uncomfortable with the institution, but for the good of the nation he felt it necessary to let the slave states have their way.  His congregants also had business concerns.  New York was an important clothing manufacturing center and that depended on cotton from the South.

            What many people do not know is that the largest Jewish city in the country was once Charleston SC and that Savannah GA, Baltimore MD, and New Orleans LA were all important Jewish communities.  The first Reform congregation in America was in Charleston.  Aside from Judah Benjamin, other prominent southern Jews were Mordechai Manuel Noah, the first Jewish ambassador, appointed by President Madison to represent America in the Kingdom of Tunis where he gained the freedom of many imprisoned Americans.  David Levy Yulee was the first Jewish Senator as well as Florida’s first Senator.  I must also mention Francis Salvador of Charleston.  He is considered the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. 

            When I first came here the housing market had not yet collapsed and I got many phone calls from northerners telling me they were considering moving here.  Some were surprised there is a synagogue here.  They asked about anti-Semitism (some, but much less than I experienced in the North), Jewish neighborhoods (no such thing here), and whether there is a Hebrew school (still only an idea and desire then, but we’re making progress now).  These people had the same kinds of doubts I had before I got here.  We know better.

            I have lived and worked in several places, including three foreign countries.  One thing I have learned along the way is that, to be happy in a new place, it is essential not to bring our preconceptions with us.  Learning to adapt is necessary.  I learned early on not to honk my horn except in an emergency situation.  I learned that people are more willing to help strangers here than anywhere else I have lived.  I learned that there people here are fascinated by Jews and respect us, especially those who are synagogue goers.  Morris Kaplan, Sammy Williams, Francee Sherman, Don Michaelov and others of our community have been regarded as central figures in our county.  I have done interfaith work my entire career, everywhere I have lived or worked.  Nowhere have I been in more demand as a speaker, teacher and even preacher by Christians.

            It turns out my prejudice against taking a pulpit in the South was misplaced and wrong.   Meeting with Jews from all over the South at the history conference and at the Limmud weekend Phyllis and I attended a couple of months ago showed me that we should embrace this wonderful place we are living in


My two sons, Shanan and Joshua, suggested I start a blog on WordPress.  After thinking about it, I have decided to try.  I have always enjoyed communicating with all sorts of people.  I used to write a lot of letters.  Over the past quarter century I have found email to be a good medium for me.  I discuss, argue, and teach with all kinds of correspondents, especially people with whom I do not agree.  By profession I am a pulpit rabbi, now retired, but my favorite activities have always been teaching and engaging in dialogue.  My intention for this blog is to do teach and discuss.  My real passion is for truth, but truth is a difficult thing to find.

As a rabbi I will cite rabbinic sources quite often and I might as well start now.  When the Creator was about to make human beings the angels argued for and against it.  The Torah says (Genesis 1:26), “And God said, ‘Let us make a human in our likeness.'”  Who was God talking to?  One tradition says that the Creator was taking counsel with the angels, who had already been created.  “Some of the angels argued against creating man and others in favor. For example, the angel representing kindness was for man’s creation, for man bestows kindness. Truth opposed man’s creation, since humans are full of lies. God heard these arguments, and finally seized the angel representing truth and hurled it onto the ground, as it says in the verse, “and He threw truth to the ground” and created man anyway. The other angels protested. How could God abandon truth, which is known as His signature? God responded “may truth rise from the ground” and our Sages then cited the verse, “truth shall grow from the ground.” (from  Our world is such that truth is not easy.  Even the physics of our universe involves uncertainty as a basic principle.

I want to take this post to talk about truth.  In symbolic logic there are two values: true and false.  I want to add two more: doublethink and bullshit (if that offends you, maybe this is not a blog for you, but, as i will explain, bullshit is a good word to use in a legitimately philosophical way).

TRUE AND FALSE – Assertions of fact are verifiable and can be fairly judged either true or false.  Arguments and opinions can be useful or enlightening but, for my purposes, are neither true nor false.  For most people this is a distinction that is hard to accept.  It is easy to confuse opinion with fact in our own minds.  I will try my best to make this distinction in my posts.  If I say something is true or false, that means I have fact-checked it.  If i express an opinion or make an argument, I am open to disagreement and challenge.  I do not think any human is infallible.  No one is always right and no one is always wrong.  I do not want people to take me at my word just because I wrote something.  What I want is to inspire my readers to think and to think critically.

