Archive for the ‘JUDAISM’ Category

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.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

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.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

NORMAL VS. USUAL

Recently, I asked a doctor if a small matter was normal. He answered, “You mean, is it usual?” Regrettable remarks by a multi-class boxing champion bring that comment into focus.

I reference Monday’s comment by Manny Pacquiao, also a senator in the Philippines. He spoke against proposed legislation protecting transgender Filipinos: “Even in the Bible, we read that the woman should wear women’s [clothing]; and the man, for men’s wear. That’s what I believe.” One year ago, Nike ended its relationship with Pacquiao after he called gays “worse than animals.” He apologized.

Pacquiao’s quoting the Torah puzzles me. Christian conservatives habitually cite such commandments as, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear women’s clothing” (Deuteronomy 22:5). Yet this is not one of the Ten Commandments, which Christians revere. It’s one of 603 other mitzvot given the Israelites at Sinai. Christians believe them obsolete because Jesus established a new covenant with humanity.

Does Pacquiao’s defending one of those 603 other mitzvot give his position credence? Leviticus 11:7-8 forbids eating swine. Other passages forbid eating shellfish. (For the record, I don’t eat pork or shellfish.) These commandments are addressed to Jews. Does Pacquiao follow them? Is he a closet Jew?

I’m not writing to beat up (figuratively) Manny Pacquiao. Rather, I want to emphasize that many mitzvot emphasize separation. This includes keeping the seventh day, Shabbat (I do but not to Orthodox standards) and forbidding the wearing of clothing made of both wool and flax—animal and vegetable fibers (easy to follow). Often, the mitzvot don’t mesh with twenty-first century modernity.

For example, many people believe that gender identity comes in only two types, male and female. And that sexual preference consists of only one type, heterosexual. They see this as normal. But science and observation—I’m the father of a transgender son (born a female), a gay son and a straight son—demonstrate that gender identity and sexual preference flow along a spectrum.

My trans son isn’t acting out or deliberately flaunting society’s norms. He has long identified as male and felt uncomfortable as a female. I wish Carolyn and I picked up the cues earlier in his life, but the issue was unexpected and public knowledge scarce. Over the years, I’ve learned that society inflicts considerable and unjustifiable pain when it dictates how people must identify their gender and sexual preference—demands that nullify the very soul of an individual.

Reality is, straight male and straight female identities aren’t normal. They’re usual. The majority is straight—or seems so. To what degree is an individual matter. Still, the world contains a sizable LGBTQI community. Its members may not be usual, but they’re normal. Moreover, they are all human beings who deserve respect.

If Manny Pacquiao wants to quote Torah, he might study Genesis 1:27. “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The Sages of the Talmud propose that Adam was a hermaphrodite. Separation provided Eve. The discussion is complicated but fascinating.

Whatever position you take on this Torah verse, it makes clear one critical idea: all human beings are created in the image of God.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you feel it’s more appropriate, remember Jesus’ words: “Do unto others…”

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

INDIA, PART TWO

Spend two weeks in India (thanks, Sandra Lipkowitz of We Make Travel Easy), and you can write a book. I provided an overview last week. This week, I’ll present four brief takeaways.

The Taj Mahal. We saw palaces, forts, temples, mosques and monuments. None is more famed than this monument completed in 1648 by Shah Jahan to memorialize his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth at 38 after bearing 14 children. We’ve all seen the Taj Mahal in photos or films. I found it beautiful but no more so than in pictures. Yet I experienced an undeniable thrill actually being there, walking around it and going inside. Being up close and personal drives home the reality that peoples far from America created remarkable civilizations and works attesting to them. Takeaway: Much that is great in the world doesn’t stop at America’s shorelines.

People moments. Foreign tourists came to all the sites we visited, but Indians predominated. After all, Americans flock to Times Square, Niagara Falls, Graceland, the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. Indian visitors were mid- to upper-middle class for the most part, often young. School groups and families abounded. What occupied their attention? Taking pictures with their smart phones—as we were doing. This produced my favorite moments. Just as we wanted to take photos with Indians, Indians often approached us. We felt like celebrities. Our brief encounters offered delightful opportunities to reach across cultures and even language barriers (although many Indians speak English) by admiring cute children and sharing information about our lives. Takeaway: People everywhere share much in common—and love to share with each other.

