Archive for the ‘TORAH/BIBLE’ Category

CHOSHEK

This past Wednesday, Northern California experienced something resembling the ninth plague with which God struck the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites. Choshek—darkness—enveloped us. It also issued major warnings.

Exodus 10:22-23 relates, “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another . . .” The Israelites were spared. Two days ago, no one was.

Daytime darkness resulted from thick fog covered by heavy smoke from fires raging throughout California and the West. An orange sky—welcome to Mars—cast little physical light. But choshek might illuminate our thinking.

Two issues come to mind.

First, Western fires have grown harder to fight because the region has grown much dryer and hotter. Blindness to climate change won’t cut it. We need more awareness and action from Washington, which has the big bucks. We also need better forest management by federal and state officials. Prescribed burns and, in some cases, letting forests burn after lightning strikes or human malevolence/stupidity can eliminate fuel that would ignite bigger conflagrations in the future.

Further, the cost to taxpayers and stress on firefighters working under brutal conditions continually increase as Cal Fire seeks to protect communities in remote high-risk areas. I don’t blame the victims for loving beautiful, serene forests. But public support may no longer be sustainable for people who live isolated in those forests and won’t or can’t (re)build homes according to fire-resistant standards. Their insurance premiums are likely to skyrocket—if policies are available.

Building smart isn’t cheap. Not everyone has the assets. But it’s doable. Case in point:

My friend Dan recently built a luxury house in Lake County. An outstanding builder-developer, he situated the house away from others. He specified concrete/stucco walls, a metal roof and fire-resistant windows. The floors are concrete-slab with a stone-tile finish—not wood. The house includes other safety details plus a major water supply and fire hydrant on site. This reflects Dan’s sense of personal responsibility.

Second, the nation is experiencing a darkness of the soul, which many Americans refuse to acknowledge. Wednesday morning, a peek into Bob Woodward’s new book Rage (out September 15) documented Donald Trump’s refusal to tell the American people that in early February, he knew the coronavirus was far deadlier than the flu and presented a major public health problem. Trump didn’t want to cause “panic.” Interviewed after the book’s revelations,  he defended his position.

Really? Would you fail to tell Americans a hurricane was coming?

Had Trump been forthright, Americans could have begun isolating and wearing masks far earlier than mid-March. Many who believed Trump’s public assertions about COVID-19 being a hoax and a Democratic plot might have complied. Tens of thousands of lives—a hundred thousand? More?—might have been saved.

The Jewish New Year (5781)—Rosh Hashanah—begins in one week. Hopefully, the choshek we’ve just experienced will prompt Jews everywhere to further search our souls regarding personal and communal responsibilities and opportunities—and all Americans to consider fact and truth to be our friends, not enemies.

May we find a way to see or—light—by foregoing falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and listening to and respecting each other.

May the memories of the innocent killed on September 11, 2001, including all the first responders and courageous civilians who struggled to save them and others—and those who succumbed later be for a blessing. May the survivors heal. And may we learn.

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MY WIFE IS NASTY

When you’re married to a woman for nearly 51 years (September 4), you learn a bit about her. So I can say without hesitation, my wife Carolyn is nasty.

My wife is nasty because she’s independent. She thinks for herself. She insists on standing on her own two feet, not under my thumb.

My wife is nasty because she believes that racial justice is long overdue and that Americans must do all that they can to achieve it. Likewise, she supports the broad and varied LGBTQ community. Of course, Carolyn has her selfish side. We have a trans son and a gay son in addition to a straight son.

My wife is nasty because she believes in reason and science. She wears a mask when we go out. More, she sews them. She’s given out over 180. Our dining table hosts her ancient sewing machine—refurbished several months ago—and cotton cloth plus polyurethane for a lining that makes them quite effective.

My wife is nasty because she believes that women, as well as men, can hold positions of power and influence, up to and including the White House. She doesn’t insult men. Neither does she accept insults to women whose achievements are notable and add so much to every component of American life.

