Archive for the ‘JUDAISM’ Category

THE CHANUKAH DILEMMA

’Tis the season when most Americans embrace Christmas. But not all. I have no intention of putting a damper on Christmas to explain the challenges this holiday presents American Jews.

I’ll start, as in the recent past, with a comic strip—this time, “Luann” by Greg Evans. On November 29, Evans began a new storyline. A secondary character, Leslie Knox, shows no interest in Christmas. His Uncle Al explains, “Les lived with a Jewish foster family till I took him in. I don’t do holidays, so he’s never had a big Christmas.” Uncle Al’s new wife states, “Well, he’s in for a treat.”

I hoped “Luann” would explore the reality that not every American celebrates Christmas, which shocks some Christians. The next two days showed Les being pessimistic about the gaudy Christmas decorations hauled out of storage. Then the storyline disappeared. Perhaps Evans was just noodling in public. Or maybe newspapers received negative feedback: Christmas and all its trappings being questioned? Un-American! I don’t know.

But what many Jews term the “Christmas Dilemma” got swept under the rug. Then the novelist and journalist Michael David Lukas wrote a New York Timesarticle titled “The Chanukah Dilemma”(12-1-18). His three-year-old daughter wondered why they don’t celebrate Christmas. He told her that Chanukah is their holiday. But he found his thoughts conflicted.

Chanukah, Lukas noted, marks the Jewish victory in 162 BCE over the Assyrian Greek king Antiochus IV, who polluted the Temple with pigs and statues of Greek gods, and attempted to destroy Judaism. The Jews rebelled, won and then cleaned and rededicated the Temple. What disturbed Lukas: The victory included killing Hellenized—assimilated—Jews. How can he teach his daughter to celebrate a holiday marking a victory over assimilation when they, American Jews, are assimilated?

Or are they? I suggest that Lukas’ desire to celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas removes him from that “stigma.” Americans are free to choose their religious practices—or reject religion. Lukas chose Chanukah—and Judaism. He is, of course, free to choose more: Send his daughter to a Jewish pre-school then religious school at a synagogue. Later, a Jewish day school. And observe Shabbat however he’s comfortable, as well as other Jewish holidays.

Moreover, Lukas can study Torah and other Jewish subjects by reading and/or taking classes. Whatever makes him comfortable. Being an “authentic” Jew starts, as Orthodox Chabad promulgates, with performing one mitzvah at a time. Thus “authenticity” encompasses a very big tent.

“Assimilation” itself is a tricky word. Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Diversity in Jewish thought represents a near-2,000 year-old tradition with influence from both Christian and Muslim scholars. Jews have also welcomed elements of the cultures among which we’ve lived—food, music, language, dress. And most Israeli Jews—the “paragons of Jewishness”—exhibit little or no interest in Judaism.

Michael Lukas doesn’t need to grow a beard and wear a black hat to be Jewish. Nor does he have to hide his identity, which only gives haters the victory they seek.

The death of a non-Jew, President George H.W. Bush, who—whatever your politics—displayed admirable decency and civility, provides an important reminder. ’Tis also the season to be kinder and gentler to everyone—including ourselves.

Happy Chanukah (this is day five), and to all who celebrate Christmas, may the season bring you joy and peace.

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HOOPS, GENESIS AND CANCER

Last Monday, Boston Celtics basketball star Kyrie Irving apologized for saying that the earth is flat. A plethora of questionable beliefs challenge science. They threaten our individual and national health.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky dismisses evolution. Its website states, “The Creation Museum shows why God´s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” Its exhibits include the Garden of Eden. Adam is seen only from above the waist—and he’s ripped! Down I-75 in Williamstown, Ark Encounter offers a life-size Noah’s ark and all the animals—including dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs? Despite the work of paleontologists, creationists believe the world is 6,000 years old. This is consistent with the Rabbis of the Talmudic era, whose math included the lifespans of the first humans, Abraham and his descendants plus various events and later monarchial reigns. So this past Rosh Hashanah, the world turned 5,779.

