Archive for February, 2011

THE HALF-SHEKEL APPROACH

While political unrest permeates the Middle East, fiscal unrest occupies Americans at home. Libertarians and Tea Partiers echo Ronald Reagan that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. Opponents contend that government plays an important role in maintaining the nation’s general wellbeing. How do we find some perspective? Torah provides guidance.

Last week’s portion, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11–34:35), offered God’s instruction to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself being enrolled… a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight…” (Exod. 30:12–13). All men age twenty and up—of military age—were required to give the half-shekel towards maintenance of the Tabernacle. Interestingly, the text continues, “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel…” (Exod. 30:15).

The half-shekel, rather than benefitting the rich for whom it would be a pittance or harming the poor for whom it might be a burden, became an instrument of equality. In this one instance, each Israelite man shouldered the same responsibility as his neighbor—something like “one man, one vote.” No individual could take credit for providing more than anyone else or be accused of providing less.

A parallel exists in the Torah’s view of justice: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exod. 23:2–3). That the rich not be shown favor we can readily understand. But that poverty should not constitute an excuse to tip the scales when a poor man wrongs someone in better circumstances again emphasizes the essential equality and dignity of each human being.

At the same time, people clearly share an obligation to assist and uplift others. Deuteronomy 14:28 establishes the tithe—a tenth of income to be set aside every three years for the Levites (who lacked tribal territory), the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.  Deut. 24:10–15 provides instructions for protecting the poor man—allowing him to keep the set of clothing he pledged for a loan (usually his only clothes with which to stay warm at night)—and paying a laborer at the end of each day so that he can buy food.

Yet Jewish law again insists on a strong measure of equality and shared effort among rich and poor. The Talmud advises that, “Even the beggar who is maintained by charity must himself practice charity” (Gittin 7b).

In no way should government waste tax revenues. But it must collect them to fulfill obligations it often can best meet. Citizens who turn their backs on the needs of others put the nation at risk to further their own selfish ends. The Midrash states, “The wicked are under the control of their heart, but the righteous have their heart under their control” (Genesis Rabbah 34:10). As federal, state and local governments seek to balance their budgets and reduce their deficits, may their hearts—and ours—be in the right place.

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HOORAY FOR THE HYPHEN

What goes around comes around. Recently, several European leaders declared multiculturalism a failure. Europeans, who once avidly condemned America’s racial and religious shortcomings, have encountered their own challenges involving large Muslim minorities from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

French President Nikolas Sarkozy declared on February 10, “If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France.” This followed on the heels of a statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that “under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.” This, Cameron believes, erodes national identity. Germany’s Angela Merkel and Spanish ex-premier Jose Maria echo these sentiments.

Must a Frenchman, Briton, German or Spaniard identify only as such without acknowledging a different ethnic or religious background? Or should minorities be permitted to live apart? I suggest a third way—adoption of the American hyphen.

The concept may seem old-fashioned in a rapidly changing world, but it has worked well for the United States. Not perfectly. Let’s not rant about America’s racial and religious wrongs, which have been many. It’s a given. But the hyphenated American—sometimes an American with more than one hyphen owing to multiple ethnic identities (scroll down to “Beyond Definition,” 2-4-11)—has succeeded where the European immigrant has not.

Yes, most African-Americans were brought here in chains. The Irish, Jews, Poles, Italians and Chinese, among others, were not universally welcomed. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Indians and Filipinos were not always embraced, either. Early in the twentieth century, many immigrants or their children submerged or attempted to erase their prior identities. They changed their names while discarding the language of the old country along with its dress, food, religion and folkways. Yet over time, newcomers and their descendants proudly identified as African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Chinese-Americans—and loyal citizens.

The hyphen balances a challenging equation. Americans share a common political bond rather than an ethnic one. The left side of the hyphen reveals one’s other heritage. The right side binds us together with the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

When the baseball season opens in six weeks, fans representing a multitude of ethnicities will flock to see my San Francisco Giants defend their World Series championship. They’ll eat kosher hot dogs, kung pao chicken, burritos and pizza—all American food now—while uniting as Giants fans with a common cause.

Europe’s governments must learn these lessons. So must their minorities. Patriotism does not exclude ethnic awareness, and ethnic awareness does not rule out patriotism. They can—and do—enrich each other.

Hooray for the hyphen indeed.