My wife is nasty because she believes that every American is entitled to healthcare. She gets it that this is essential to unlocking the full potential of every American and providing comfort to those whose means don’t match ours. That’s only natural, since like so many wives and mothers, she’s the family nurse, always there to provide assistance and insist that when it’s time to see the doctor, we go.

The Book of Proverbs lauds the eshet chayil—the woman of valor. “Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.” In the days of Proverbs’ writing, women’s and men’s roles were pretty much divided. The woman of valor was lauded for performing specific tasks connected to home and family. Yet the woman of valor also is heralded for a particularly important trait—giving generously to the poor (31:20). Advancing only her own family’s status and that of the wealthy never comes into play.

Above all, the woman of valor remains defined by the verse reading, “It is for her fear of the Lord / That a woman is to be praised” (31:30). The Bible, viewed in all its perspective and context, demands that a woman of valor adhere to the deep moral principles it prescribes. Lip service doesn’t cut it—for anyone.

Today, women and men share a great many tasks. Being home, where I write these posts and fiction, I do lots of cleaning, house chores and occasional cooking. Carolyn and my relationship has evolved with the times, not to lessen fear of the Lord but enhance it. We seek to create and maintain a real partnership, reflected in Genesis 2:24: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”

A woman of valor clings to her husband as he does to her but never surrenders her individuality. She champions honesty and kindness to everyone regardless of race, nationality, religion, gender preference or gender identification.

Carolyn truly is an eshet chayil. You can’t get nastier.

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THREE IMAGES, MANY QUESTIONS

A Minneapolis cop kneels on the neck of a black man, George Floyd. Peaceful protestors kneel on pavement. An unidentified young African-American woman carries an armload of bras out of Victoria’s Secret. How do we make sense of these images?

Last Saturday, my friend Ira asked: Doesn’t Judaism have anything to offer about the racism endemic in America? Yes, it does. Start with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this “simple” verse raises complex questions.

Love: A general good feeling about others or a commandment to take action when others face difficulties or injustice? (Cain kills Abel then asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—Genesis 4:9).

Neighbor: Family and friends only? A religious congregation? Co-religionists only? Those who live near our home? And whom can we reject because of their race, religion, politics?

Yourself: How many of us truly love ourselves, are happy with the kind of person we are? If we consider it obvious that each of us engages in self-love, why does our society endure so much alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide? Can you love and mistreat yourself at the same time?

That said, do we define Leviticus 19:18 to our own liking and use it as a pretext for creating out-groups whom we have no obligation to love? What if we believe that the Bible instructs us to subjugate all who are “different”? What if cherry-picked verses, bent to our own purposes encourage us to forcibly convert others to our own religious and political practices or remain perpetual second-class citizens? Or take their citizenship away?

Slavery is a blot on America’s collective conscience, but some Americans still believe that slavery treated black Americans better than freedom ever has or could. Before and after the Civil War, any number of Christian ministers extracted from the Bible verses they attributed to God advancing the cause of separation of the races. Isn’t that a euphemism for oppression?

Black Americans—all Americans—have both a right and a duty to protest racism directed against anyone and seek meaningful changes in our society. Most protestors have peacefully exercised that right during what has also been an incredibly violent week while COVID-19 deaths continue. That said, I’m still overwhelmed with questions:

Will the violent minority hijack the cause of the peaceful majority? In November, will voters on the fence turn to Donald Trump as their Richard-Nixon-law-and-order candidate? Will others pass on voting for Joe Biden because another Democratic candidate isn’t the nominee? Or will they engage in a pragmatic electoral protest against an intolerable racial situation and a president whose Attorney General had tear gas and rubber bullets used to clear space in front of Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church for his boss’s photo op holding—but not reading from—a Bible?

Will a new president make a difference? Can changing laws also change hearts?

Walking/running/driving/birding/breathing while black can never be considered criminal or even undesirable. Can we as a nation find the strength and will to keep our eyes on the prize and work to end the racism that pollutes our society? Are we willing to fall short of a perfect solution?

Here, the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 2:16) offers guidance: “You are not required to complete the work, but you are not free to abandon it.”