Jewish connection. Tens of thousands of Jews once lived in India. Almost all moved on to Israel. In Mumbai, we visited the Kehilla Eliyahoo (Congregation of Elijah) synagogue, a spiritual home of the Baghdadis—Iraqi Jews who came to India under British rule. We spent a few days in Cochin, a major Arabian Sea port in the southern state of Kerala. Cochin Jews consist of two groups. “Black” Jews claim descent from Jews fleeing the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome (66 CE) and even to the time of Solomon (10th Century BCE). They intermixed with local peoples. The Pardesi or “white Jews” trace their ancestry from 16th-century spice traders from Arabia and Europe. We visited Jew Town—not a pejorative; the Maharajah welcomed Jewish traders and gave them special privileges. We strolled the shops of Jew Town Road, visited old synagogues and met Cochin’s oldest Jew, 94-year-old Sarah Cohen. Takeaway: It’s wonderful to be part of a global people with relatives and history everywhere.

Little me. New Delhi is 7,681 miles from San Francisco. While India is one-third the size of the U.S.—still a very large country—it has four times our population with many religions, cultures and languages. Indian history dates back millennia before Plymouth Rock. This realization can blunt American hubris. Yes, our charitable donations and visits along with U.S. foreign policy can play a role in improving the lot of many Indians and building a greater India, already the world’s largest democracy. But India’s place in the world will be defined and determined only by Indians. Takeaway: Travel makes a big world smaller. Sometimes, India made me feel smaller, too.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’ve had similar travel experiences, let me know.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

CAPTAINS OF OUR SOULS

Sunday evening, Jews will observe Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (5777). Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Unlike during the rest of the year, the sanctuary at Sherith Israel, my synagogue, will be full. Interestingly, most in attendance won’t know the Hebrew (our prayer book offers transliterations into English), or the prayers and rituals. What’s more, they won’t come back for another year. So what’s the draw?

All religions mark sacred days and seasons, which continue through centuries, even millennia. Contrast our own lives: here today, gone tomorrow, remembered the next day, forgotten the day after. No wonder many seek consolation—even those in whose lives religion plays a negligible role.

The vast majority of Jews in San Francisco don’t join synagogues. Many have no interest in Judaism even if they remain affixed to various components of Jewish culture. Others drop out completely. Still others, particularly young people, explore Judaism but view synagogues as too institutional, symbols of permanence intruding on lives in flux, reminders of their settled, stolid parents. Some find alternative Jewish communities—vibrant and creative but generally requiring little or no commitment.

Even many synagogue members—outside of Orthodoxy—forego core Jewish practices. They work, party and shop on Shabbat (the Sabbath—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). They view the dietary laws as holdovers from a primitive, superstitious past, digging into their bacon cheeseburgers. That’s their choice, and they’re entitled to it.

Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Chanukah and Passover, exert a powerful gravitational pull. Why? The High Holidays help keep us real.

In the increasingly secular West, we see ourselves as rational beings, masters of our fate, captains of our soul. Yet despite our material possessions, we frequently find ourselves ill at ease, unsatisfied. We sense that something’s missing. Rational beings? We witness rampant self-destructive behavior, poverty, hatred and violence. Yet humanity can produce enough of everything people need to go around. If rational means being selfish, how rational do we want to be?

Masters of our fate? Few mature adults haven’t experienced life’s unforeseen and uncontrollable twists that altered or swept away their dreams. The older we get, the more we acknowledge that random stuff happens. What’s more, our own imperfections place stumbling blocks before us.

As to being captains of our soul, that we can achieve in great measure. It’s possible to live with our human frailty, do better by ourselves and others, and achieve a measure of inner peace. But it takes attention and work. That’s why many Jews who hold Judaism at arm’s length attend High Holiday services. They seek to connect with the eternal and unknowable. To find comfort in touching base with something that’s bigger and more enduring than themselves. And they do it, even if those goals are subconscious.

I’ll be at Sherith Israel Sunday night and Monday morning. (The Reform movement observes one day for Rosh Hashanah as do Jews in Israel; Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel observe two.) I’ll recite the prayers, chant familiar and new melodies, and reflect as I do each Shabbat. All those “twice-a-year” Jews surrounding me? I’ll delight in their company.

Because every now and then it’s important to crack the facades we erect around our carefully crafted personas, peer inside and see who’s home.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. If you’re marking the Jewish New Year, Shanah Tovah! May the new year bring you health and peace.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

ISLAM AND 9-11

What if New York’s Twin Towers had been felled (and the Pentagon attacked and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania) on December 25? We would long remember that terrible day. So would celebrating Christmas in America be halted?