But other than perhaps some ultra-orthodox sects, Jews don’t take Genesis literally. Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Spanish physician/philosopher, even declared Torah to be metaphor.

The first chapters of Genesis (B’reishit) pose question after question that delineate Torah as mythos, not science. The sun was created on the fourthday. What constituted days one through three? A different concept of “day.” It required no sunrises and sunsets. “There was morning and there was evening” because God created light apart from the sun and separated it from darkness.

And who were the people Cain feared after he killed his brother Abel? Where did his wife come from? This puzzled the Rabbis, too. Some posited that Cain and Abel each had twin sisters, although the biblical text doesn’t mention of them. Adam and Eve conceived Seth, from whom all humanity descends. Did Seth have incestuous relations with one or more of his aunts? His uncle’s daughters? Or did God create other humans right after Adam and Eve and keep them in reserve? Beats me. But it’s fascinating.

Questioning has been the key to studying Torah for two thousand years. I deeply appreciate the scholar Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) writing of Gen. 1:17 (“in the image of God”), “Whatever it means…” and of Gen. 5:24 (“and he [Enoch] was not”), “I do not know what this means.”

That’s precisely because Torah involves something other than science. According to Friedman (on Gen. 2:1), the biblical creation story “…conveys a particular conception of the relationship between humans and the cosmos, of the relations between the sexes, of the linear flow of time, of the Sabbath.” This provides lots to think about, which is why I’ve read the weekly Torah portion for the past 25 years and attended Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel for the past 20.

Science also thrives on questioning. Theories evolve. They must be proved. They can be disproved. New theories take their place. Empiricism, not faith, guides critical decisions. That’s why, despite the recent outbreak of global anti-vaccine hysteria, Australia just announced it could eliminate cervical cancer in the next two decades by vaccinating children against the cancer-causing papillomavirus.

Faith need not make apologies. It has its place. But faith should render unto science what is science’s. As when creationist theme parks harness computer science to advertise on the Internet.

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BROWN PEOPLE

On August 8, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham stated, “In some parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She also said, “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people…” Changes “…most of us don’t like.” Who are the “most of us” upon whom such changes have been forced?

Ingraham clearly referenced white anxiety—white Americans suffering growing numbers of brown people in “their” country. According to CNN, Fox’s fan base is almost 100 percent white. The immigration issue disturbs whites. (Months ago, President Trump asked why more immigrants don’t come from Norway. He might find the answer in his mirror.) The next night, Ingraham denied her comments related to race or ethnicity. Rather, they expressed her desire for secure borders following the rule of law and shared goals of “keeping America safe and her citizens safe and prosperous.”

Three words to Ingraham (which she will reject): Get over it. American immigration policy doesneed a thorough (which does not mean not racist) review and overhaul. I do notbelieve that the United States should—or can—circle the wagons and compel white dominance. Of course, I’m selfish. A white, Christian America excludes me and my family. I’m also a realist—and a humanist.

Last weekend, Carolyn and I visited our son Yosi in Los Angeles. We had dinner at a brown (Colombian) restaurant. Brown people ran it—and well. The next day, we went to L.A.’s revitalized downtown to browse The Last Bookstore, which occupies an old bank. So did many other people of all ethnicities—people who share the love of reading.

On our flight home, we sat among thirty-five new UC Berkeley freshmen on their way to orientation—brown, yellow, black and white members of the class of ’22. All bright and eager—the successful professionals, business people and artists and citizens of the next decade and beyond. Not “the white stuff”—“the right stuff.”

Ethnic diversity also impacts my own Jewish community—although we’ve been a diverse people for millennia. A visit to Israel reveals Jews with roots in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, East Africa and the Americas—North and South. Skin tones and hair color run the range from dark to light. Features vary all over the place. All are Jews.