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POST-MUBARAK EGYPT AND TORAH

The king is dead, long live… Who? Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who held the presidency for thirty years, has stepped down. The army has taken command, at least temporarily. Egyptians find themselves free. Well, that’s the theory.

The reality is anyone’s guess. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former security chief and vice president, expressed doubt that the revolution would come to good. “The culture of democracy is still far away,” he told state and independent newspaper editors on February 8. Suleiman translates Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” to “No we can’t” on the Nile.

So what’s next? Removing Mubarak represents not the end of affairs but the beginning. Revolutions lift nations out of despair only when they point forward to something positive. In one of Marlon Brando’s early movies, The Wild One (1953), a girl asks Brando—a Hell’s Angels type—”What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” He answers, “What do you got”? The small town his gang invades is no better off for its anarchic presence.

If Egyptians want to establish a legitimate democracy, they’ll have to be for a set of basic principles: multiple free elections—not post-colonial Africa’s “one man, one vote, one time;” respect for minority political parties and religious groups; the rule of law; human and women’s rights; participation in the global order; and the determination to live peacefully with their neighbors, including Israel.

How to get from here to there? Egyptians might turn to an unexpected source for guidance—the Torah. Egypt and the Jewish people have a history in the Hebrew Bible. I suggest that ancient stories offer wisdom for unfolding events today:

• Deuteronomy 30:19 presents Moses advising the Israelites on God’s behalf: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” Ordinary Egyptians now hold real power. They can establish a true democracy or merely replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one and head down a perilous path.

• Exodus 25:1–30:10 comprises two weekly Torah portions—Terumah (Gifts) and Tetsavveh (You shall instruct or command), which we read this week. Untypically of the biblical narrative, they go into minute detail offering dozens of specifics regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and the items that go into it, as well as the priestly vestments Aaron and his sons are to wear along with instructions for their ordination ritual. Creating a democracy where none exists requires no less attention to detail, planning and political craftsmanship.

• Genesis 12:3 reveals God telling Abraham that if he and Sarah journey to Canaan, “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” A journey to true democracy can make Egypt a light unto the Arab world—and all of us.

Post-Mubarak, Egyptians stand at a crossroads. May they choose life.

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BEYOND DEFINITION

Earlier this week, I did a ten-minute stand-up comedy set at San Francisco’s Purple Onion. It was open-mic night for the San Francisco Comedy College. I’d taken their five-week beginner class as part of the research for a novel I’ve just begun. My guests laughed. The rest of the crowd—a whole lot younger—did, too. Thank God.

Want to define me as a comic? Go ahead. But I’m also the studious introvert who wrote God’s Others, a serious book about non-Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. Yet I’m also a proud graduate of the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. A registered Democrat, I support government’s role in helping to shape society. But I’m a capitalist—a business-friendly retired freelance copywriter who spent forty years in advertising.

So who am I? My wife’s grandmother (on her father’s side), a Baptist from the East Texas piney woods, asked me forty years ago if I was a “full-blooded Jew”—as if I were a prize horse or bull. I am. Not a prizewinner, admittedly. But my family is Jewish as far back as anyone knows—although I wonder about the red hair on my mother’s side of the family.

Religion and ethnicity, however, reflect only a part of who we are. Pigeonholing people according to those criteria has become more difficult—and downright futile. Susan Saulny in the New York Times (1-29-11) reported, “The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.”

Our federal government may track people by race, but how do people with multiple ethnicities define themselves? How do others define them? And what do genetics tell us, anyway? The Nazis defined Jews genetically, including people with a single Jewish great-grandparent even if they were Christians espousing no Jewish self-identity. Were they right? Should we follow the Nazi example?

America is changing. The Jewish people are, too. But then, Jewish genetics vary greatly anyway. How do I define the mother of six I met recently whose father is Polish-Jewish (like mine) and mother Ethiopian-Jewish? Is she white? Black? Mixed-race? Just Jewish?

Jacob’s sons married non-Hebrews. Only one Hebrew woman existed in their generation—Dinah, their sister. Moses married a Midianite, Zipporah, also called a Kushite—Ethiopian or dark. (See God’s Others.) Their sons were still Israelites. And how do we define Moses, a Hebrew child brought up as an Egyptian who opposed Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of Egypt? The great prophet and lawgiver once killed a man and lost his temper easily.

I can’t define myself, so how can I define others? It’s time we spent less effort on categorizing people and focused more on respecting their inherent dignity. How we act towards others ultimately creates the true definition of a human being.

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