Archive for the ‘RELIGION’ Category

WHAT IS A JEW?

On December 11, President Trump held a Chanukah party at the White House where he signed an executive order combatting anti-Semitism. The New York Times reported that the order defines America’s Jews as sharing a national origin. It doesn’t. So what is a Jew?

The order relates to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on, among other things, national origin. But the order targets not discrimination against Jews but those who call for the delegitimization or destruction of Israel. It also states that federal agencies “shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal law or under the First Amendment.” Confusing.

There should be no confusion that Jews are not defined by country of national origin. Many American Jews were born overseas. Most were born in the U.S.A. So what is a Jew?

To many Christians, a Jew is an adherent of the Jewish religion. But Judaism defines only part of the Jewish world. Most American Jews maintain no synagogue affiliation yet still identify as Jews.

Jews are a people. We’re joined not only by religion but any combination of secular factors such as family descent; shared history; use—even limited—of Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or Jewish Arabic; Israel; humor; education and attitudes; and to no small extent food.

Jews do not constitute a race. For over 2,000 years, Judaism identified anyone born of a Jewish mother as a Jew. Four decades ago, the Reform movement accorded Jewish identity to children of non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers if the children received a Jewish education. In either case, the “other” parent can be of any ethnicity.

Sadly, genetics have doomed non-Jews. Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws  defined a Jew as anyone with one Jewish grandparent. Many “Jewish” Holocaust victims were Catholics or Protestants. In response, Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent to reside in the country, although he or she may not be considered Jewish by government-sanctioned religious authorities.

More reason to abandon the racial hypothesis: Anyone may convert to Judaism. At the recent Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointed out, “Between 10 and 20 percent of North American Jews are Jews of Color.” Many are born-Jewish children and grandchildren of converts.

Anti-Semites, alas, will keep hating Jews, even if they have no idea what a Jew is, believes or stands for. Sadly, the White House again offered anti-Semites a measure of support.

When the president signed his executive order, guests included the evangelical Christian leader Robert Jeffress. An ardent supporter of Israel, Jeffress, like many evangelicals, believes that only when all Jews go to the Holy Land will Jesus return. Jews then can accept Jesus or go to hell. As Jeffress said in 2010, “You can’t be saved by being a Jew.”

I wonder how the president’s daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared and grandchildren take the news that they can’t go to heaven.

Here on earth, Jeffress’ and other pastors’ statements, made in the name of theology and thus supposedly above reproach, create an image of Jews as “less than.” As Chanukah nears, they not only fail to light a candle in the darkness, they add fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism the president claims he wants to put out.

Happy Chanukah, Marry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa—Peace!

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GOD SETS THINGS STRAIGHT

Days before Thanksgiving, energy secretary Rick Perry reassured Donald Trump that God mandated his election to the Oval Office. Perry told the president “. . . if you’re a believing Christian you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government.” As a Jew, I wondered. So I went to the Source.*

God anticipated my first question. “This guy wrote this book God’s Others. He says the Jewish view is, I’m the universalistic God—the God of all the earth—of a particularistic religion, in his case Judaism.’” This guy, I said.That’s me! “I figured you could use a plug. Anyway, long story short, I created the heavens and the earth and all humanity. Religion? Whatever’s comfortable. But no religion can claim to know it all. All I ever wanted from any religion was two things.”

What’s the first? I asked. “Go with some form of the Ten Commandments. Eleven? Twelve? That’s cool. The Jews, I gave 613. But you don’t have to have a formal list. Which means? “Just be good to each other. I said that in that old movie, Oh, God. Well, George Burns said it. Nice casting.”

And the second thing? “Be careful about claiming to speak for me.”

But Rick Perry said you put King David and King Solomon on the throne and like Trump, they were imperfect. “Perry—anyone—really knows what I was thinking? I saw potential in David and Solomon, and they delivered on some things. They also screwed up. Bigtime. David with the killing and the women. Solomon with the 300 wives and 500 concubines, and all those taxes. I didn’t let David build My Temple, and after Solomon died, his kingdom split in two. After that, I left people to their own choices—if and when they could make them. Know why?” No, why? I asked. “Parents have to let their children grow up.”

God was on a roll. “Genghis Khan, Oliver Cromwell, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Kim Jong-un in power? Wasn’t me, either.”

But some Christians insist You made Trump president. “I fixed 63 million votes for Trump, 66 million for Hillary and six million or so for third-party-candidates? I made other voters stay home? You want a president, you elect him. Or her. You screw up? It’s on you. Besides, I have better things to do with My time.”