San Francisco-based B’chol Lashon  (“In every language”) provides summer-camp and other experiences for Jewish kids with other than total—or even partial—Ashkenazi (Eastern European) background. They can see themselves clearly in the Jewish mirror. They’re in my mirror, too, because we’re all a single Jewish people with many backgrounds and customs.

My synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, embraces Jews of all genetic types—those born into Jewish families and Jews by choice. We’re now running an ad on the outside of San Francisco’s MUNI buses to make our position clear that there’s room for everyone under our awe-inspiring dome:

(photo) CHICKEN SOUP + (photo) SRIRACHA BOTTLE = (logo) SHERITH ISRAEL

To be an American is to adhere not to any particular ethnicity but to American values. It’s time to reaffirm that our flag of red, white and blue pledges the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the red, white, black, yellow and brown.

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CONFESSIONS OF A TRIBALIST

Last May, the author Michael Chabon—himself Jewish—told graduating Reform rabbis and educators they needed to help dissolve Judaism. The goal? A world where everyone’s the same. Amy Chua, the Chinese-American Yale law professor, who authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, opposes that view. I side with Chua.

In “Tribal World: Group Identity is All” (July/August 2018 Foreign Affairs), Chua writes, “The human instinct to identify with a group is almost certainly hard-wired…” In that context, she faults U.S. policymakers for underestimating “the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior.” Tribes are for real.

I’m guilty of upholding my Jewish identity. Some friends brought up as “just Americans” have confided they envy my ethnic identity. Granted, many North American Jews exhibit no particular concern for Judaism and Jewish life, as Chabon would have them do.

The Talmud (Shevuot39a) teaches, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” All Israel [the Jewish people] are responsible each for the other. I take this to heart.

I read baseball box scores each morning and note the performance of each Jewish player. As of yesterday, the Astros’ Alex Bregman—this year’s All-Star Game most valuable player—had 22 homeruns and 71 runs batted in. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit two home runs last night. The Red Sox’ Ian Kinsler  had three hits. The Orioles’ Danny Valencia, a position player, pitched.  When Orioles relief pitcher Richard Blier—having a great year—went out for the season with an injury, that hurt. Basketball’s Omri Casspi signed with Memphis. Hooray!

It’s not just sports. Last Sunday night, Carolyn and I went to the Jewish Film Festival to see a documentary about Sammy Davis, Jr. As my synagogue’s congregation and Israel’s population attest, Jews display a wide variety of genetics and cultural backgrounds. I believe in Am Yisrael Echad—the people Israel is one. We’re universalists despite our particularism.

Am I offending others, such as Whites, Blacks, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Asians, Latinos, Cat Lovers, and Chocaholics? If so, who determines our universalistic identity? Hopefully, no one. I can see the inevitable outcome: Jews forego Chanukah for Christmas to be “like everyone else.”

Yes, tribalism can be toxic. Witness the Greater Middle East and India, for example. Examine Europe: France’s Jews, who suffered during the Holocaust with French complicity, endure violent anti-Semitism, much at the hands of Muslims. European Muslims don’t have it easy, either. A Muslim friend born in England is achieving great success as an actor yet remains wary. Mesut Ozil, five-time German soccer player of the year, left the national team after criticism for posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (admittedly not my favorite political leader).“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” wrote Ozil, born in Germany.

The United States offers ample proof that tribalists can be loyal citizens, who take our Constitution and values to heart. The hyphenated American—Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans and so on—helped make this nation great. When the current political idiocy ends, we will continue to do so. The hyphen enables us to bring varied religious and cultural backgrounds to a common table heaped with bagels, ribs, Mongolian beef, tacos, chicken vindaloo—and respect. All enrich the American experience.

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ISRAEL ON MY MIND, PART TWO

Two matters challenged me during my visit to Israel: family and God’s presence.

Carolyn and I spent Passover week at Masada by the Dead Sea. There, the last Jewish rebels against Rome held out until 73 CE. We joined my cousin Maxine, who lives in Karmiel east of Haifa, her children and their families, other relatives and friends.