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SADIE’S DILEMMA

Two-and-a-half-year-old Sadie, granddaughter of my friends Les and Sheila, lives in Singapore. Recently, she had a run-in with a monkey. It deserves our attention.

Sadie lives in a ground-floor apartment with a patio abutting a rainforest. The family was outside, Sadie holding a banana. A monkey snatched it. It was a bit upsetting. This could not have taken place in San Francisco—not because wildlife doesn’t encroach on the city but because we don’t have monkeys. Coyotes strolling our sidewalks when few people are out? Yes.

We humans, especially in cities, think we’re safe from “wild animals.” Our fear is normal. Humans have had to defend themselves from lions, tigers and bears—oh my—wolves, wild dogs and others whose habitats we invade.

The Torah notes how human dispossession of animals creates a fragile environment. God tells Moses, leading the Israelites to the already-populated Promised Land, “I will not drive them [the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites] out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt” (Exodus 23:29).

As humans spread out, animals’ territories shrink. Often, that drives both closer. Residents in rural areas find bears rummaging through their trash or breaking into their homes. In suburbia, deer eat up gardens. Let’s not even talk raccoons.

The coronavirus pandemic also has shifted the balance. Media stories report wildlife roaming tourist-deserted places in national parks, and salamanders in the northeast swarming roads at night with traffic almost nonexistent.

Sadie and her family face a dilemma. How are they to live close to wild animals and coexist? Having a patio next to a forest and taking a banana outside invites monkeys to do what’s natural: go after a convenient food source. Sadie’s parents can control this to an extent by not taking food outside. They also have to be careful about opening doors, since monkeys have invaded their kitchen.

We see firsthand that civilization imposes a veneer on nature and a thin one. Monkeys grabbing bananas represents the least of our worries.

Humans living together in groups larger than family size do so based on norms and ethics, civil and religious law, customs written and unwritten. In times of stress, people tend to panic. Our innate need to survive often impels us to trample laws and customs previously held to be inviolable. We take an “us versus them” stance, bare our teeth like the animals we are, howl defiance to defend our families—even when we’re not under attack—and often provoke others to prepare for, even use, violence in their own defense.

As the COVID-19 pandemic established itself, gun sales in the U.S. rose.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, highlighting his state’s mental-health programs, encourages people to ask, “How are you feeling, really?” Rote displays of wellbeing can be misleading. Most people are scared. Many respond not by expressing their fears but through hostility. They find enemies in other groups and in the governments, national and local, that seek to limit the pandemic’s spread and protect community health.

Sadie’s dilemma can be solved fairly easily. America’s dilemma—the potential breakdown of civility and restraint, a permanent fracture in the political system—requires great vision and effort. This demands seeing each other as part of the solution, not the problem.

To the spirits of those who gave their all to defend the nation (thinking of you, Howie): Rest in peace, may your memory be for a blessing. And may this Memorial Day offer us much to think about beyond the family backyard barbecue.

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SICKENING

I almost tossed my cookies in front of the TV Tuesday. No, I wasn’t sick. It’s just that I saw part of Donald Trump’s live remarks to journalists on CNN. Sickening.

The president told the assembled reporters and government officials that he called the COVID-19 problem a pandemic before anyone else did. I’ll repeat that. B-e-f-o-r-e. So let’s take a brief look at Trump’s record, detailed exhaustively by New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt.

On March 13, Trump announced a national emergency. Good. That freed up federal funds for a variety of sound uses and streamlined various health care procedures to fight coronavirus. But if Trump recognized the pandemic long before, why did he wait?

And wait he did.

Two days earlier, Trump addressed the nation during a special telecast. “I want to speak to you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak,”he said. Prune-faced, he looked like a man who’d soiled his boxers but was duct-taped to his chair. Unprecedented? That word applies only to ignoring public health advisors and underplaying cases of COVID-19 by not yet declaring that national emergency. Trump wanted to keep the stock market and economic numbers up. And how has that worked out?

