Sunday, February 09, 2020

Not taking Nancy Pelosi at her word: Donald Trump on prayer

Back when Barack Obama was president, some Republicans were saying that he was actually a Muslim. The reasonable response would have been “It’s none of your blessed business what my religion is, and it has nothing to do with my performance as president.” Reasonable but impolitic, and Obama was a politician. So Obama announced that he’s a Christian. On Meet the Press on August 2, 2010, Dave Gregory asked Mitch McConnell to weigh in on Obama’s religion:
SEN. McCONNELL: The president says he’s a Christian, I take him at his word. I don’t think that’s in dispute.
MR. GREGORY: And how do you think it comes to be that this kind of misinformation gets spread around and prevails?
SEN. McCONNELL: I have no idea, but I take the president at his word.

Some people were upset by this answer. In New York, Dan Amira wrote,

While it’s nice McConnell says Obama’s faith is “not in dispute,” his answer wasn’t an unequivocal “The President is a Christian.” It was, “He’s telling us he’s a Christian and I believe him.” Recalling Hillary Clinton’s remark during the presidential primary that she takes Obama “on the basis of what he says,” McConnell leaves some room for doubt in the minds of anyone who doesn’t generally take Obama at his word, which, in the GOP, is probably most people.
This anger was misguided, although possibly politically handy. McConnell gave the only possible reasonable answer. Amira thinks he should have said, “The president is a Christian.” If McConnell had said that, a number of other questions would follow. How in the world would McConnell know that? Did God tell him? Did he look into Obama’s eyes and see his soul? The only sane answer would be “I take him at his word.”

I don’t know McConnell’s motives (and it’s possible he wasn’t being honest when he said he didn’t know how the Muslim rumors got spread). Regardless, this was the only reasonable answer. If he had said, “It’s none of your business, or mine, or anyone else’s. We oppose him based on policy disagreements, and his religion is irrelevant,” that would have been an excellent answer. A few problems with it: he’d never give such an answer for the same reasons Obama wouldn’t, and that answer, though excellent, would be noncommittal about Obama’s religion. “I take him at his word. I don’t think that’s in dispute” at least gives lip service to Obama’s Christianity, regardless of McConnell’s motives.

I didn’t know that Nancy Pelosi had said she was praying for Donald Trump until he accused her of lying about it in his December 17, 2019, letter to her. Trump wrote, “You are offending Americans of faith by continually saying ‘I pray for the President,’ when you know this statement is not true, unless it is meant in a negative sense.” We’ve come a long way from McConnell’s taking Obama at his word. We don’t know how Trump knows the statement isn’t true (or how he knows Pelosi knows it isn’t true). Trump repeated this, complete with mind reading, at the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast. As Caleb Parke reported for Fox News, “‘I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,’ Trump said, and added, in a seeming hit at Pelosi, ‘nor do I like people who say, “I pray for you” when they know that that’s not so.’”

I can’t speak for Pelosi, but I see no reason not to believe her. I pray for all who are malevolent, or cruel, or selfish, or uncaring. I pray that we (I often have to include myself) change ourselves and get rid of, or at restrain, our bad qualities. That we mensh out. I believe Trump to be malevolent, cruel, selfish, and uncaring, and my prayer includes him. I pray for him—us—because of his bad qualities. Besides being an obvious thing about religion, it’s part of American folklore. When the bad guy ties the widowed mother to the railroad track, the oldest sister tells the youngsters to pray for him. I don’t know how anybody could have missed this.

I also don’t understand why the prayerful pious at the National Prayer Breakfast didn’t rise in righteous protest at Trump’s complete cluelessness about prayer.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Do angels look Jewish?

In Judaism, Abraham is considered the exemplar (I mean, other than God, of course) of ḥesed—extreme kindness (to be discussed at greater length in a later post, I hope). The November 16, 2019 (Parashat Vayera), issue of Likutei Peshatim (a devar Torah and announcement newsletter distributed at Orthodox Jewish institutions in the greater Chicago area) preaches on Genesis 18:3: “‘And he [Abraham] said: My lords, if it please you that I find favor in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.’” Abraham had been sitting outside his tent waiting for wayfarers whom he could be hospitable to; the quoted verse is his invitation to three men who turn out to be angels.

