Archive for the ‘God’s Others’ Category

YOU’RE WELCOME

Periodically, a Muslim shares in the media a particularly wonderful bit of wisdom. So it was last week. Yet the speaker or writer always seems to remain unaware of that wisdom’s source. It’s borrowed from Judaism. Such recognition might help to eliminate the hatred that many Muslims exhibit towards Jews.

The Quran (Sura 5:32) states: “That  was why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other wicked crimes, should be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life should be regarded as though he had saved all mankind.” (The Koran, Translated and with Notes by N.J Dawood, Penguin Books.)

This wisdom first appeared in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) edited by Rabbi Judah HaNasi from oral sources around 200 CE—over four centuries before Muhammad received ongoing revelations from the angel Jibril (Gabriel). It’s worth noting that the Quran makes no claim to originating this thought. Indeed, the Quran states that Islam is not a new religion at all. Rather, it represents a return to the original monotheism of Abraham from which Jews and Christians strayed. Sura 2:135 relates: “They say: ‘Accept the Jewish or the Christian faith and you shall be rightly guided.’ Say: ‘By no means! We believe in the faith of Abraham, the upright one. He was no idolater.’”

How interesting that while the Quran views Judaism as corrupted—the Torah may have come from God in some form but Jews wrote and thus distorted a good part of it—the Quran nonetheless includes a teaching from the Oral Law—corrupt by definition—enumerated 1,200 to 1,400 years after Moses. This poses an intriguing question: If the Oral Law regarding destroying or saving the world through a single individual is valid, how much else in the Mishnah also is valid? Muslims need not practice Judaism, of course. But should they condemn it?

I don’t bring this up to argue against Islam. If I believed that Muhammad received the Quran from the angel Jibril, I would be a Muslim. (If I believed that Jesus was crucified to cleanse humanity of original sin, rose from the grave and ascended to heaven, I would be a Christian.) Clearly, Islam is not part of my belief system. But I find no need to discredit Islam or denigrate its practice other than to point to facets of Islam that may pose a clear and present danger to my freedom to live unmolested as a Jew.

Sadly, ignorance of the source of Sura 5:32 shrouds the similarities between Islam and Judaism, as well as Islam’s rich Jewish roots. Both Judaism and Islam are monotheistic religions sharing a core theology: God is one and indivisible. Jews and Muslims take different paths to the same destination.

In God’s Others, I cite Rabbi Elliot Dorff: “The claim to absolute knowledge of God’s will, then, accounts to a theologically improper egotism and/or idolatry.” For both Jews and Muslims, idolatry represents the ultimate abomination. May the coming years free all religions from claims of exclusive truth.

And if Muslims recognize in Judaism much in common, I offer a simple and heartfelt response. We worship the same God, and you’re more than welcome to share.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

From time to time, the leader of a Torah study session or Shabbat services will ask the group to come up with an Eleventh Commandment. (The Ten Commandments Moses received on Mount Sinai are well known but often misunderstood.) One of the earliest of these Eleventh Commandments was Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim’s instruction to survive as Jews and not give Hitler a posthumous victory. I have my own favorite Eleventh Commandment. It doesn’t seem as awesome, but I think it offers all of us some meaningful opportunities to make the world a better place.

Asked for such a commandment several years ago, I answered, “You shall cut each other some slack.” People laughed. Some may have considered it a goofball response. Granted, I’m quite capable of that. Not long after, I repeated my Eleventh Commandment at Friday-night services. More laughter greeted me. (Afterwards, a woman who has studied and taken classes with me provided a minority report that I really had something.) I suspect that on both occasions, those who heard my pronouncement thought it too humble—too simple—in regard to weightier subjects like avoiding idolatry, honoring parents, and not murdering, kidnapping and coveting one’s neighbor’s wife. On the other hand, my Eleventh Commandment may have made people uncomfortable. Human nature too often seems to resist cutting slack for others.

Case in point: My youngest son, Aaron, married Jeremy Kueffner last Friday in Stowe, Vermont. Aaron and Jeremy had been partners for several years. When Aaron broke the glass at the end of the ceremony—conducted by a justice of the peace—to maintain a link with Jewish tradition, a real marriage had taken place. Two people who love and complement each other had been joined as one.

My oldest son, Seth, put it best. (My middle son, Yosi, perhaps aping me, read from a children’s book with a very deep message about two people who love each other.) I can only give you the gist of Seth’s wedding comments, the most eloquent and moving I’ve ever heard. They went roughly like this: The U.S. just landed a new Mars Rover. It reminded Seth—a sci-buff—of Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s position that creation contained many sentient life forms and our highest duty was to respect and protect each, to live in harmony within a great whole. Trust me, Seth put it better.

