Purim for out Times

February 27, 2010

There is a war going on and I’m not afraid to take sides.  The festival of Purim is under attack and I refuse to remain silent!

Saturday night we usher in the festival of Purim.  Purim is one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar.  It’s a day on which we eat and drink and celebrate the story of Queen Esther – the hidden Jew who, under the guidance of Mordechai, turns the tables on Haman who seeks to destroy the Jewish people.  While the story took place in Persia in the 4th century BCE, it is one that has resonated and been celebrated through the ages, with Haman, a descendant of Amalek, representing all those over the centuries who sought to destroy the Jews.  Esther and Mordechai were the heroes of the Jewish people then – and ever since.

But not anymore!  There is an article in this month’s issue of Commentary Magazine entitled, “The Problem with Purim.”  Purim has become a problem for many Jews who are trying to re-write or reinterpret the story.  As the author of the article points out, Esther has become a problem for feminists who see her as simply going along with what Mordechai had told her … the typical subservient woman.  Who is the real heroine of the story?  From the perspective of these feminists it is Vashti, the Queen who refused to display herself at the banquet her husband, King Ahasuerus, was holding.  One Jewish feminist writer says, “Why aren’t we insisting that our synagogue community cheer and stomp their feet at the mention of Vashti’s name?  She is the foremother in the best sense of the word – assertive, appropriate, courageous.”  Why don’t we?  Because our rabbis tell us that Vashti was the great-granddaughter of the man who destroyed Jerusalem.  Our rabbis tell us that Vashti was not only a licentious person but she also used to beat her Jewish handmaidens.  That’s why!  But then again, what did the rabbis know?  Margorie Garber, teaching at Harvard, sees the Purim story as a parallel of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.  In her words: “Hilary is Vashti, the headstrong proto-feminist queen and Monica, needless to say, is Esther, the beautiful Jewess.”  Vashti is Hilary? Esther is Monica?  For that you have to go to Harvard?

But this is not the only part of the Purim story that is under attack.  Much more dangerous is the attack by Jews and non-Jews alike who have a problem with the Purim story.  You know what the problem is?  We won!  Haman sought to destroy us and instead we destroyed him! The people of Persia sought to destroy us, and instead we destroyed them!  Tamara Cohen writes, “We cannot ignore the fact that it is Esther who asked the king for the additional day on which the Jews can kill their enemies.  We must challenge ourselves to find a way to celebrate Esther’s power without necessarily endorsing the violence she authorizes.”

Esther and the Purim story will survive this contemporary assault on it.  But I am more concerned about the world’s survival.  You see, this attack on the violence of the Purim story is symptomatic of a mind-set that has taken hold in many corners of the civilized world.  Having suffered through the horrors of WWII, many of the people and leaders of Western European countries have turned into pacifists – seeing all war as being wrong and believing that all differences are simply a matter of negotiation and compromise.  I recently read about a statue of General Sir Arthur Harris that stands in London.  Gen. Harris was the head of the British bomber forces during WWII.  After the German blitzkrieg of British and European cities, it was Gen. Harris who led the British bomber forces that retaliated against the German cities.  To honor him, a statue was erected and he was made a Lord.  But you know what?   These days, in many British circles, he is referred to as being “Bomber Harris” and his statue is oftentimes defaced because many Brits today believe that the retaliation on Germany was immoral.  The Germans, in their bombing raids, had killed over 50,000 civilians.  But the retaliation was immoral!

We are living in a world that is so upset that passports were forged and a leading Palestinian terrorist was assassinated in Dubai despite the fact that he was a brutal terrorist murderer who was arranging means to kill more Jews!  Indeed, here in America, we are no longer supposed to call it a “war” on terrorism.  Our Secretary of Homeland Security doesn’t like calling it “terrorism,” that’s too “saber-rattling,” preferring instead to call it, “man-made disaster.”