Recently, American Muslims feared that the festival of Eid al-Adha would fall on September 11. Could Muslims celebrate the festival without being called un-American? Without being attacked in their mosques, business places and homes? The worry ended when Saudi Arabian religious authorities, who set Muslim dates according to the moon, proclaimed that this year Eid al-Adha falls on September 12. But if the festival had fallen on September 11, should American Muslims have sought to delay it?

Eid al-Adha marks the intended sacrifice by Abraham of his older son Ishmael (although not specified by name in the Qur’an). Yet Genesis 22 relates that God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his younger son Isaac. Why the disconnect? While Muslims venerate Abraham as the original monotheist and a great prophet, Islam adheres to a number of different religious narratives despite what has been passed down in the Hebrew Bible.

Regarding 9-11 and Eid al-Adha, is there a link? No. Muslim holidays move “backward” through the secular calendar since the lunar Muslim calendar contains only 354 or 355 days. This year September 12, next year September 1 (possibly August 31) and so on. The Jewish lunar-solar calendar also falls short of a secular year, but a leap month added to seven of every 19 years keeps holidays within their appointed seasons. Thus Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always arrive in late summer or early fall; Passover always comes in the spring.

Purely by coincidence, any Muslim holiday can fall on any national or state holiday. Most American holidays bring a sense of joy, so no offense can be taken. Memorial Day should be somber, but most Americans indulge in weekends away, barbecues and shopping. December 7, anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and 9-11 are sad days but not national holidays. Americans may pause for a moment but generally go on with their lives.

Would Christmas then cease to be a major holiday if America noted a tragedy called 12-25 or Black Christmas? Christian Americans wouldn’t have it, and they’d be right. Therefore, Muslim-Americans can acknowledge an American day of doleful remembrance yet remain patriots while celebrating a major religious festival.

Many Americans boast dual identities and sometimes more. We share our Americanism while upholding our ethnic/religious traditions. The latter don’t negate the former. That we can do this pays tribute to the American ideal of freedom of religion.

Yes, I have a personal interest in American Muslims celebrating their holidays on the correct date. If the Jewish High Holy Days fall on Columbus Day, or Chanukah on Thanksgiving or Christmas, or Sukkot on Memorial Day, I’m not about to give up my religious practices. And I won’t be less American. Upholding two holidays is like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s a rare person who can’t do it.

So to all Muslim Americans, Happy Eid. September 11 is a sad day. But those attacks on America and its values remind us that in this nation, the freedom to observe our particular religions—or none—remains sacrosanct.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And may we remember those whose lives were brutally taken on September 11 and live life to the fullest in their honor.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

MANY PEOPLE SAY…

Where do you get news? I find print, broadcast and most online sources to be inaccurate and biased. Cover-ups abound. So I turn to common wisdom. That said, let me share some important stories you might not have seen.

Many people say President Obama is a Hindu. But wait! Isn’t he a Muslim? And wasn’t he born in Indonesia? That’s all a smokescreen spread by Mr. Obama himself. Actually, he was born in Mumbai and venerates all those gods with multiple arms because you need a lot of hands to toss around such traitorous untruths as, “I am a loyal American, and I root for the Chicago Bulls.”

Many people say Hillary and Bill Clinton were models for a character on the hit TV series “Breaking Bad.” If you saw the show, you know that a major New Mexico drug lord owned a string of fried-chicken restaurants. It all makes sense. Chicken is a bird. So is an eagle. Eagles fly high. The Clintons had $100 million dollars in gold flown in a Saudi plane to a safe house in the Swiss Alps should they ever need to flee the U.S. The transfer was coordinated by the State Department.

Many people say Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded ISIS. Fact is, ISIS is a phony Islamist movement bankrolled by Hindu India to keep the West off balance while India competes with China for dominance in Asia then the world. Just think about this: Why do we see so few clear photos of ISIS’ top leaders? Because most are Indian Hindus. Like Obama. And like Hillary, who was born Jewish—Hilda Rodhamsky, not Hillary Rodham—but fabricated her origins. Hillary became a Hindu after eating at an Indian restaurant in New York while enrolled, she says, in Yale Law School. (She attended law school at Brooklyn College. Check her emails.)