But surely, the president had been forthcoming, resolute and far-sighted before that? Well, no. On March 7, Trump stated, “I’m not concerned at all.” Do the math. That’s all of six days before the declaration of a national emergency.

On February 26, three days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic—Trump’s judgment obviously having preceded theirs—he said, “We’re [U.S. cases] going down, not up.” At a February 10 campaign rally and in an interview with Fox Business’s Trish Regan—since dismissed from her show—“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” By next month? Miraculously?

Let’s go back to February 2. Trump banned most foreigners who’d recently visited China from entering the U.S., something he bragged about last Tuesday. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Which presumed that coronavirus hadn’t appeared elsewhere. Too little, too late? On January 22, Trump said from Davos, Switzerland “… we have it totally under control.”

Our nation’s response to coronavirus says a lot about how we as Americans see reality. Some of it has been, yes, sickening.

A variety of conservative politicians and pundits have linked coronavirus to domestic and foreign plots. At a February 28 campaign rally, Trump promoted their conspiracy theories. He called coronavirus a hoax and added, “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus” to damage him and his administration.

I’m waiting for conservative Christian ministers to declare coronavirus God’s punishment of a sinful nation allowing a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

I wrote last week that we’ll come through this. To do it, I suggest we replicate the attitude of the Israelites in the wilderness who, in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, demonstrate the strength of community by all bringing abundant gifts for the building of the Tabernacle.

Our task is to come together and respect fact, science and truth. The big question we’ll face when coronavirus is done: What did we learn? We’ll have part of that answer in November.

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THE STUMBLING BLOCK

The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump was expected. Some Republicans sought cover with Lamar Alexander’s (Tennessee) rationale: What the president did was wrong but didn’t rise to the level of removal from office. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans ignored Leviticus 19:14.

Torah commands Israelites not to place a stumbling block before the blind. Literally, one should never place a physical obstacle in front of a blind person for the cruel pleasure of seeing that person trip and fall. The Sages and later commentators expanded on this. One shouldn’t give bad advice to someone who can’t recognize it or place temptation in the way of the morally blind.

Senate Republicans scoffed. They decided that Trump’s betrayal of the Constitution by freezing congressionally appropriated funds—cited as illegal by the General Accountability Office—to coerce Ukraine into investigating political rivals should bring no direct consequence. While some senators condemned Trump’s actions, all but one left him free to repeat them.

Trump’s take? He gloated about vindication, still convinced he made a “perfect call” to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. Likely, he will abuse his office again given his July 23 comment regarding Article II of the Constitution: “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” This sadly echoes Richard Nixon’s 1977 comment: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Utah’s Mitt Romney disagreed. He voted for removal on the first of two articles of impeachment, abuse of power. His explanation: “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice.”

It’s only right to uphold such an oath. Leviticus 19:15 commands, “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.”

At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said of Romney, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” I acknowledge that only Jews are responsible for upholding the Torah’s 613 commandments. But Trump’s conservative Christian supporters—and Trump himself—often find Torah’s moral directives compelling when it suits their purpose.

The upshot? Self-professed religious Senate Republicans abandoned the Bible for politics. In doing so, they set an even bigger stumbling block in place. Trump now rationalizes doing whatever he wants without being held responsible. Short of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue—no, he couldn’t get away with that one—he can manipulate foreign and domestic policy to serve not the nation’s interests but his own.

Democrats, independents and even a Mitt Romney may call Trump out for seeking political dirt from Vladimir Putin or the representative of some other country delighted to see America’s political system in disarray. So what?

Gearing up for November’s election, Trump supporters hail the Senate’s unfettering the president to play bull in the china shop and continue overturning the order established by “the elites.” Many conservative Christians feel relieved that their anointed president remains free to do God’s bidding—as they define it and would impose it on the rest of us.

Americans—or more accurately, the Electoral College—will decide whether to place an even more massive stumbling block at Trump’s feet where so many grovel. I can’t see how the election will turn out, but I fear too many “God fearing” citizens cling to moral blindness.