That is the thinking that has taken hold by many who claim that America is foolish to threaten Iran over its nuclear ambitions … that just as we learned to live with Russia having nuclear arms we have to accept the fact that Iran can have them as well.  And those who say that America must, if all else fails, attack Iran are simply “war mongers.” The current issue of the prestigious magazine, Foreign Affairs, has as its cover story: “After Iran Gets the Bomb.”  We haven’t done anything yet to stop Iran’s nuclear pursuit and yet people in and out of government are already making their peace with it.  Indeed, even when it comes to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, you very rarely hear anyone calling for “victory.”  Defeating an enemy is considered “uncivilized” and so 20th century … not 21st.  You don’t “defeat” the enemy.  You “engage” them!

So what does Jewish tradition say about all this?  Let me tell you a story from the Talmud.  In the Talmud we are told that Reb Meir used to be annoyed by a bunch of hooligans and the Talmud tells us that Reb Meir prayed for them to die.  Reb Meir was considered the most eminent sage of his generation.  So there you have it!  When someone is evil, they should be killed.  But you see, Reb Meir may have been the wisest sage of his generation but he may have been only the second smartest person in his house.  He was married to a woman named Beruriah who was quite a scholar in her own right.  And the Talmud tells us that when Beruriah heard her husband praying for these hooligans to die, she said to him, based on Biblical texts, “Rather than praying for these wicked people to die, wouldn’t it be better if you prayed for their wickedness to cease? Pray that they repent and are wicked no more.”  Reb Meir, as I said, was a smart man.  So he listened to his wife.  So we see one should pray for the removal of wickedness, not for the death of the wicked.

That would be a natural way for us to understand this story, except for the fact that on that very same page in the Talmud we’re told that it was only at the conclusion of the 104th psalm that King David proclaimed the word “hallelujah” meaning “praise the Lord.”  Only then was he so overjoyed.  Why was that?  Because the end of that 104th psalm has the words: “Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth and let the wicked be no more.”  The Talmud says, only when King David saw the downfall of the wicked, did he feel the full joy that enabled him to proclaim “hallelujah!”  Not the wickedness, but the wicked themselves … not the evil but the evil-doers themselves have to go!

So who is right Beruriah or King David?  You know who may have been the first one to ask this very same question?  You’re not going to believe it … it was a man named Haman!  Haman finds himself in a situation where the tables have been turned on him.  He has to cater to Mordechai’s needs and he has to dress and bathe Mordechai and put him on a horse and bring him through town.  And you know what the Talmud tells us?  That when Haman bent over for Mordechai to climb on top of him to get on the horse, Mordechai gave him a swift kick … and you can guess where!  And Haman turned to Mordechai and asked the question: “Just how far do you Jews have to go when you got your enemy on the run?  Here I had sought to destroy you and I end up having to dress you and bathe you and bow down to you.  Isn’t that enough?  Is it not your Bible which teaches, “Rejoice not when your enemy falls?”

And Mordechai’s answer to Haman then is just as relevant today.  We shouldn’t rejoice at the downfall of a wicked person.  We should be satisfied when their wickedness has ceased.  Beruriah was right … better than praying that the wicked person die, it would be better to pray for that wicked person to repent.  But, that’s all when you’re dealing with a wicked person who is capable of repenting, who has exhibited some good within them, who has the potential to be rehabilitated.  Yes, then it is enough when the wickedness is brought to an end.  But when you’re dealing with a person like Haman whom the Bible tells us, “desired to kill and destroy every single Jewish person – young and old, little children and women.”   When you’re dealing with a person of such enormous evil, with such a person stopping their evil is not enough; you’ve got to stop them and totally humiliate them once and for all, or else they may rear their ugly heads once again.

The world must take this lesson to heart!  We as Jews must take this lesson to heart!  The threat that Israel faces today from Iran is nothing new; it goes all the way back to Purim.  Iran’s President Ahmadinejad is another Haman reincarnated.  There is no negotiation with such a person.  Robert Wistrich, the noted historian, writes in his new book, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad:” “For all the Iranian ruling echelon, eradicating Israel has become a declared foreign policy aim and acquiring nuclear weapons is central to its implementation … The Shia Martydom Syndrome differentiates the Iranian nuclear weapons program from that of all other countries and makes it uniquely threatening.”  You know what Ahmadinejad wants to do?  The Megillah says it: “He seeks to destroy and eradicate all of the Jews, young and old, women and children alike.”  One should not hesitate or be ashamed to call for his downfall.  One should not be such a pacifist or a liberal to allow him to continue.

