Archive for April, 2019

KINGS AND PRESIDENTS

The Mueller Report is out. I won’t comment (now) on whether Democrats should pursue impeachment. But more than ever, we need perspective. I look to the Hebrew Bible.

Biblical Israel was never a democracy. Yet the Bible teaches much about national leaders. Deuteronomy 17 presents God’s restrictions on any future king of Israel: He must not keep many horses or have many wives “lest his heart go astray.” Nor shall he amass excess gold and silver.

Saul became Israel’s first king. I Samuel 9 presents Saul’s “bona fides.” Although from Benjamin, a small tribe, Saul lookedlike a king: “… no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.” Some of us remember how John F. Kennedy’s greater television appeal helped him defeat Richard Nixon—if narrowly—in the 1960 presidential race. 

David, Saul’s successor and Israel’s greatest king, offers incredible complexity. And hope. A celebrated warrior—as a young shepherd, he killed the Philistine giant Goliath with his sling shot (then cut off his head)—he expanded the kingdom’s territory. He also exhibited grave faults. David sent Uriah the Hittite into the front ranks of battle to be killed so he could take the loyal soldier’s wife Bathsheba. 

The prophet Nathan rebuked David and cursed his house. David could have labeled Nathan’s denunciation fake news and punished him. Instead, David responded, “I stand guilty before the Lord!” (II Samuel 12:13). Nathan announced that God would remit David’s sin but his first child born to Bathsheba would die. And so it was. 

David’s son Solomon—Bathsheba was his mother—was a paragon of wisdom. Almost everyone knows the story of the two harlots who claimed the same baby. Solomon ordered the child cut in half. The real mother renounced her claim, willing to give away her child rather than see him killed. Solomon awarded the child to her. He also built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

But Solomon, heedless of Deuteronomy, spent lavishly. He amassed 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses. He also collected 700 wives and 300 concubines. Additionally, “King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel” (1 Kings 1:27). He made Israel supremely wealthy—at great cost.

Solomon’s son Jeroboam sought to seize the throne. Upon Solomon’s death, Jeroboam ruled the 10 northern tribes as the kingdom of Israel. His brother Rehoboam ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah. The two kingdoms often were at odds.

A long series of kings—north and south—followed. Some were good in the eyes of God, many bad. The latter included Ahab of Israel (reigned ca. 871-852 BCE), who “did more to vex the Lord . . . than all the kings of Israel who preceded him” (I Kings 16:33). Ahab married the wicked Phoenician princess Jezebel, who turned him from God to the worship of Baal. Ultimately, Israel fell prey to Assyria in the 8th century BCE, Judah to Babylonia in the 6th. 

The  Bible’s lessons seem clear. A leader displaying competence, morality and integrity stands a far better chance of maintaining his nation’s prosperity and security than one ignorant, immoral and greedy. 

Eighteen months remain until our next presidential election. Will Americans—many boasting of their religious faith and devotion to the Bible—have absorbed this lesson?

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PASSOVER AND PARADOX

Tonight, Jews observe the first night of Passover. Sunday, Christians celebrate Western Easter. Christians will declare, “He is risen.” For a week, Jews will forego eating anything risen—bread, bagels, cake. Calls will go out to unify Jews and Christians by following the commandment in Leviticus to love thy neighbor. There’s a paradox here. 

Linked as two of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism hold different theologies. Christians hail Jesus as the Messiah—the anointed one—who rose from the dead after being crucified by the Romans (or, as some Christians have it, the Jews). To Jews, Jesus was a fellow Jew, perhaps in the mold of the prophets. Christianity views Jesus as humanity’s savior from original sin. Judaism believes sin not to be inherent—humans possess good and evil inclinations, and must make choices. 

There’s nothing wrong with having different beliefs. History hasn’t always agreed. I write in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, that Christianity saw itself as the universalistic religion of a particularistic God. Universalistic: the only true religion. Souls could be saved only by accepting Jesus. Particularistic: God will damn nonbelievers to hellfire. Not all Christians still believe this. Many do. 

Judaism is the particularistic religion of a universalistic God. Particularistic: Only must follow the Torah’s commandments. Universalistic: God created us all. Monotheists who follow a few basic universal moral principles will share the World to Come—whatever it is—equally with Jews. 

Condemning Jews as Christ-killers, the early Christian West decided to let Jews live to endure exile and whatever punishments Christendom chose to inflict. The infamous blood libel arose: Jews mix Christian children’s blood into their Passover matzahs. This despite the Torah’s strict prohibition against consuming blood. What resulted? Read James Carroll’s frightening Constantine’s Sword.

Has America outgrown historic Christian animus towards Jews? Many millions of Americans embrace Jews as fellow citizens. But we’re hardly there. Witness, among others, Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism rears its head in such statements as those by the arch-conservative Ann Coulter. In 2007, she told Jewish talk show host Donny Deutsch, “We just want Jews to be perfected.” Deutsch asked if all Americans should be Christian. Coulter answered, “Yes.” 

Paradoxes also abound within Judaism. In the Diaspora, we conclude our Seder (home dinner service) with “Next Year in Jerusalem.” On May 9th, Israel celebrates its 71st anniversary, but as many Jews live outside Israel as in. “Next Year in Jerusalem” may now represent a yearning not to return to the land—beyond visits—but to Judaism and its values. For decades, North American synagogue involvement has declined among non-Orthodox Jews. 

Paradoxes abound within Israel. From bondage in Egypt through the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon, Israel consisted of 12 confederated then united tribes. Modern Israel is home to at least as many political parties, and the Jewish world to many more religious and cultural streams and sub-streams. In effect, we’re still wandering in a wilderness, this one consisting of questions: How do we gain peace and security? Achieve unity while respecting diversity? Survive a seductive secular culture?

