Archive for the ‘JUDAISM’ Category

AFTER MUELLER—WHAT?

Attorney General William Barr recently reviewed Special Commissioner Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Some Americans believe that Barr’s four-page letter to Congressional leaders provides satisfactory answers. Given that Mueller’s report exceeds 300 pages, I have questions.

I note first that a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday reveals that 84 percent of respondents want the report made public. Also, 75 percent of Republicans surveyed favor the report’s release.

As to the attorney general’s letter, Barr declared that Mueller saw no collusion by Donald Trump. Yet Barr wrote that Mueller “did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction” and quotes Mueller that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Barr also writes, “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Barr states that such proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. All well and good. That’s our legal system.

But why did Trump refuse to acknowledge American intelligence and security agencies’ findings that Russia manipulated social media and stole Democrat emails? He conjectured that the culprit might have been a 400-pound guy in a New Jersey basement. The joke was ill-conceived.

Why did Trump, on national TV, ask Russia to provide Hillary Clinton’s missing 30,000 emails? Another joke? If so, it was on the American people. Presidential candidates know—or should—when such “levity” is totally inappropriate. And why did Trump later accept Vladimir Putin’s word that Russia had not engaged in nefarious activities, again throwing U.S. intelligence and security professionals under the bus?

I can think of two reasons. 

First, Trump couldn’t stomach the thought that Russian interference might tarnish his “overwhelming” victory (with 46.1 percent of the popular vote; Barack Obama had 52.9 in 2008, 51.1 in 2012). Did Russia give Trump his victory in the Electoral College? We’ll never know. But Hillary Clinton topped Trump by three million votes. Trump claimed fraud—as he claimed his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. Lies. 

Second, Trump didn’t want to upset business relationships in Russia. During the campaign, he said he had no business with Russia. Another lie. Trump representatives discussed a Trump Tower project in Moscow before, during and even after the campaign. Aside from the Miss Universe contest, did Trump have other dealings with Russia? If so, did some or all violate U.S. law? We’ll see where other investigations lead.

Until the full report becomes public, we have no idea just how unethical—if not illegal—Trump’s position on Russia has been. But if legal standards for criminal prosecution are high, so should be the moral/ethical standards of a president. 

The Talmud (Yevamot 121b) states that God is most feared by those nearest to Him—the righteous—because He is more exacting of them. Leaders are held to a higher standard. 

Whatever the Mueller report states, Donald Trump has demonstrated a clear failure to uphold the standards expected of leaders and continually demonstrated his contempt for the United States. The Mueller report will never clear him of remaining mired mouth-deep in the swamp he promised to drain.  

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LARRY

I lost my friend Larry Raphael last Sunday. I’m writing about Larry because he deserves it—and I need to.

Larry became Congregation Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi in July 2003 after three decades at Hebrew Union College in New York. It was his first pulpit. He was ready. A dedicated and accomplished teacher, Larry immediately led Torah Study Saturday mornings before services. Several friends and I were regulars. We loved it. A bond formed. After a while, Larry asked me to lead the group when he had to be away. I was honored.

Larry taught evening courses about various subjects. The classes were great, including those on one of his passions, Jewish mystery and detective stories. He’d edited two volumes. Larry never displayed an ego and encouraged everyone’s opinions. 

Occasionally, Larry joined some of us for dinner before class or for lunch after teaching Talmud downtown—another great success. Discussions covered many topics, including baseball—another passion (he also loved photography). The two of us started going to lunch and did so monthly after he retired in 2016. Occasionally, we’d go to a Giants game. When he left his seat, I filled in his scorecard. 

Larry was a private person and I’m an introvert, but we shared stories—he loved stories—about our families, congregations he served part-time in retirement, my writing. He related travels in Europe, Israel and Guatemala, as well as living in Brooklyn—we had a mutual friend there—and growing up in Los Angeles. I detailed growing up in Queens, army service, Texas, travels in Europe and Asia, and caught him up on Carolyn and our kids.

Larry wrote a column for the Sherith Israel newsletter, which I co-edited. When he was busy, including fundraising for our successful $16 million seismic retrofit, I’d suggest ideas and write first drafts. “I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he’d say. “But you did,” I’d answer. “I’m only channeling you since you taught this idea and we talked about it.” Larry’s trust meant so much to me.

At my request, Larry wrote a blurb for the cover of my 2009 book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not a rabbi or academic, but Larry read some of the manuscript and responded, “Great. What would you like me to say?” 

Let me get one thing straight. Although soft-spoken, Larry was nobody’s fool. He could get angry with those who acted badly. But he was incredibly welcoming to everyone who came to Sherith Israel and people he met elsewhere. He also was a wizard at remembering names. (I’m terrible at it.) He could have created a memory act for Las Vegas. 

Larry spent most of the last three-plus months in the hospital and rehab facilities, so we chatted periodically on the phone. He gave me some details on his illness, but I emphasized my calls as “Hi, we’re all thinking of you” moments. We hoped to have one last get-together. It didn’t work out. 

I don’t regret not having a final in-person goodbye. The end of a life doesn’t define a person or a friendship. What counts is all that takes place in the years before. Larry inspired so many students—rabbinical and lay—congregants, more than 50 converts, and me. His memory is a blessing. 

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SHALOM, DOLLY!

Carolyn and I just saw the road revival of the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! My life passed in front of my eyes.