Recently, Elie Wiesel spoke about Iran’s nuclear drive and its President’s holocaust denying and Israel threatening statements and he said, “I wouldn’t cry if I heard that Ahmadinejad was assassinated.”  That statement bothered some people, some Jews.  Joseph Aaron, editor of the Chicago Jewish Times, whose opinion I usually respect, must have started his Purim drinking early when he wrote last week about Elie Wiesel’s statement: “I gotta admit I was saddened to hear him say that.  No, not because I care a whit about Ahmadinejad.  He is a nauseating little creep and I frankly wouldn’t get all that upset either if he left the world stage by whatever means.  But it’s one thing for me, a hot-headed insignificant columnist, to opine thus, and quite another for Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner, Holocaust survivor, someone who has been a courageous clarion voice of morality and humanity and decency in the world, a symbol of goodness.  I don’t think Elie should talk like that.  I think he should leave that kind of talk to others.”

And I say: Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!  It is crucially important for people like Elie Wiesel to speak this way.  It is the intellectuals, the elites in government, the peace-loving people who must come to recognize that calling for the downfall of the evil people is the “courageous clarion voice of morality and humanity and decency in the world, a symbol of goodness” that Mr. Aaron calls for.

America dare not go soft … we Jews dare not go soft.  None of us feel good about the plight of the Palestinians.  All of us would like to see peace come to them and to the Jews.  But we dare not allow sympathy for their plight to weaken our resolve.  Akiva Eldar is a respected columnist for the left-leaning, highly thought-of, Haaretz Israeli newspaper.  He has been a long time critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.  That’s his prerogative …but to me it borders on sickness to write what he did about Israel’s recent relief efforts in Haiti.  His article was entitled, “Israel’s Compassion in Haiti Can’t Hide Our Ugly Face in Gaza.”  He writes: “Don’t feel good my fellow Israelis about what we have done in Haiti, when we haven’t done anything to help the Palestinians next door to us in Gaza.”  Do I have to remind Mr. Eldar and others who think like him that the disaster in Haiti was a natural one … while the disaster in Gaza was man-made, created by the people of Gaza themselves!  Do I have to remind Mr. Eldar that the people of Haiti have never threatened to destroy the people of Israel, while it is the charter of Hamas that does just that?  Do I have to remind Mr. Eldar that the people of Haiti have never shot rockets at Israel, but the people of Gaza have shot 8000 of them and it was they who voted for Hamas to lead them.  Joel Brinkley, a former Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times writes, “A year after the Israeli invasion of Gaza it is time to stop blaming Israel for the desperate plight of Gaza’s people.  Now, without question, it is Hamas’ fault.”  Do you hear that, Mr. Eldar?  Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his recent visit to Israel spoke to the Israeli people with these words: “I want to express my admiration for you … you created hope and a future for those people (of Haiti) and humanity is proud of you.”

Humanity is proud of the Jews … but not some Jews like Akiva Eldar who believe it’s wrong to try and defeat those who wish to destroy us; not people like those who want to rewrite the Purim story because we had the audacity to fight back and emerge victorious.  That story is more relevant now than ever before.  As one European journalist wrote in light of the Dubai assassination: “Maybe as the West becomes increasingly gentle and polite and pays monthly direct debits to Amnesty International, we need the Israelis to remind us that the world is not made according to our template.”

There are no people who hunger for peace as much as the Jewish people do.  “Shalom” – peace – is the word on our lips throughout our prayers.  “Lu yiheh – let it be” … but until it is, let us be strong, let us stand united in overcoming those who seek to destroy us.  And as we do, it will be said of us what was eventually said of the Jews in the Purim Megillah: “La-yehudim hayata orah v’simcha – for the Jews there was light and rejoicing.”