Of course, the families and friends gathered had no brief against the wedding of two men. But my Eleventh Commandment revealed itself in a somewhat unexpected but delightful way. My brother-in-law Michael is a small-town Texas conservative. He’s a practicing Catholic, too. But he came to the wedding. And he told me something as meaningful as anything Seth said. “I don’t approve of gay marriage. But I came here to support my nephew.”

Imagine how much better our world would be if everyone—in spite of disagreements—cut each other some slack. It’s not all that difficult. Because in doing so, we don’t have to accept each other’s beliefs. All we have to do is acknowledge them. As I wrote in God’s Others, different isn’t bad. It’s simply different.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

TRUTH AND FICTION

They—whoever they may be—say that truth is stranger than fiction. As a novelist and a lover of satire, I’ll go along with that. Because based on what recently transpired in Afghanistan and what I’ve recently experienced with my novel Slick! truth indeed can make us wonder, “How did that happen?”

As to Afghanistan, we know that an American soldier allegedly (just using the legal jargon in self defense) massacred 16 civilians—women and children. You could write a novel about an incident like that. But in many ways, nothing you create would be any more moving, angering and mind blowing than this tale as it unravels regarding the alleged killer’s deeds, motivations and background, which appears to include multiple combat tours in the Middle East, a head injury and marriage problems.

At the same time, nothing I wrote in Slick! including the march during which Moq’tari protestors chant, “Hoops yes! Bagels no!” could be more bizarre than the radio report of the Taliban, allegedly representing God and a higher civilization, referring to American soldiers as animals and calling for their heads to be chopped off. You can make this stuff up, but you don’t have to. A satirist just observes the world and lets loose.

As for me—hey, it’s my blog and I can self-promote all I want—a writer from Kirkus Reviews interviewed me last Sunday for a profile scheduled to appear in the April 15 issue. The publication, which has reviewed books since 1933 and calls itself “The World’s Toughest Book Critics,” gave Slick! a great review and awarded it a Star as a book of “remarkable merit”—their description, not mine. I checked out their site. Not many books get a Star, including those brought out by major publishing companies.

What I find gratifying is that I published Slick! independently—a euphemism for “I couldn’t get an agent let alone find a publisher.” So there’s stuff here for a novel. Writer writes book. Writer believes in book. Writer’s editor, wife and a few friends believe in book. No one else does. Except a major industry publication.

And then I get a call to appear on a local show, Mosaic (CBS-5, San Francisco) to talk about my non-fiction book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. But maybe I’ll save that for next week.

Back to Slick! If all this was the plot in a popular novel, agents and editors would soon be calling. I’d be swamped with offers. They’d also want to publish my follow-up novel set in Central America. And they’d be salivating over the other novel I just completed, an entirely different book about death, cancer, Down syndrome, stand-up comedy and dogs. The usual stuff. And let’s not even talk about Hollywood! On the other hand, a more literary novel about my writing career might offer a different plot. Acclaimed work. No agent or publisher in sight. A man writes into his sunset years waiting discovered in vain. Move over, Vincent van Gogh.

Okay, I’m dramatizing. But truth writes itself every day in so many ways that often resemble fiction. And every human life really is a novel that crafts itself. I plan to keep turning the pages to see how it all comes out.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

WILLFUL BLINDNESS

There’s an old saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” This week’s Torah portion, Balak, offers a timeless example.

The Midianite prophet Balaam is on speaking terms with God. The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:1) advises, “You find that all the distinctions conferred upon Israel were conferred upon the nations. In like manner He raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters.” But Balaam’s position as a prophet raises many questions.

While GOD’S OTHERS deals with Balaam at length, let’s look at one incident that borders on fable. The Israelites encamp on the steppes of Moab ready to conquer Canaan (Moab is to be left alone). Balak, king of Moab and leader of the Midianite confederation, nonetheless fears Israel. He tells the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4).

Balak sends a group of elders to Balaam asking him to come and curse Israel. Balaam tells them to stay overnight; he will summon God (prophets generally don’t do this) and find out what God wants. God’s instruction is simple. Don’t go. Israel is to be blessed, not cursed. The elders return to Balak empty-handed. That should end the story, but it doesn’t.

Balak sends a more august group to Balaam, who tells them that even for a house full of silver and gold, he could not go with them unless God says he can. This may represent a not so subtle way of negotiating a large fee. Ephron the Hittite makes a similar statement to Abraham when the patriarch seeks to purchase a piece of land and a cave in which to bury Sarah (Gen. 23:15). And so Balaam requests that these emissaries, too, spend the night so he can seek God’s instruction.