Dolly Gallagher Levi is a matchmaker and hustling Jill-of-all-trades in 1885 New York. Widowed a decade, she sets her sights on Horace Vandergelder, a Yonkers widower and reputed half-a-millionaire. All the rest is commentary.

Except, who is Dolly? Originally Dolly Gallagher, she’s Irish. But she married a Jew, Ephraim Levi. (Ephraim was one of the biblical Joseph’s two sons, Levi Jacob’s third son and antecedent to Israel’s hereditary priests beginning with Aaron). The musical’s roots lie in Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Making Dolly’s late, beloved husband a Jew seemed to have been a rather brave undertaking on Wilder’s part.

But, was Ephraim really Jewish? During a monologue by Dolly, we see the store Ephraim owned—a haberdashery—a men’s clothing store. In 1966, a Jewish-owned men’s store was the first thing I saw in Anniston, Alabama heading to Fort McClellan and advanced infantry training. And when Dolly is asked to name a great American, her reply: Moses!

In 2006, the Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh decided not to play Dolly as Jewish because she herself was. The late Carol Channing, who originated the role, did play Dolly as Jewish “On the basis of my own early marriage right out of Bennington. I married into a Galician, Yiddish-speaking family.”

Which brings me to me. Actually, to my wife. Carolyn was raised in Waco as a Catholic but had many Jewish friends and a Jewish aunt, uncle and cousin. She was falling away from Catholicism when we met. No, she never converted. A justice of the peace married us. 

But over the last 50 years (this September marks our golden anniversary), she’s been a true helpmate to a Jewish man, raised three Jewish children, supported our synagogue and championed Israel, which we’ve visited together twice. I should add that she often enlightens her friends (many or most Jewish) on Jewish practices and Israel.

This may be due in part to my parents, Morris and Blanche, who welcomed Carolyn into the family sight unseen. Of course, my mother had to meet this girl after we called from San Antonio to say we were getting married. A sophisticated woman with perfect hair, makeup, nails, clothing and accessories, Blanche Perlstein flew down and brought gifts—among them a potato grater and jar of chicken fat.

It was love at first sight. My mother signed me over to Carolyn as Dolly Levi gave Horace Vandergelder no choice but to marry her. Carolyn has “guided” my life, clarifying what I really wanted to do about various things because how could I be expected to make decisions about the menu at our kids’ b’nai mitzvah or our 36th (double chai/2×18) recommitment ceremony at Congregation Sherith Israel, or the colors for the exterior of our house.

Doubtless, Ephraim Levi knew how lucky he was to marry Dolly Gallagher. I feel the same way about Carolyn. So does my entire family, who from the outset made Carolyn their own while relegating me to “Carolyn’s husband.”

Without Carolyn, I’d be nothing. So from now on, I’ll refer to Hello, Dolly! as Shalom, Dolly! because the moment I met Carolyn, I said hello to a better life.  

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DON’T TURN AWAY

The January 25 issue of J! The Jewish News of Northern California reported on Jews of color rising to take their places in the Jewish community. I applaud this. But the article also made me nervous.

Yes, Jews of color have faced difficulties in a religious and cultural world led by Ashkenazim—Jews of European descent (like me). Yet the Jewish world is incredibly diverse. It includes those born of two non-Ashkenazi parents—of color or not—or one. And Jews by choice. At my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, we’re majority Ashkenazi but include Sephardim (descended from the Jews of Spain), Mizrachim (Jews from the Middle East) and congregants with genes from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’m not sure about Native American descendants, but that would be cool.

Still, Jews of color often are asked, “What brings you here?” and “Are you Jewish?” Many Ashkenazim have no idea regarding Jewish diversity and non-Ashkenazi legitimacy. It’s only natural and right that Jews of color demand an equal place at the table.

Lest you think this problem is confined to North American and Europe, consider Israel. Wander through its cities and towns, and you discover Israeli Jews’ wide genetic and cultural backgrounds. Jews have immigrated—or fled—from the West, Latin America, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Ethiopia. Some have come from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.

Yet pre- and post-state Ashkenazim often exhibited racist attitudes. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews were welcomed to swell the young nation’s population but under-funded regarding housing and education. In his book Spies of No Country, Israeli author Matti Friedman notes how Mizrachi Jews spied for Israel’s “Arab Section” during the War of Independence but were looked down on as “blacks.”

Racism isn’t gone, but it has been much reduced. Mizrachim and Sephardim make up half the population—and vote. Also, military service and a growing economy have brought together Israelis from all backgrounds. My cousin Maxine has a son-in-law whose family comes from Iran and Yemen. We spent last Passover with our cross-cultural family at the ancient fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. I love Tsachi’s family the way I love the varied backgrounds of my fellow Sherith Israel congregants and friends newer to Judaism—African-American, Korean, Mexican, Chinese and other. 

The Torah states, “The stranger (ger, later considered by the sages to mean proselyte) who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34).The commandment to love the stranger appears at least 36 times in the Torah. I hope Ashkenazim everywhere take this to heart.

I also hope that Jews of color will refrain from turning inward. Be’chol Lashon (“In every tongue”), headquartered in San Francisco, runs programs and a summer camp for Jewish kids of color. It enables them to look in the communal mirror and see themselves. That’s good. In a Christian-dominant society, Ashkenazi Jews don’t always get to do that, either. But will Be’chol Lashon remain necessary ten or twenty years from now? It would be wonderful to see the organization eventually disband because it’s simply not needed.

So, I extend a plea to Jews of color: Don’t turn away from me. That would hurt us all.

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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.

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