Like what? “Crewel work. There’s also My nightly mahjongg game with the heavenly host. You sound like my mother. Blanche is her own dynamic force and I respect that, so she sits in on Tuesdays. Sometimes, she lets Me win. In return, I keep your father Morris well-fed in My Great Deli in the Sky. Not to mention supplying him cigars ten times better than those four-for-a-buck Garcia-Vegas he had you pick up at the candy store when you were a kid.”

So then maybe you could . . . “Break the rules? Make you president so you can fly on Air Force One and on Chanukah light the national chanukiah in one of the White House’s front windows? I love to see you enjoy yourself, Dovidl, but fixing America’s elections is someone else’s shtick.”

You mean? “Yup. That job was seized by the Kremlin.”

*God’s comments constitute fiction and are not meant, in whole or in part, to represent God’s actual thoughts as related to me in confidence.

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CIRCLED WAGONS

Lindsey Graham (R.-So. Carolina), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a startling statement last Tuesday before flip-flopping on Wednesday. It revealed much about the impeachment inquiry and how a large segment of the country is circling the wagons.

Graham said he wouldn’t read the transcripts of closed-door hearings—open to Republican committee members—released by House Democrats. “I’ve written the whole process off . . . I think this is a bunch of B.S.” Translation: Evidence be damned. This mirrors the attitude of much of pro-Trump white rural America.

“To rural white conservatives,” Robert Leonard wrote in the New York Times (10-14), “their culture is being rubbed out right before their eyes.” Whites see themselves enduring religious prejudice. “Democrats have banned Jesus from the public sphere at great cost to society and the potential salvation of millions.”

Ethnic cleansing in America? Native Americans can sympathize.

Yet according to the Times (10-29), Ralph Drollinger, 65, founder of Capitol Ministries— “Making disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena”—has been teaching the Gospel to President Trump’s cabinet. So Christianity is very much present in the public sphere. That’s fine—when Bible classes take place before or after working hours.

Are whites really under the gun? Many in post-industrial and rural America are hurting economically. That’s bad for all of us. But examine the economic circumstances of many African Americans and Latinos. Whites now suffering the loss of jobs and hope long have had a great deal of company.

What whites seemingly can’t abide is their loss of majority status and its accompanying power. Who created Jim Crow? Rich whites have always controlled the nation’s wealth, leaving poor whites with one comfort: They could see themselves as superior to all other ethnic groups. Yet in a decade or two, whites will become a plurality—the nation’s largest minority.

If America’s minorities now enjoy increased visibility “at white expense,” the phenomenon is relatively recent. When I was a kid, only one TV show portrayed then-called Negroes—Amos & Andy. It originated as a hit radio show created and performed by whites. Only one TV show presented Jews—Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs. Other minorities? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Jewish characters in movies? Rarely. Jewish movie stars? Many, including Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, Judy Holliday, Lee J. Cobb and Shelly Winters—all assigned screen (non-Jewish) names.

To whites who support Donald Trump, who vowed they could again celebrate Christmas, I ask: Has America ever not? I rarely see anything in the media or the public square relating to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other religious holidays. Christmas in liberal, secular San Francisco? Inescapable.

The truth that frightens so many Trump supporters is this: Whiteness does not constitute the standard for good citizenship and patriotism. What part of “liberty and justice for all” is hard to understand?

Here, let me say that no white person should ever think he or she is second-rate. Condemning anyone for being white also constitutes racism.

So, will Jesus-fearing whites abandon their persecution complex? I don’t know. I do know that  America’s minorities have experienced the real horrors of racism and anti-Semitism. Still do.

If whites can step outside those circled wagons and demand a better America for everyone, they’ll join all Americans in moving forward.

The post will take off next Friday and return on November 22.

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PASSOVER AND PARADOX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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IN THE NAME OF GOD

The famed evangelist Billy Graham was buried today. As a kid in the ’fifties, I saw bits of his massive TV revivals. Later, more evangelical leaders spoke publicly in the name of God. Is God pleased?

Since the social upheavals of the ’sixties, many evangelicals have circled the wagons. A movement that shunned politics turned highly political. Issues ranging from abortion to gun control became emblematic of Christian identity.

The result? Many evangelical leaders will back any politician—no matter how un-Christian his speech and behavior—who supports their objectives. If the president of the United States—or any other politician—talks and acts in ways ecumenical leaders would condemn in their own families and churches, they give him a pass. Why such tolerance for sin?

David Brody, evangelical author and host of “Faith Nation” on the Christian Broadcasting Network, explained in last Sunday’s New York Times, “… the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed.”