Family is crucial to Israelis. They spend much time together. American families often seem fragmented, psychologically and geographically, separated by many hundreds or thousands of miles. Because Israel is small, families can “scatter” there yet remain close.

I wondered if Israelis’ family focus produced insularity and conformity. But my Israeli family’s views and practices cover a broad spectrum. Outside ultra-Orthodoxy—a minority—Israelis freely disagree and argue while accepting each other. Family is family. Carolyn and I share that value. Still, we have one son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (grad school) and another in Tennessee, soon moving to Los Angeles. Our youngest, fortunately, lives in San Francisco. Being American comes with a price.

As to God’s presence, I regularly attend Friday-night services and Shabbat Torah Study at my Reform synagogue. At Masada, the services I attended were “traditional” and way different. I was totally lost as the men (no women) raced through the prayers. Did they find spiritual fulfilment when I didn’t? My friend Larry Raphael offered perspective: In the same circumstance, he let the rapid flow of prayers create a space for meditation. There are multiple ways to pray.

Then there was my visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I had a brief conversation with God. Yes, we talk. Yet I experience God as much, if not more, at home. To be honest, I was put off by men in the plaza on cell phones and empty water bottles littering its stones. I wondered: Do visitors to the Kotel become too familiar with God?

Last week’s Torah portion (Shemini) offers the story of Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, both priests. They bring “alien”—not prescribed—fire offerings to the Tent of Meeting, which preceded the First Temple. Their zeal may have been genuine, but God kills them! Later in Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites they should neither take away nor add to the commandments. In Judaism, boundaries are crucial. As at Mount Sinai during the giving of the Ten Commandments, we must keep our distance.

A contemporary commentator suggests that the many laws regarding ritual purity were written to keep Jews awayfrom the Temple. The priests might be overworked. And familiarity with the holy place might erode our sense of awe.

Not everyone feels this way. Hours before we visited the Davidson Museum of Archaeology near the Kotel, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox activists sacrificed two Passover lambs. They want to establish the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, an explosive proposition. I doubt that most Jews want to revert to sacrificing animals. Moreover, would this represent getting too close to the Holy One?

I love Israel, even in challenging times. And they’re always challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Jews belonged somewhere, not everywhere. Yet the God they worship is the God of everywhere, not just somewhere.” Israel plays a central role in Jewish life. Still, I live in San Francisco. Rabbi Sacks lives in London.

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MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

You can order God’s Others from Amazon, your local book store or—such a deal!—from me.

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ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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DIRTY LAUNDRY

Jerusalem and the Second Temple fell to Rome in 70 CE. The Sages saw in this event dirty laundry—what Jews didn’t want to talk about. The tragedy occurred because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred. Not of Rome for Judea but of Jews towards each other. Jews around the globe need to take notice. So do non-Jewish Americans.

Today, discrete groups of haredim—ultra-orthodox Jews—maintain great antipathy towards each other. They unite in their distaste—often hatred—for Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular Jews—the majority of Jews in Israel and the U.S.

The haredim deny Israelis in the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) movements religious equality. In 1948, David Ben Gurion gave this then tiny group full charge of all religious lifecycle events to bring them into his governing coalition. With their high birthrate, the haredim grew far faster than other Israeli Jewish groups. In Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s multi-party coalition, they wield considerable political power. This includes preventing Progressive women from praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) by themselves or with men, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and reading from the Torah.

The Jerusalem Post (9-6) reported statements by Shlomo Amar, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, that Reform Jews “… don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but they want to pray [at the Western Wall]. But no one should think that they want to pray. They want to desecrate the holy.”

Sinat chinam! Jews seeking religious equality very much observe Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday) and Yom Kippur (beginning this year on September 29 and coincident with Shabbat). Their interpretation and observance of the Law is not that of Rabbi Amar and others in the ultra-Orthodox community—who often contend among themselves regarding minutiae. But it is serious, studious and heartfelt, reflecting a love of Torah along with an embrace of the twenty-first century.