DOUBLETHINK AND BULLSHIT – Many of you readers (assuming there are many of you) recognize the term “doublethink” from Orwell’s “1984.”  At my undergraduate school, Shimer College (which will come up often in this blog because I credit that school for much of my ability in thinking, teaching, and writing), we were required to take nine all-day comprehensive exams to graduate.  The first of these was Logic.  We had to read “1984” to prepare for this exam because its author wanted to stretch the use of symbolic logic to include doublethink – three values, rather than two.  (from Wikipedia) According to the novel, doublethink is:

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

In my opinion Fox News regularly indulges in doublethink, but this is not exclusive to them or to the political right.

Philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt published an essay entitled “On Bullshit”in Harper’s in 1986 which later became a best-selling book.  He defines bullshit this way (from Wikipedia).  ‘Bullshit can either be true or false but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that “the bullshitter is faking things”, but that “this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong”). While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, “…bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”‘ (Frankfurt 61). [I highly recommend this book to you]

So there we have it.  True, false, fact, opinion, argument, doublethink, and bullshit are categories that the skeptical and critical thinker should consider when getting information or ideas from any medium. I call this process, as many do, a crap detector.  I find it serves me very well.

Now I leave you with a question as I will try always to do.  Are doublethink and bullshit actually different categories or is this a distinction without a difference?

I will consider this blog a waste of time if it does not make you think.  Please let me know what you think.  Consider me as if I were ADHD with a short attention span.  Keep your responses brief.  I find that writing letters to editors with a 200-word maximum is a great discipline in both thinking a writing.  If you really want me to read your email and respond you will honor this limit or something close to it.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Who Are You, Wayne LaPierre?

Mr. LaPierre


Thank you for your open invitation to email comments to you.  i want to address you, not as the EVP of the NRA but as Wayne LaPierre, the man.  You appear in your recent statement to continue to take the NRA position that always advocates more guns, because the NRA is not so much an advocate for gun owners as it is a shill for the gun manufacturing industry.  I want to know if your statements are what your job demands or what you personally believe.


Let me introduce myself.  I am a religious pacifist who has never so much as touched a gun, unless you include the toys that my mother objected to when I was a child.  Nonetheless I do not question the right of sane, responsible people from owning firearms.


Freedom must be matched by responsibility and, in the case of guns, that means there must be limits on the manufacture, sale, ownership, and use of firearms.  This balance of freedom and responsibility is a basic underpinning of society.  I could write at length about particular aspects of the relevant issues, but I doubt you would be interested in those arguments.  You have seen them all before.


I do not believe that the NRA represents the good of our nation and possibly not even the opinions of its own members.  The NRA exists to promote the sale of guns of all kinds.  To do so it has promoted a climate of fear – fear that the government will take away everyone’s guns, fear that every person is in need of personal protection with deadly force, and even fear that our government will become a tyranny and will have to be put down.  These fears are based on fantasies.  No one is coming to take away 300 million guns.  Few people, even trained police, can effectively use firearms when under attack.  The people who fear the government are the hundreds of right-wing armed groups that exist in this nation today are living with a very ugly fantasy.  BTW I have met several people who have helped oust tyrants like Marcos, Charles Taylor, and the Communist regimes in such nations as Poland and Czechoslovakia without violent means.  Gandhi and King are not exceptions.  There are many others like them who have succeeded in freedom struggles.  No guns were used or needed.


I believe it is the fantasies and the fear they provoke that is the underlying problem.  Nancy Lanza, a sane and well-educated person, bought her weapons because she feared that the US economy will collapse and that one must be ready to use violent force in ones defense if that happens.  She taught her son, who was obviously very disturbed, how to use these weapons, probably so he could protect himself under that scenario.    The NRA bears a lot of responsibility for her mindset and her actions, which, in the end, resulted in her own death at her son’s hands.


Mr. LaPierre you are in a unique position to do something about this.  I use the word “unique” in its exact sense.  You are the one person who could do the most to promote reasonable reforms and to express what is fantasy and what is real.  No one else could do it as well as you could.  Yes, the NRA might fire you for doing so, but that would make them look wrong and would make you look courageous, which you would deserve.


So I ask, “who are you?”  Are you the shameless and unscrupulous huckster who promotes unfettered access to all kinds of guns and ammunition and nothing more?  Or are you a man with a conscience and a heart that knows his job has created a situation that makes gun violence a national plague?  Do you have the courage to stand up for common sense?  Do you have the guts to tell the nation that the NRA promotes and subsidizes violence for profit?  What kind of man are you?


Very sincerely,

Rabbi Philip J Bentley