Judaism teaches that hakhnasat oreḥim—welcoming strangers into our homes—is a form of ḥesed, and Abraham’s behavior here is the model we should follow. In expounding on this, Likutei Peshatim says, “When a Jewish person is visiting an unfamiliar community, we have the privilege and opportunity to greet him as a member of Hashem’s chosen children, and as a family member in our nation.” The question is whether Abrahamic people were visually distinguishable from others back in Abraham’s day. If so, did the angels look Abrahamic? If there was no visible difference between Jews and non-Jews, we would follow Abraham’s model by welcoming people without distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews. (Of course, if the angels looked Abrahamic, we’d still be following Judaism by welcoming non-Jews.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Noah, ishhood, and responsibility

Genesis 6:9 reads (in part) “Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted” (Jewish Publication Society 1917 translation). At least two interesting things are going on here.

First, why specify “in his generations”? Who else’s generations would he be righteous in, right? Noah lived in a time of great wickedness. Rashi notes that among the rabbis of the Talmud, there are some who take “in his generations” as praise. He was fully righteous even in his corrupt environment; if he had lived in an age of righteous people, he would have been even greater. Others take “in his generations” as a reproach. He was righteous only by the standards of his corrupt time; had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been considered a mere nothingness righteousnesswise.

Second, the phrase translated here as “man righteous” is ish tzaddik. The basic meaning of ish is “man”; in various contexts, it can mean a person or a leader of either sex. The word tzaddik can be either the adjective “righteous” (an adjective comes after its noun in Hebrew) or the noun “righteous person.” Ish tzaddik does indeed mean “righteous man,” but tzaddik by itself can also mean that. So ish seems superfluous in this verse. Why is it there? I have no clue, but I won’t let that stop me from preaching about it.

Pirkei Avot 2.6 quotes Hillel as saying “in an ish-less place, strive to be an ish.” In this context, an ish is a person who takes responsibility. Hillel is addressing the non-ish among us. A job needs to be done, and there’s nobody around to do it. So you, who aren’t yet an ish, you need to step up and take care of things.

This is Noah under the derogatory understanding of his character. A job needed to be done, and Noah, who let’s face it wasn’t such a big tzaddik, took care of biz. The non-ish became an ish. For those of us (such as my good self) who aren’t as righteous as Abraham, mediocre Noah is more inspiring than magnificent Noah. This Noah guy, he wasn’t such a big deal, and he saved all life on earth. I’m even more superlatively mediocre than he was, so what’s my excuse for not doing the same?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Avinu Malkenu (ver. 2.0)

Let me clarify. This is not version 2.0 of Avinu Malkenu, but version 2.0 of this sermon.

We recite Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King) during the Ten Days of Teshuvah as well as on fast days throughout the year. It ends with a well-known song that contains the phrase "ein banu ma'asim"--we have no deeds or acts or the like. More literally, it means we have no deeds within us--the usual way of saying "we don't have" is ein lanu, not ein banu.

This raises two questions. First, we're saying we have no deeds on the same days that we're alphabetically listing our bad deeds in the Viduy (Confession). English translators of siddurim recognize the problem and fix it incorrectly--they English it as "we have no good deeds" or words to that effect. The problem with this translation is that it makes no sense. We know that we have good deeds. Furthermore, we're supposed to act as though both our scale and that of the world, of which we're part, is evenly balanced between good and bad deeds. If we think in these terms, we realize that every deed, whether good or bad, tips the balance on both scales. To proclaim that we have bad deeds and no good deeds is counterproductive. The second question is why we say "ein banu ma'asim (we have no deeds within us) instead of just "ein lanu ma'asim" (we have no deeds).

To figure out what "ein banu ma'asim" means in this context, let's divide Avinu Malkenu into seven sections. In fact, we only need the first five sections for our purposes; sections 6 and 7 are bonus sections.