What part of “no” does Balaam not get? But here we face an intriguing puzzle. God now tells Balaam okay, go. Balaam saddles his old, faithful ass and begins his journey. But now God is incensed—perhaps because Balaam kept seeking His permission to go to Balak. Here, the old adage of being careful for what you wish comes into play.

A malach (messenger; angel from the Greek) bearing a sword blocks Balaam’s way. Balaam can’t see the messenger, but his ass can. The ass swerves this way and that, mashing Balaam’s foot into a wall in the process. Furious, Balaam threatens the ass. God permits the ass to speak and explain the situation. Then God opens Balaam’s eyes so that the man who can “see” everything can see the messenger who wants to kill him. Balaam concedes his error and offers to turn back, but the messenger tells him to go to Balak. God has plans for Balaam and indeed, Balaam blesses Israel four times in front of the perplexed Balak, who also cannot take “no” for an answer.

The satiric picture of the great Midianite prophet too blind to see what his ass can not only makes us laugh but also gets us thinking. So many people remain blind to the obvious for reasons of greed, faith or ideology. May our eyes—and theirs—always remain open.

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CHOSEN FOR WHAT?

At Torah Study a few weeks ago, several people took offense at the concept of Israel as God’s chosen people. My response: yes, the Torah portrays Israel as chosen. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, going beyond a surface reading reveals just what Israel is chosen for.

Throughout the biblical narrative, all nations remain free to honor God in any monotheistic form. They are bound only by the seven Noahide laws, which include prohibitions against worshipping idols, killing, robbery and incest/adultery. Israel, on the other hand, must adhere to 613 commandments—a matter entailing not privilege but responsibility.

The late Israel scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments that, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden — that of the kingdom of Heaven — of Torah and Mitzvot.” The “yoke of the Torah” binds Israel to righteousness and adherence to the highest standards of justice. This charges Israel with the duty to impel—rather than compel—humanity to notice, admire and emulate its example.

As such, the chosen people do not rule. They serve. And that can bring consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants the priest extraordinary rights and privileges, God also places him under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

What about other nations and religions? Rabbi Joel Rembaum emphasizes “that YHVH [God’s unpronounceable name—DP] maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval is earned through conduct. One can claim no privilege simply for being born a Jew. Moreover, right conduct is available to all humanity.

True, the Sages of the Talmud railed against the nations’ improper behavior. They found many Roman and Greek practices abhorrent. But they did not—indeed could not—denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews who also are created in God’s image. In fact, any society, no matter how wicked, may produce “God’s others” who have a relationship with the Divine since all human beings contain the Divine spark. God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), the mythic prototype of evil, because no single righteous person lived there but because as many as ten righteous people could not be found.

Understandably, Jews living in twenty-first century, egalitarian San Francisco feel uneasy about the concept of chosenness even if the Bible makes it explicit. But a careful reading of the text along with ancient and modern commentaries should allay those apprehensions. They demonstrate that Jews are not “better than” but “more burdened than”—which removes one weight from their shoulders and replaces it with another.

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WE ARE NOT ALONE

Gertude Stein’s famous “There is no there there” implied that Oakland, her childhood home, had not achieved much of a presence. San Franciscans often agree. So, too, many Americans think that progress and decency end at this nation’s borders. Having returned Wednesday from two weeks in Paris and London, I’d like to remind those Americans who have no use for anything beyond our shores and seldom, if ever, leave North America that there is a “there” everywhere.

First, let’s get something straight. I love the United States. It offered my family opportunities denied in the “there” (Tsarist Poland and Russia) from which my grandparents fled. Let’s not confuse recognition of other nations’ validity with a lack of patriotism. Life is more complicated than that.

I’ve found London and Paris—and Vancouver, Mexico City, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Rome, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Bangkok and Tokyo—all to be dynamic, each in its own way. I like San Francisco’s Muni, for example, but I love the subways in Paris, London and Tokyo. I have good memories of Mexico City’s metro, too. These cities—and their national governments—have much to teach us. For example, while the US struggles to fund capital improvements for transit, London is renovating many of its tube stations, including Tottenham Court near where we stay in the Bloomsbury district. This massive project creates jobs and will offer an enhanced transit experience.