Many people say the world is 6,000 years old. That’s rounded off, since the coming Jewish New Year will be 5777, according to the dating established by the Rabbis of the Talmudic era almost 2,000 years ago. What about scientific evidence that the Big Bang brought the universe into existence as long as 14 billion years ago? And that the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old? Most Jews think traditional dating is metaphorical, but many Christian evangelicals know that science is not to be trusted. Witness the sin of inoculating children against diseases such as polio. How do we know science is bogus? Just check out truth-telling websites on your laptop, tablet or cell phone. Computer science? Just one more lie.

Many people say that Donald Trump will win 80 percent of the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College. No question, Mr. Trump is wildly popular with the American electorate. Mr. Trump says so. But the election is rigged, folks. Really. If Mr. Trump wins, well that’s only natural. If Mrs. Clinton wins, there’s probably a Hindu hand (see above) pulling the leavers. More than one hand, actually.

Now you know the truth, which puts a heavy responsibility on your shoulders. But not to worry. When you try to set people straight and they seem skeptical—if not downright hostile—declare your objectivity. Tell them, “I’m just saying what many people say. Me? I don’t know.”

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. Also, many people say my novel Flight of the Spumonis is a hoot. Break your piggy bank and buy it now at Amazon.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

LOST IN SPACE

An eye-opening astronomy video—one of many in recent years—has been making the rounds of Facebook. It brings to mind a piece of Hasidic wisdom uttered when the observable universe was far smaller than now. Both pose fascinating questions regarding how we can make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

This particular animated video beautifully demonstrates the nearly unfathomable size of creation. The camera starts on the massive Himalaya Mountains and pulls back to reveal the Himalayas as a small blip on our Earth, itself a fraction of the size of the sun, which is but one among billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, itself one of billions of galaxies. We may know this intellectually, but the video offers a startling perspective. At its end we can’t help wondering how far creation extends and how we can ever truly understand it. We also marvel at our own diminutiveness.

On the religious level, Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) presented the paradox of human existence quite in tune with science. He exclaimed that everyone should have two pockets. One should hold a note declaiming, The world was made for me. The other should hold a note stating, I am but dust and ashes.

We can easily take the vastness of creation as a negation of our human worth. But Rabbi Bunim warns against that. In the Torah, God puts human beings at the center of creation. Don’t take that lightly. After all, we can comprehend to a significant degree that same vast universe. We’ve made great headway investigating such incredible forces as gravity and black holes. So while within the known universe, human beings are barely specs, our self-awareness and comprehension encompass the creation that dwarfs us.

Of course, we each have a natural perspective through which the world revolves around our hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures. This, even as astronomers discover new planets capable of supporting life. Are we really alone? If so, our insignificance and uniqueness become even more pronounced. Still, we live our lives as if the universe were merely an extension of ourselves. This leaves us walking an intellectual tightrope. Not surprisingly, we often lose our balance.

My short story “Beautiful!” (REED Magazine issue 69), which I mentioned last week, deals with this subject. A retired astronaut marks his eightieth birthday. He has seen the earth from a weightless vantage point provided to only a few human beings. Like many astronauts in orbit before him, he exclaimed “Beautiful!”

But as with other astronauts, his elevated view of earth not only stimulated but troubled him. How, he wonders, can we fail to treat our fellow human beings—all of us so small and fragile—with compassion? Why do ego and lust make our brief lives so difficult for ourselves and others? On the other hand, given the size and age of the universe, what difference does it make what we do?

Will “Beautiful!” clear everything up for you? It will disturb as much as enlighten you. Living simultaneously on the macro and micro levels is no easy task. The sum of human misery testifies to that. Giving the matter some thought, however, just might make a difference in the way we struggle through our brief appearance here on tiny Earth.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And this Monday, give a little thought to what Memorial Day really means. May the memories of American forces who gave their all be for a blessing. 

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

MISGUIDED EXCEPTIONALISM

Who among us does not feel special? See himself or herself at the center of the universe? Think that if everyone does what I do, the world will be a better place? The answer: precious few. Which explains why not only individuals but also nations often come to grief.

The belief that I or “we” are different and thus better seems near universal. In “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains that “Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission — an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance.” Essentially, God made Russia spiritually greater than its neighbors. Russian dominance of Eurasia represents the natural order.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, plays a limited role on the world stage. (For my earlier take on Russia, see “Irrelevance.”) According to Kotkin, Russia shares much with England and France—once great powers—as well as Germany and Japan. The former pair came to terms with the erosion of their prominence. The latter “had their exceptionalism bombed out of them.”