In the name of God, proponents of morality support immoral men and excuse their iniquities to control America—Brody’s word. Sadly, some politically conservative Jews do the same. If Donald Trump professes staunch support for Israel, Torah doesn’t matter. Barack Obama’s $38 billion aid package to the Jewish State? Dismissed.

I have no desire to bash evangelicals. The movement includes Christians of good faith. I understand their pain that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians continues to fall. But many evangelicals also fear the demographic reality that whites soon will comprise less than fifty percent of the population. Women can exercise their own judgment to have an abortion. LGBTQ Americans maintain their right to live unhindered by others. And most Americans support common-sense gun control.

There’s a meaningful difference between upholding a religious mandate for yourself and forcing your views on others. Evangelicals should feel free to interpret the Christian Bible any way they like. They owe the rest of us the freedom to uphold our own views—religious or secular.

Billy Graham saw the light. Laurie Goodstein wrote in The Times last Monday that Graham admitted in his later years he had been mistaken in becoming too close to politicians. He also admitted that as a confidante of Richard Nixon, he not only listened to Nixon’s anti-Semitic remarks without protest but responded with anti-Semitic remarks of his own. It takes a big man to fess up.

These days, big men are hard to find. Franklin Graham runs the ministry his father began. In the name of God, Franklin called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” proclaimed Barack Obama a Muslim and loudly supports Donald Trump.

Sweeping immoral acts and offensive speech under the rug to advance causes in the name of God only undercuts religious leaders’ credibility. That’s why so many young evangelicals are turning away from their sin-blind elders.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Toss religion under the covers, and the nation winds up with the Golden Calf—or at least, Rosemary’s Baby.

What? You don’t know Rosemary’s Baby? Check it out!

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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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THE PERILS OF BELIEF

A famous dictum, espoused by Aeschylus and repeated by former U.S. senator Hiram Johnson (California), states that the first casualty of war is truth. In our time, social media, faux news organizations and politicians have rendered truth a severe casualty. They’ve bombarded it—even shredded it—with belief. Even basketball stars have joined their ranks.

Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers stated that the earth is flat. “This is not even a conspiracy theory,” he said, although an unknown “they” want us to believe that the earth is round. The Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green gave his own take, surmising that the earth could be flat. “I don’t know,” he said, desiring to appear reasonable. “I haven’t done enough research.”

Research? Gazing out the window of an airplane at 35,000 feet on a clear day—NBA players don’t always fly at night—reveals the earth’s curvature. Or does that mean the earth is merely bent?

Don’t look just to some athletes, though. Donald Trump claimed his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever. Photographs and other evidence disproved that. White House press secretary Sean Spicer replied, “That’s what the president believes.” Will presidential beliefs—heedless of fact—commit the United States to domestic and international policies ranging from reckless to disastrous?

Often, truth is a click or two away. Many people refuse to go there. A widely circulating email purportedly by Warren Buffet claims that members of Congress receive their salary for life. FactCheck.org reviewed these claims two years ago. Its conclusion: false. Members of the House and Senate qualify for retirement benefits after five years and only for a portion of their salaries, which max out at 80 percent after virtually a lifetime in Washington.

Belief has a cousin called deception. Making the rounds of Facebook is a video from NumbersUSA demonstrating that U.S. immigration policy cannot solve global poverty. Roy Beck, the organization’s founder/president, uses gumballs in glass containers to colorfully demonstrate that America’s taking in one million of the poorest of the poor each year will not put a dent in the problem.

Beck is right. Poverty must be solved locally. However, the video represents a political shell game. U.S. immigration policy has never been about alleviating global poverty. We accept people who can contribute to our economy along with refugees. We limit their numbers, which is our right and obligation. But this video imitates a magician drawing attention to one hand while the other prepares to pull a coin from your ear. It can lead many Americans to want to shut off immigration entirely or support draconian measures for reasons having nothing to do with the reality of American immigration policy.

I have no problem with belief in the religious sense. I demonstrate that each Friday night in synagogue. Faith enables individuals and communities to discover and reinforce meaning in their lives and connect to something greater if not entirely knowable, even as science dramatically increases our knowledge base.

Still, faith must co-exist with reason, not replace it. In secular matters, belief offers a poor substitute for rational analysis based on facts. And facts do exist. I pray that we demonstrate the wisdom to know when each approach is appropriate, particularly when individuals explore cyberspace and Washington makes decisions involving the economy, human rights and geopolitical policy.

Want to take something on faith alone? Believe that you’ll enjoy my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, available soon.

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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.

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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.

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