And while Europe hasn’t caught up to the US in its ability to assimilate immigrants, London and Paris still reveal multi-ethnic societies. A young Iranian man drove us to Heathrow airport Wednesday morning. He moved to London eight years ago (he has a sibling in Paris and one in Chicago; his parents remain in Teheran) and drives eight hours a day. But his love is the two hours a week he works for BBC producing a Farsi-language show on Iranian culture. He hopes to do that full-time since he studied communications in university in Iran.

Another example comes from the Financial Times (May 25), which I read while waiting for our flight home. Abdirashid Duale, from Somaliland, runs the London end of a successful family business, Dahabshiil. The company handles remittances—£200 million a year—from Somalis around the world to their native country. The family established a London office because Duale was willing to learn about English and European business practices while providing outstanding customer service based on Somali culture.

“Only in America,” we say. But the pursuit of happiness is universal and not a zero-sum game. America ultimately will find solutions to its challenges in concert with other nations. That’s why President Obama arrived at Buckingham Palace as our trip wound down and is now participating in the G8 talks in Deauville, France. Other societies may not totally resemble ours, and some deserve our condemnation. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. The world’s far smaller than when I was a boy. The sooner we recognize that we are not alone, the better.

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FAGGOT!

Last Saturday while I walked to my synagogue, a car filled with several young men passed me. One called out, “Hey, faggot!” The car sped on. What prompted him to say such a thing? I’m straight. But more important, what concern is my sexual orientation to anyone else? Perhaps some young people were visiting from out of town. Maybe they assumed that any man who lives in San Francisco is, by definition, gay. That such thinking is irrational would not affect them. People who hold to a set proposition rarely let facts sway them.

My stream of consciousness connected to a March 3 article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. I don’t always agree with Krugman, although I concede that as a Nobel Prize winning economist, his views on bringing the economy back to health carry more weight than mine.

Here’s the issue: Republicans want to slash government spending. Yes, the deficit is worrying. And yes, we need to put realistic curbs on such spending. But the extent of Republicans’ proposed cuts meant to starve government would not only impact our poor and our environment but also directly or indirectly eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to Krugman, “Republicans have managed to come up with spending cuts that would do double duty, both undermining America’s future and threatening to abort a nascent economic recovery.” Maybe. Maybe not.

And here’s my point: The young man who called out, “Hey, faggot,” and the far right have much in common. Ideologues, they obsess over the purity of an idea. All men in San Francisco are gay; all gays are bad. Taxes and government spending beyond defense are bad; the marketplace is infallible. No wonder that this year’s Republican freshman class in the House of Representatives has taken as its de facto motto the Tea Party mantra, “No compromise.” They don’t care what works. They don’t care what fails. All that matters is unswerving devotion to an idea that sees the world in terms of black and white.

In effect, conservatives’ faith in unregulated capitalism matches their professed Christian faith. (Yes, House majority leader Eric Cantor [R-Va.] is Jewish.) Belief trumps observed reality. They bristle at any questioning of their values—at the hint of compromise—because such questioning threatens their faith. (Gallileo, remember, was forced by the Church to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun.) As I state in GOD’S OTHERS, people who express the most rigid faith often do so to hide their doubts. Rather than seek new answers, they oppose new questions.

So let me suggest my own Eleventh Commandment—something we might add to the ten given at Sinai. “You shall cut each other a little slack.” We would do better to dial back the ideology, listen to each other and balance our desire for a perfect world with acknowledgment of earthly and human flaws we can temper but not control.

A few days ago, 13 people in Egypt were killed in Muslim-Christian violence. My post of 2-11-11, “Post-Mubarak Egypt and Torah,” still holds.

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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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IRAN: SO WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

On January 22, six world powers (U.S., France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain) attempting to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons ended their latest attempt at negotiations. Once again, they failed. We can applaud such diplomatic efforts, but I wonder if our government and others really expect the Iranians to respond. Consider these items:

• Nov. 10, 2009 (Washington Post): Iran charged three young Americans—Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd—hiking in the mountains of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, with spying. They released Shourd last September. The men remain imprisoned.

• April 20, 2010 (BBC News): An Iranian cleric claimed that recent earthquakes were caused by women wearing revealing clothing and behaving promiscuously.

• July 9, 2010 (BBC News): Iran said that it would spare death by stoning for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, a woman accused of adultery. She since purportedly confessed to the murder of her husband. An official suspension was later announced in September, but her status remains unclear.

• Dec. 28, 2010 (Reuters): A member of an exiled opposition group was hanged for various offences, including “moharebe”—waging war against God.

• Jan. 11, 2011 (Associated Press): The number of Christians arrested since Christmas has risen to 70. Accusations range from trying to convert Muslims to being under foreign influence. The Christians’ big sin? Worshipping outside officially sanctioned churches.