America and China also claim heavenly mandates. This, I propose, is based on ego fostered by historic power. Now, don’t get me wrong. While I oppose the idea of American exceptionalism—which often translates to “we can do no wrong”—I believe that America is an exceptional country. Although exceptional is not a synonym for perfect.

The United States, unlike its European forebears, never saw itself as a tribal or ethnic state. True, some people define real Americans as white Protestants. But the nation ultimately opened its doors to everyone and defined American as citizen. Yes, our history of slavery and racism is shameful. Still, America evolved under the rule of law. If the law has not always been adhered to, it nonetheless has offered great protection to citizens and non-citizens alike. Lack of perfection does not negate great accomplishment.

Exceptionalism can also be claimed on the religious front. I wrote in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity and Islam often see themselves as universalistic religions of a particularistic God. Translation: there is only one way to believe, and God loves only adherents of whichever specific faith makes such a claim.

Judaism takes a different stance. It sees its exceptionalism not in being chosen for privilege but for responsibility. Performing the 613 commandments (many impossible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) does no more to earn a Jew a place in the World to Come (of which there are multiple concepts) than a monotheist who follows the seven Noahide commandments established by the Sages. Judaism thus stands as a particularistic religion—only Jews need follow all 613 commandments—of a universalistic God not concerned about which religion people follow, as long as it’s monotheistic.

During the presidential campaign to come—or at least its final segment—I hope both major candidates will refrain from references to American exceptionalism. Flag waving often conceals a bent for tyranny. Of course, humility is not a trait that impels individuals to seek the White House or voters to put them there. Still, downplaying exceptionalism could help the winner be a better president.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. It won’t take an exceptional effort.

The post will take off on May 13 and return on May 20.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

JEWS BY CHOICE

The legendary comedian Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” The Groucho persona was highly individual. But isolation offers little to the soul. In that regard, some people join one particular “club” that accepts—but doesn’t seek—members.

Last week, a young man named Collin went before a three-person beit din—a Jewish religious court. As his mentor, I was part of that beit din. Colin answered questions regarding his desire and readiness to convert. Then he immersed himself three times in the mikva (ritual pool). He emerged as a Jew.

For over a year, Collin studied Judaism at my San Francisco synagogue, Sherith Israel. He was all in—enthusiastic and committed. He took our introduction to Judaism class. He learned to read Hebrew. He attended Shabbat services and Torah study. Two Torah study groups. We chatted over coffee every other week before Friday-night services. We discussed his challenges and progress, and a wide variety of topics from kosher eating to Israel to Jewish life (my own) in New York. He became part of “the guys’” coffee group. (A young woman who recently converted joins us occasionally.)

Why would a young man—why would anyone—cast his lot with the Jewish people? Make no mistake. Judaism is a “club” I want to belong to. I’ve found great meaning and stability in living Jewishly. But let’s face it. We Jews have had a difficult history in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear after the Holocaust. It has simmered and periodically flared up in Europe, and come to a boil in the Middle East.

Moreover, while Jews welcomes converts, we don’t proselytize. (We stopped when Rome made that a capital offense in the late fourth century.) Still, some people explore Judaism at Sherith Israel and elsewhere. A few engage intellectually. Many are non-Jews with Jewish partners. Of those, some pursue conversion. Others don’t but wish to build and maintain Jewish homes and families.

Then there are people like Collin, who is single. They discover that the Jewish soul matches their own. Many say they’ve always felt Jewish. Maybe it’s the breadth and depth of our traditions. Maybe it’s the fact that questioning is not only allowed but encouraged. And that within Reform Judaism, each individual explores observance in his or her own way.

The Tanhuma—a collection of stories and wisdom—states: “Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert.” After all, the Israelites witnessed God’s power through incredible displays of thunder and lightning, as well as the shaking of the mountain. The convert did not, yet still accepts God’s commandments.

With Passover beginning this evening, it’s worth noting again that the Jewish people has survived many tragedies—slavery in Egypt being the first. Existential threats still exist. Yet some people outside our tradition find Judaism deeply meaningful. Their choices teach us born Jews a lesson. As Larry Raphael, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, says, “In America we are all Jews by choice.” A free society offers us the option to drop out—even if doing so is somewhat illusory. Jews who come from outside our tradition demonstrate the value of choosing Judaism. And the courage involved in making that choice.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re celebrating Pesach: Chag sameach!

The blog will take a holiday next week (April 29).

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.