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CHOSEN FOR WHAT?

For many Jews, it’s an embarrassment: inspiration for both anti-Semitism and self-questioning. I refer to Moses’ statement to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See).

The great teacher says, “. . . the Lordyour God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (Deut. 14:2). Many Jews and non-Jews misinterpret this as raising the people Israel above other nations for no discernable reason. But Israel’s selection entails not privilege but responsibility.

The Israelites, whose misdoings condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, were not chosen for their size—they were a small people—or their merits. Deuteronomy 7:8 relates that they were chosen “because God ‘kept the oath he made to your fathers . . .’” The Rabbis term this zevut achot, the merits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who held a special monotheistic vision. Thus a stiff-necked people was to be given a homeland. Why?

The late Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden—that of the kingdom of Heaven—of Torah and Mitzvot [commandments].”    

Israel is to be a nation of priests. This represents a goal, a status of holiness to be earned by accepting responsibility and its consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants priests rights and privileges unavailable to ordinary people, God also places them under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

Israel must accept its special status with modesty. The prophet Amos preaches that God also watches over other nations. “True, I brought Israel up / From the land of Egypt, / But also the Philistines from Caphtor [Crete] / And the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7).

Rabbi Joel Rembaum states that God “maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval must be earned through right conduct, which all peoples can exercise.

The Canaanites sinned. Only for that reason did God cast them out of their land and give it to the Children of Israel. But the Rabbis do not denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews. They also are created in God’s image. All people, the Rabbis maintain, contain the Divine spark.

A midrash—a story trying to explain the biblical narrative—guides the Chosen People to exercise perspective. While Israel (the people, not the modern state) is to be praised for accepting the Torah, God previously offered it to all the other nations. Moreover, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama’s view that God held the mountain (Horeb/Sinai) over the Israelites’ heads and said, “’If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial.” The Israelites did not make a moral choice. They had no choice.

Treasured on one hand, the Chosen People are tasked to set an example for their siblings. Being the “oldest spiritual child” represents a daunting challenge.

This post was adapted from a discussion in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, available from me or at Amazon.

The blog will take off next week and return September 13.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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POWAY AND MINDSET

Disturbing acts of violence have occurred in the United States over the past several years. Some may not have been preventable. Others might not have happened had the nation a different mindset.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the far-right Anne Coulter’s 2007 remark that Jews were imperfect and should be Christians. I commented that Christians had the right to their beliefs about who gets into heaven—but none to condemn Jews, Muslims and others to hell. This guideline—a delicate balance to be sure—establishes a mindset that people don’t seek to impose their views on others no matter how seriously those views are held.

Many Americans cross that line. Sadly—dangerously—this has become more permissible since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and victory. To the chagrin of many conservatives who supported him despite his repulsive comments, those comments haven’t ceased.

A week ago, Trump defended his 2017 remarks about “fine people” on both sides of the Unite the Right white-power, anti-Semitic demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I was talking about people who went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.” 

Trump can’t understand—or refuses to acknowledge—that Confederate statues and symbols representing “the Southern way of life” aren’t about mint juleps and men removing their hats before ladies—or generalship. The Confederacy rebelled to maintain an economy dependent on slavery. Following the demise of Reconstruction, those symbols stood for denying African-Americans their civil rights.

Last weekend, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated that Trump had condemned all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, and would use his bully pulpit (a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt) to continue doing so. But Trump uses his “pulpit” only to bully. His campaign made dog whistlinga well-known term for sending subtle signals that racism is okay. Other signals were overt, denigrating Muslims, Mexicans and people from “shithole” countries.

The Supreme Court soon will render a decision on whether LGBTQ people can be discriminated against. Many conservatives cite the book of Leviticus forbidding men to have sex with men (it says nothing about women having sex together), and men not wearing women’s clothes and vice-versa. I revere the Torah. But I reject those verses in our 21st-century world. I have a trans son and a gay son in addition to a straight son. They’re all wonderful. It’s just plain wrong to deny two of my kids equal rights. Witness the Trump administration denying trans men and women the opportunity to serve in our military. Yet unlike Trump, many have.