Section 1

Section 1 consists of the first three lines. It's just an introduction--it's us, we've sinned, for the sake of your name forgive us.

Section 2

Section 2 is a wish list of things we want from God--a good year, the ripping of the unhappy decree, good health, and so on. We're asking for results that are out of our control. We can influence the process and improve our chances--don't eat unhealthy stuff, don't start fights, be a good person--but we're asking here for results that we can't guarantee for ourselves. Section 2 takes up most of Avinu Malkenu.

Section 3

In section 3, we're no longer asking for things--now we're referring back to the list and telling God why he should do these things for us. In the first through third of the four lines that make up section 3, we ask God to do these things for the sake of our martyrs: "Do it--act--for the sake of those who were murdered for your holiness. Do it for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming your unity. Do it for the sake of those who went into flame and water sanctifying your name." Each of these three begins with "'aseh"--do it. Fulfill our requests for these reasons. In the fourth line of section 3, we ask God to avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of his servants. It's sort of part of section 3, because it's about our martyrs, but it's also sort of part of section 2, because we're asking for a result that we can't guarantee.

Section 4

In the first line of section 4, we realize that maybe we were being a little hutzpedik in section 3: "Act--'aseh--for your sake if not for our sake." The remaining three lines all also begin with "'aseh". "Act--'aseh--for your sake and save us. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great mercy. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great, mighty, and awe-inspiring name, which we call upon."

Section 5

In section 5, we finally get to the well-known song, up to the words we've been trying to figure out, "ein banu ma'asim": we have no deeds, or we have no deeds in us.

In the most general context-free sense, what does one do? One does deeds. Or what is a deed? It's something someone does. Ma'asim (deeds) and 'aseh (the imperative verb meaning "act" or "do it") have the same root, and are even more tangled up in one another than do and deed. This is ma'aseh, the singular of ma'asim:


This is 'aseh:


In Avinu Malkenu, we ask God to do ('aseh) deeds (ma'asim) for us. These are the ma'asim that "ein banu ma'asim" refers to. And these are deeds that we can't do for ourselves; we don't have it within us to do them. Thus "ein banu ma'asim."

Section 6

Well, now we've figured out what "ein banu ma'asim" means. Section 6 is the first of the two bonus sections. The song continues with "'aseh 'imanu tzedakah vahesed"--treat us with charity and lovingkindness. I propose an alternative reading, based on ignoring idiom and translating it verbatim. 'Imanu literally means "together with us." Translating this word by word, we get, "Do, together with us, charity and lovingkindness." This is remarkable. We often say that someone who does charity and lovingkindness is doing God's work. Under this reading, we are taking the initiative. We're claiming charity and lovingkindness as our work and asking God to sign up to help out as a volunteer.

Section 7

Avinu Malkenu concludes with "vehoshi'enu"--"and save us." Saving us is still in God's allegorical hands, like all the items in section 2. And, not presuming to read God's allegorical mind, it's possible that charity and lovingkindness might influence the outcome in a positive way.


So what's my conclusion? Avinu Malkenu is somewhat about human helplessness, sort of. But it is absolutely not a call for human passivity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

proposed addition to our vocabulary

In an "I forgive" statement that appears in many prayer books before the bedtime Shema, we say "I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, or who have sinned against me, whether regarding my body or my possessions or my honor [bein bikhvodi], whether under compulsion or willingly, whether mistakenly or intentionally..." (emphasis added). The statement forgives those who have dissed us, which may be the hardest one to forgive. (I discuss the statement a little more here).

Jews, at least those who use Ortho-speak, have a number of conversational tags. "Lo aleinu" (it shouldn't happen to us), "Yasher koach" (or "Shkoich") (good job!), and so on. I propose that we add "bikhvodi" from the "I forgive" statement to this list as something to be said silently. It means "in my honor" (or, given what a pain prepositions are when going from one language to another, "having to do in some prepositional sort of way with my honor"). When we get bent out of shape because someone has slighted, superciliated, or otherwise dissed us, we can use this to bend ourselves back into shape.