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The Jewish Cardinal Dies

February 17, 2010

I received this today anonymously.

“There used to be a joke in Paris. What is the difference between the Chief Rabbi in France and the Cardinal of Paris?  The Cardinal speaks Yiddish!”

Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger was buried yesterday.  He died this week of cancer.  He was born almost 81 years ago to Polish parents who ran a dress shop in Paris.  When the German army marched into their city, his parents sent him and his sister into hiding with a Catholic family in Orleans.  Their mother was captured and sent to Auschwitz.

In 1999 as Cardinal of Paris, Jean Marie Lustiger took part in reading of the names of France’s day of remembrance of Jews who had been deported and murdered.  He came to the name of Gesele Lustiger, paused, teared and said, “my Mama!”  The effect in France during a time of revived anti-Semitism was electric.

He was just 13 and in hiding when he converted to Catholicism, not to escape the Nazis he always said, because no Jew could escape by conversion, and not of trauma, he said.  Among his most controversial observation , I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many.  For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim.  That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.

There were a great number of Rabbi’s who consider his conversion a betrayal, especially after so many European Jews so narrowly escaped extinction.  Cardinal Lustiger replied, “to say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers.  I am as Jewish as all other members of my family that were butchered in Auschwitz and other camps.”

He confessed to a biographer that he had a spiritual crisis in the 1970’s provoked by persistent anti-Semitism in France.  He studied Hebrew and considered emigrating.  He said, “I thought that I had finished what I had to do here and I might find new meaning in Israel.”  But just at that time the Pope appointed him bishop of Orleans.  He found purpose in the plight of immigrant workers.  Then he was elevated to Cardinal, the Archbishop of Paris.

Jean Marie Lustiger was close to the Pope.  They shared a doctrinal conservatism.  He also battled bigotry and totalitarianism.  For years, Cardinal Lustiger’s name was among those who was considered to succeed John Paul.  Without putting himself forth, the Cardinal joked that few things would bedevil bigots more that a Jewish Pope.  The don’t like to admit it, but he said, “What Christians believe, they got—through Jews.”

The funeral for Cardinal Lustiger began at Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday with the chanting of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Sometimes there are profound inconsistencies in our world.

The Kids Are Alright!

February 11, 2010

I suppose that the above quote is appropriate, realizing that The Who, in all their sexagenarian glory, performed during Super Bowl half time. But what, pray tell, does this have to do with Judaism?

Flash back to this past Tuesday. I’m talking with our Confirmation kids about one of the most perplexing problems of Jewish thought — the idea of the Jews as the chosen people.

Much to my gleeful surprise, none of the students believed that choseness implied superiority. Rather, they all believed that choseness implies duty to the world.

My favorite quote? The student who drew the following parallel: “It’s like God has an army, and we’re the front line troops.” Spoken like a kid who’s seen his share of war movies!

I had to think long and hard about that metaphor. Some might even feel a little squeamish about the military image (yes, it has its parallels in Jewish literature). In more ways than I can count, we are like God’s first line of defense. The enemy? The armies of cynicism and despair.

The least — the very least we can do –for the next generation of Jews is not to give up the fight.

Farewell to Miep Gies

January 30, 2010

If we had to, each of us could name at least one perpetrator of the Shoah. Hitler, Eichmann, Heydrich — the vile names trip off our tongues. If we wanted to, each of us could name at least one victim of the Shoah —  Anne Frank. Anne is the quintessential, archetypical Shoah victim — a young woman whose life and death stand out as a symbol of both the innocence and the death of innocence. In our collective memories, Anne Frank is perpetually young, frozen in time at sixteen years old. It is hard to believe that had she lived, Anne would have turned eighty years old this past June.
But herein lies a tragedy. Far fewer of us know the name of Miep Gies, who died this week at the age of one hundred years old. Miep had been Otto Frank’s secretary, and she was among those who risked their lives to help the Frank family. As The New York Times obituary mentioned, Miep found food for them, brought books and news and provided emotional support. She is credited with having brought Anne her first pair of high-heeled shoes. On one occasion, Miep and her husband Jan Gies spent a night in the annex so that they could fully understand the terror of living in hiding.
But more than that: It was because of Miep Gies that we have one of the great classics of twentieth century literature. She was the one who found Anne Frank’s diary, and who gave it to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, after the war.