From my perspective, paradoxes cast a shadow of uneasiness over Passover and Easter. Yet what better time to recommit to respecting the integrity of every human being.

To all observing Passover, Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday). To all celebrating Easter, may you find renewed joy and love. To everyone: Peace be upon you.

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BIBI, AGAIN

Israelis have given Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu a fifth term. Last Tuesday, his Likud party won 36 of the Knesset’s (parliament’s) 120 seats, main rival Blue & White 35. President Reuven Rivlin will call on Bibi to form a coalition government. So?

Bibi was all about security and Israel as a Jewish state. Last weekend, he promised to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. That would kill a two-state solution. (Disclosure: It’s long been dead. The Palestinian “right to return” would upend the Israeli nation.)

My cousin Lisa Bennett, who lives in a Tel Aviv suburb, supported her cousin Naftali Bennett’s New Right party. She comments: “The biggest Israeli dilemma is defining the core values of the country.” The overwhelming consensus: Israel should be Jewish and democratic. But what if only one value can be selected? “Ultimately, the majority of the country feels that being a Jewish state remains our top priority.”

Bibi received support from Donald Trump, whom many Israelis love. Trump’s soon-to-be-revealed peace plan, authored by son-in-law Jared Kushner, supposedly will herald a great new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations. (Disclosure: Not likely.)

A week ago, Trump made a “snap decision” to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, taken from Syria during 1967’s Six-Day War. Syrian artillery looked down on Israel’s Hula Valley and fired at will on Israeli towns and roads. The threat from Syrian and Iranian forces would be intolerable. 

But recognizing Israeli occupation of the Golan pending a peace deal with Syria—how will that happen?— is a far cry from making a diplomatic leap regarding sovereignty and igniting the next potential firestorm. More than a self-professed “instant history lesson” is required for an American president to construct a Middle East policy.

As to Netanyahu, the Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner points out that Bibi has never been wrong about security issues. For example, he opposed pulling out of Gaza. (Disclosure: I did not.) Israelis acknowledge Bibi’s security bona fides, and “this goes not just for voters for the Likud party, or even the right-wing parties that are expected to join Likud in the next government, but even for Blue and White, which largely echoed Mr. Netanyahu’s positions on important foreign policy and national security questions.”

Still, Israelis dislike much about Netanyahu. He may be indicted by attorney general Avichai Mandelblit on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He allied with racist parties and is outspoken in his attacks on Israeli Arabs. And security may be more challenging than Israelis think. The journalist Ari Shavit warns that Bibi has “provided short-term profits at a very high long-term price. Netanyahu’s Israel is mortgaged. And we are going to pay dearly.”

Democracy, as Lisa hints, may be a casualty if Bibi continues attacking Israel’s supreme court and media. His wooing far-right and ultra-orthodox parties positions non-orthodox Jews in Israel and the Diaspora—definitely including women—as second-class. (Disclosure: That includes me as a member of a Reform congregation; the Reform movement is North America’s largest.) All this could widen the pronounced gap between Israel and a significant part of the American Diaspora, often misinformed but legitimately concerned about the rights of Jews—and Arabs. 

So Bibi marches on. My prayer: He won’t march Israel off the end of a cliff.

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UNTRUTHS VS. LIES

Social scientist Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, recently appeared on NPR’s “Morning Edition” to present strategies for speaking to people with different opinions. What he didn’t say also offers much to think about.

Promoting his new book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Brooks advised, “When you’re talking to somebody else, you’re not positioned to say that that person is a pathological liar. What you know, or what you believe, is that person is saying something untrue—and that’s what you should take on.”

In forsaking personal attacks, Brooks cited NYU’s Jonathan Haidt on two values that might draw us closer together: compassion and fairness.“We don’t define those things in the same way,” Brooks warned, “but we care about those things.” Brooks also acknowledged that conservatives and liberals have different moral foundations. His endgame regarding discussing—and arguing: Listen to the other person then let compassion and fairness perhaps lead to common ground.

It’s important to listen to those with whom we disagree and acknowledge what they’re saying. Of course, listening doesn’t mean agreeing. But it can reduce some of the pent-up rage in the other person, who may see you as foolish, unpatriotic, maybe evil. Letting someone else get their words out—even vitriolic words—can be like releasing air from a balloon inflated to the point of bursting. Also, the active listener becomes better informed about the opposing position. You can’t advance your own position without a clear sense of what another believes and on what values they draw their position.

So you listen. You acknowledge. But still, things often get sticky. What happens when the other guy distorts or ignores provable facts, or proposes non-facts? Can you use the “L” word? 

Granted, your opponent may simply be misinformed and utter an untruth. That’s easy enough to do. How many times has any of us mentioned a movie with an actor who never appeared in it or a sports statistic we didn’t get right? Some people—some—will acknowledge an untruth when it’s pointed out. Facts often can easily be arrived at. A smart phone makes a great starting point.

But your opponent—or someone she supports—may, yes, lie. The difference? An untruth represents a lack of knowledge through error or ignorance. No harm may be intended. A lie involves deliberation, falsifying fact and truth, usually to seek some advantage. 

Liars, knowing they haven’t an objective leg to stand on, often fall back on a murky right to their own alternate reality. The crowd at your inauguration was the largest ever or the Mueller Report completely exonerated you as long as you believe it. Fact loses any relationship to demonstrable reality. George Orwell presented an authoritarian government’s concept of fact and truth in his classic novel 1984: Black is white and white is black.

Re Brooks, can you really love your enemies when they scorn reality and objective truth? Of course, using enemy to describe those with whom we disagree creates a toxic political climate preventing reasonable solutions. At the same time, enemy may be an apt term for those who deny facts. We can love them only if we’re hellbent on committing physical or national suicide.

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