Divisiveness also impacts Israel’s political realm. The left has faded. The far-right now abhors centrists, who prefer a two-state solution given sound security guarantees to a greater Israel disenfranchising Arab citizens—or denying citizenship. Despite statements to the contrary, Netanyahu continues to appease the far-right. This while facing allegations of corruption and his wife Sara’s imminent indictment on corruption charges.

The hatred keeps on coming. Bibi and Sara’s son Yair recently posted on Facebook a cartoon using classic anti-Semitic images of his father’s political foes, including billionaire George Soros and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Yair withdrew the meme but not before it elicited praise from American neo-Nazis.

Israel and world Jewry see Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas—among others—as security or existential threats. The challenges they present must be faced with resolve. But Israel confronts an even greater challenge—disunity.

The U.S. exhibits the same dirty laundry. Liberals and conservatives raise fists and shout each other down. Varying groups claim sole knowledge of civic and religious truth. Each seeks to impose its views on the others.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, offers my favorite biblical verse: “Choose life” (30:19). We possess free will. Using it, we can air our dirty laundry and rid ourselves of its stench. Otherwise, we open ourselves to grave risks as reflected in the words of the cartoonist Walt Kelly’s beloved character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

To all Jews everywhere: L’Shana Tovah—Happy New Year. To everyone else: shalom—peace.

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SWEDEN CLARIFIED

Two weeks ago, President Trump cited a terrorist attack in Sweden. No such attack took place. Mr. Trump backtracked, saying he’d referred to a report on Fox News. Trump opponents leaped on the issue. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Sweden has undergone major changes since admitting large numbers of refugees. That includes growing anti-Semitism, partly from right-wing ethnic Swedes but mostly from Muslim immigrants. In April 2015, I wrote two posts on the issue, “Should the Jews Leave Europe?” I asked my Swedish-Jewish friend for an update. He emailed this (slightly edited for length):

“It’s not that Sweden is a more dangerous country to live in than any other country (Sweden is probably more safe). However, I do think Sweden is becoming more similar to other countries (like the US) with segregation, “bad neighborhoods,” gang violence, etc. When I grew up in the 80s there were very few neighborhoods like that, now there’s a lot. I think our country is moving in the wrong direction in many respects.

“The welfare state (which we are all very proud of) is only sustainable if there is a low unemployment rate and if the majority of the people feel like they are a part of society. That’s not the case right now in several neighborhoods and cities throughout the country. One reason is that we have had a large influx of immigrants over a short period of time (largest number of immigrants per capita in the EU), many of whom have very low education, don’t speak the language, etc. We have relatively few “easy jobs” to offer, partly due to the fact that we have very strong unions and high thresholds to the labor market. This creates parallel societies which is not good for a country. I think the anti-Semitism is the same as before, although there haven’t been any new attacks lately (thank God).”

What about immigration to the United States? We should continue taking in immigrants, including refugees. Much larger than Sweden and far more heterogeneous, we do a good job of turning immigrants into Americans. But it’s time for a rational discussion of immigration policy. The m idle ground: We can fulfill our moral obligation to take in some refugees while retaining the right to choose what kind of immigrants we want and how many.

Middle-ground positions remain unpopular in this political era of far-left battling far-right. Last Sunday, speakers at an “Empty Chair” town hall meeting in East Oakland condemned California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, as too centrist and thus unable to oppose President Trump. Nonsense. Swinging to the far left rather than seeking common ground only further polarizes the nation. Harmful Trump initiatives should be opposed without question. But common sense should prevail over ideology.

Exodus 23:3 offers the commandment to not favor the rich in legal matters, “…nor shall you show deference to the poor man in his dispute.” Every deliberation should look at the facts and lead to an objective solution. Analyzing Sweden’s challenges and our own regarding immigration obligates us to step back, take a breath and view the situation as it is, for good and ill. Only then can we arrive at policies that are both practical and humane—and that people of good will can support.

One highly partisan opinion: You’ll enjoy my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht coming soon.

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