Muslim states like Iran not only uphold Sharia (religious law) but also take a highly literal view of that law. Stoning and beheading—performed in Saudi Arabia—along with amputations follow ancient statutes. They make no allowance for changing sensibilities almost fifteen centuries following Muhammad’s receiving of the Quran.

Almost two thousand years ago, Judaism’s Sages took a different stance. Although the Torah enumerates over two-dozen capital crimes, the Sages opposed capital punishment. Working within the law they made it practically impossible. The Mishnah elucidates: “A Sanhedrin [high court] which executed a person once in seven years was called destructive. R. Eleazar b. Azariah said, once in seventy years. R. Tarphon and R. Akiba said, if we were members of a Sanhedrin, never would a person be put to death” (Makkot 1:10).

Our world demands compassion and flexibility. The Chassidic Rebbe of Kotzk said that just as the prohibition of idolatry forbids having other gods, so should it prevent us from making idols of the mitzvot (commandments). Our laws do not exist for their own sake. We must cleave not just to the letter of the law but also to its spirit. I would add that only in doing so can we truly value and respect all human beings whom Torah teaches us are “made in God’s image.”

May the ayatollahs in Iran turn from their embrace of blood in the name of God to respect their people and their neighbors in the name of God.

In “The Governor of Alabama and the Priest of Midian” (1-21-11), I spotlighted Governor Robert Bentley’s offensive remarks about non-Christians. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham’s Temple-Emanu-El wrote to his congregants following a meeting with the Governor. He stated, in part: “I believe our Governor spoke ‘church talk’ without thinking of the ramifications of what he was saying. He is not a career politician, and he is new to this role…. For me, his apology was the right step after his stinging words.  And I have heard from some of you the good news that some of our fellow Alabamians are now more sensitive now to the way their words are heard by others. Sometimes good things can emerge from trying moments.” I deal with this subject in chapter one of God’s Others—“Which Side is God On?”.

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EXODUS AND THE 112TH CONGRESS

This week, the Torah cycle forwards to the Book of Exodus or Shemot (Names). It falls on Christmas this year, so Christians’ equation of the birth of Moses with that of Jesus may be particularly strong. But the timing is coincidental. The lunar-based Jewish calendar floats within the secular year. Thus Jewish holidays always seem early or late but never on time.

Yet parallels abound. Exodus’ depiction of Egypt and its rulers over three millennia ago raises questions about the United States and the 112th Congress that meets on January 3.

The biblical story presents a great change in the fortunes of Jacob’s children and grandchildren settled in Egypt under the protection of an unnamed Pharaoh and his viceroy, Joseph—Jacob’s favorite son. When Joseph and his brothers die, the favor enjoyed by the Hebrews dissipates in proportion to their rapidly growing numbers.

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). This Pharaoh fears the Hebrews and oppresses them with forced labor. Then he instructs their midwives to kill all the newborn boys while sparing the girls. (I discuss the midwives’ identities in God’s Others.) The midwives, fearing God, refuse. Pharaoh then tells the Egyptian people, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). Can he really mean every Egyptian baby boy, too? A midrash (story) relates that astrologers tell Pharaoh that a Hebrew savior will be born but don’t reveal his identity. Pharaoh orders every newborn boy murdered. This seems to have inspired Matthew 2 in which Herod seeks out a newborn messiah—Jesus—who threatens his rule.

As to Congress, will it “know not Joseph” and duplicate Pharaoh’s self-destructive economics? Conservatives hold a majority in the new House and a minority in the Senate sufficient to stall legislation proposed by the White House. They tend to see President Obama as Pharaoh. I suggest that he more resembles Joseph, who fed and sustained Egypt during seven years of famine by taxing the people. (Conservatives should love Joseph’s flat twenty percent rate compared with today’s thirty-five percent retained for America’s wealthiest.) Joseph’s government had a role to play and played it well. While the President’s economic policies may not be perfect, hard choices have prevented a deep recession from becoming a depression. While the deficit poses ongoing challenges, economic growth gains traction. If Christmas retail sales mean anything, 2011 will be a better year.

We must also ask, will Congress explore a practical—as opposed to open-ended—immigration policy? Or will it demonize all immigrants—including the educated, hard working people our economy requires—figuratively “killing all the newborn boys” and choking off America’s labor force? And should partisan mean-spiritedness oppress the stranger, will we ultimately face our own ten plagues and such a calamity as the drowning of a later Pharaoh and his army in the Reed Sea?

The Pharaoh who knew not Joseph represented the worst traits of government. May this new Congress embrace the best.