Life imitating Torah: Miep’s extraordinary life ended within days after we read the portion of Shemot, the first section of the book of Exodus, which chronicles the story of Shifra and Puah, the midwives in Egypt who defied Pharaoh’s murderous decree and saved the lives of Israelite children. Why did they do so? They “feared God,” which is how the Torah refers to non-Israelites who demonstrate basic moral decency. The biblical text tells us that in reward for their heroism, God gave them “houses.” Some commentators interpreted this as meaning that God gave them children (after all, they had saved the lives of Israelite children, so that reward made perfect sense). Other commentators suggested that Pharaoh sought to find and kill the defiant Shifra and Puah, and so God made houses for them to hide within — genuine houses that would be impervious to Pharaoh.

Miep Gies claimed no mantle of heroism for herself. She saw herself as simply doing what was right, as following in a long line of Dutch moral heroism. Her story makes us remember that we must remember — yes, not only the perpetrators; yes, not only the victims; but also those who helped Jews. There were not as many as we needed, but there were far more than we know.
I would like to think that God built special houses for Shifra and Puah in the World to Come. I would like to think that God has made a house for Miep Gies as well.
No, scratch that. I would like to think that Shifra and Puah are, at this precise moment, throwing open the doors of their houses in heaven and saying: “Miep, Miep, welcome! We’ve heard all about you up here! Welcome!”

Who will keep the flame burning

January 26, 2010

Our Torah portion for this past Shabbat was Bo, found in the Book of Exodus.  It contains the last of the plagues and the release of the Israelites from slavery.  No other event in Jewish or world history plays such a central role in Jewish consciousness and in our theology. Every major Biblical festival, including Shabbat, is called “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”  The Ten Commandments begins with the proclamation that “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The Sh’ma concludes with the words “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.”

Some religions center themselves upon the lives of specific individuals (Jesus, Mohammad) but Judaism bases itself upon the interaction between God–the one God–and the people of Israel.  The central event in that history is the Exodus from Egypt.  Even God’s creation of the world, as important and central that is, takes second place to the Exodus.  The Exodus demonstrates God’s care for Israel, God’s fulfillment of the promise made to the Patriarchs.  Without it the covenant of Sinai could never have taken place.  Without it, the settlement in the Promised Land could not have taken place.

In the portion Bo, a prelude to the last and most terrible plague, the killing of the first born of the Egyptians, is a section containing 28 verses devoted to instructions to the Israelites how they are to observe the first Passover and subsequent ones. From the placement of these mitzvot, these laws, we learn a crucial lesson:  laws and regulations by themselves are not enough. Judaism also wishes to influence our beliefs and our thinking.  It does not want blind obedience, nor does it believe that the observance of mitzvot is enough.  It is necessary, but not adequate. Observance alone can breed a kind of blind religious adherence that ignores the richness of the tradition.

On the other hand, ideas and beliefs without deeds leads to a vague kind of “spirituality” that has no backbone and no staying power.  Judaism at its best is a combination of both–mitzvot with meaning.

For Reform Jews there is a lot to think about here.  So many of us have come to define Reform Judaism in terms of all the things we give ourselves permission not to do. As a result,  for many of us Judaism is only about traditions and culture.  But, what about our children and their children? They have grown up after the Holocaust and after the founding of the State of Israel.  There has been no Yiddish heard in their homes and, for many, Jewish cooking is bagels and lox–if that.  What are we left with, then, if mitzvot don’t compel us to act in a certain way? If there is not sense of obligation that leads us to observance, what will motivate the preservation of Judaism?

I don’t have the answers to the questions I raise, but I would suggest that we must be thinking about them.  If not, Judaism will cease to be– if not for us, then for  future generations.