A week ago, a Christian anti-Semite used a military-style weapon to kill one and injure three Passover worshippers at Chabad of Poway, northeast of San Diego. This, six months after eleven Jews were murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Recently, a young white man burned down three black churches in Louisiana. Note: Last Saturday, white nationalists—First Amendment supporters, I’m sure—disturbed a talk at a Washington, D.C. book store.   

Terrible events aren’t foreordained. The White House, however, encourages hateful individuals and groups by continuing to dog-whistle racist and anti-Muslim sentiments for political purposes. Mindset matters. It’s time Trump stretched his mind to understand the license he gives to haters and be held accountable if he doesn’t.

The post will take off next weekend and return on May 17.

You’re invited to my party launching Big Truth: New and Collected Stories—Sunday, June 9, 3:30–5 pm at Lokma Turkish restaurant, 1801 Clement Street at 19th Avenue, San Francisco. Yes, you can buy a copy, which I’ll autograph. RSVP with number in party: dhperl@yahoo.com.

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KINGS AND PRESIDENTS

The Mueller Report is out. I won’t comment (now) on whether Democrats should pursue impeachment. But more than ever, we need perspective. I look to the Hebrew Bible.

Biblical Israel was never a democracy. Yet the Bible teaches much about national leaders. Deuteronomy 17 presents God’s restrictions on any future king of Israel: He must not keep many horses or have many wives “lest his heart go astray.” Nor shall he amass excess gold and silver.

Saul became Israel’s first king. I Samuel 9 presents Saul’s “bona fides.” Although from Benjamin, a small tribe, Saul lookedlike a king: “… no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.” Some of us remember how John F. Kennedy’s greater television appeal helped him defeat Richard Nixon—if narrowly—in the 1960 presidential race. 

David, Saul’s successor and Israel’s greatest king, offers incredible complexity. And hope. A celebrated warrior—as a young shepherd, he killed the Philistine giant Goliath with his sling shot (then cut off his head)—he expanded the kingdom’s territory. He also exhibited grave faults. David sent Uriah the Hittite into the front ranks of battle to be killed so he could take the loyal soldier’s wife Bathsheba. 

The prophet Nathan rebuked David and cursed his house. David could have labeled Nathan’s denunciation fake news and punished him. Instead, David responded, “I stand guilty before the Lord!” (II Samuel 12:13). Nathan announced that God would remit David’s sin but his first child born to Bathsheba would die. And so it was. 

David’s son Solomon—Bathsheba was his mother—was a paragon of wisdom. Almost everyone knows the story of the two harlots who claimed the same baby. Solomon ordered the child cut in half. The real mother renounced her claim, willing to give away her child rather than see him killed. Solomon awarded the child to her. He also built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

But Solomon, heedless of Deuteronomy, spent lavishly. He amassed 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses. He also collected 700 wives and 300 concubines. Additionally, “King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel” (1 Kings 1:27). He made Israel supremely wealthy—at great cost.

Solomon’s son Jeroboam sought to seize the throne. Upon Solomon’s death, Jeroboam ruled the 10 northern tribes as the kingdom of Israel. His brother Rehoboam ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah. The two kingdoms often were at odds.

A long series of kings—north and south—followed. Some were good in the eyes of God, many bad. The latter included Ahab of Israel (reigned ca. 871-852 BCE), who “did more to vex the Lord . . . than all the kings of Israel who preceded him” (I Kings 16:33). Ahab married the wicked Phoenician princess Jezebel, who turned him from God to the worship of Baal. Ultimately, Israel fell prey to Assyria in the 8th century BCE, Judah to Babylonia in the 6th. 

The  Bible’s lessons seem clear. A leader displaying competence, morality and integrity stands a far better chance of maintaining his nation’s prosperity and security than one ignorant, immoral and greedy. 

Eighteen months remain until our next presidential election. Will Americans—many boasting of their religious faith and devotion to the Bible—have absorbed this lesson?

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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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