Warning to those who don't know Hebrew: It would be reasonable to surmise that bein (rhymes with "pain"), means "or," but it generally doesn't. In this case, "bein this bein that bein the other" means "whether this, that, or the other."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The first (as far as I know) Jew to anglicize his name

I don't remember why, but yesterday a person I knew in high school a zillion years ago whose middle name was Athelstan was floating around in my mind. I knew the original Athelstan was an early English king, but I didn't know the details. So of course I Wikipedia'ed him. What I found there gave me an insight that was so astonishing, and yet so obvious, that it completely smacked my gob. It's obvious in the way that the convenience of having zero in our arithmetic is obvious now that it's been pointed out.

Æðelstān (the correct spelling) was the first Anglo-Saxon king of all of England. But here's the thing. We all know that Old English is derived from Yiddish. And Æðelstān, according to Wikipedia, means "noble stone." OK. I mean. Æðel! Noble! Edel! Right? Right? And check this out. Stān! Stone! Stein!

Yes, it's true. This King Æðelstān guy? He was in fact an Edelstein who anglicized his name. I surmise that his first name was Mel, short for melech, the Hebrew word for king. Mel Edelstein, the nice (so I assume) Jewish boy who became the first English king of England. The king of England, and yet he kept his origins hidden. Until now.

What is the significance of this discovery? Most importantly, did he pronounce his Jewish name "Edelsteen," or "Edelstyne"? Further research, beyond the scope of this post, is needed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wheaton College, Muslims, and Jews

I have nothing but admiration and respect for Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton College professor who is wearing a hijab in solidarity with American Muslims. I think the college was wrong to suspend her. The college claims that it put her on paid administrative leave not because she wears a hijab, but because of her statement on social media:
"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."
I find this problematic, although not for the reason the college does. Let’s imagine that some group who are not people of the book and do not worship the God of Abraham were being discriminated against or oppressed in the US, and that some or all of the women in that group wore some distinctive garb that isn’t in itself offensive to Christianity. Would Dr. Hawkins solidarize with them by wearing that garb? It’s possible, but she certainly wouldn’t be able to use the rationale that’s in her Facebook post. This is always a problem when you solidarize with an oppressed people not because they’re oppressed, but because they’re oppressed and they have a lot in common with you. Is there a Christian faith-based rationale for supporting the oppressed even when they aren’t sort of your coreligionists? Wheaton College seems to think there is. In a statement about Dr. Hawkins, the college writes
Wheaton College rejects religious prejudice and unequivocally condemns acts of aggression and intimidation against anyone. Our Community Covenant upholds our obligations as Christ-followers to treat and speak about our neighbors with love and respect, as Jesus commanded us to do.
The college's objection to Dr. Hawkins's Facebook has to do with the claim that "we [Christians and Muslims] worship the same God." In a December 16 press release, the college says,
As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution's identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.

Contrary to some media reports, social media activity and subsequent public perception, Dr. Hawkins' administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent.
The first half of the first item in the Statement of Faith reads,
WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life
Muslims and Jews believe in God as a Holy Unity, not as a Holy Trinity. Yes, we all believe in the God of Abraham, and yes, people can describe the same thing differently and still be talking about the same thing. But the question of Unity or Trinity is so essential to each religion's notion of God that we may in effect be talking about different Gods.

So I don't know whether we small-u unitarians and the trinitarians worship the same God. But I know this with all the certainty I have: no professor at Wheaton College, no writer for the National Review has ever been disciplined for saying that Christians and Jews worship the same God. I am certain of this because if the college or the review had done so, I would have heard about it at some synagogue; we Jews don't take that stuff lightly. I don't know whether any such professor or writer has said such a thing, but it seems reasonably likely; it's the type of thing that many Christians and Jews and righties and lefties often say. If a Wheaton College person or a National Review person has said that Jews and Christians worship the same God and haven't been rebuked for it, it's possible that those institutions may be operating with an anti-Muslim double standard.