Sunday, March 20, 2016

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! In Yiddish, eidl! Right? Right? And check this out. Stān! Stone! Shtein in Yiddish!

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.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

How to save a world, and the Tif'eret Yisrael on diversity

Leviticus 19:9-10 commands the makers to open their fields and vineyards to the takers.
When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields. [Also] do not pick up individual stalks [that have fallen]. [Furthermore,] do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. [Also] do not pick up individual [fallen grapes] in your vineyards. [All the above] must be left for the poor and the stranger. I am God your Lord. (The Living Torah translation; square brackets in the published translation)
If we want to be truly pious about this, and if we object to my use of "makers and takers," we can say that all this bounty comes from God. "Makers and takers" becomes inappropriate, and we can use another phrase from campaign 2012: "You didn't build that."

We don’t give these gifts only to the Jewish poor. Mishnah Gittin 5.8 teaches that we give them to the non-Jewish poor as well for the sake of the ways of peace (darkhei shalom, דרכי שלום). The point is that if your tzedakah goes only to the Jewish poor, you need to diversify.

* * *
As you may have seen on various bumper stickers, Hallmark cards, and those needlepointed things that people hang in their kitchens, the Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who has saved a whole world. Sometimes you will hear from some Jews that one who saves a single Jewish life is like one who has saved a whole world. Which version is correct? Good question.

The talmudic item in question is Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5. This is the version that appears in standard Mishnah collections and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a):

[Witnesses in a capital case need to know] that capital cases aren’t like property cases. In a property case, one makes restitution and atones. In a capital case, the blood of the accused and that of their descendants hang in the balance until the end of the world, as we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, as it is written, “Your brother’s bloods cry out” (Genesis 4:10). It doesn’t say “your brother’s blood” [דם אחיך], but “your brother’s bloods” [דמי אחיך]: his blood and the blood of his descendants. (Another explanation: your brother’s blood that was spilled on the trees and on the stones.) Therefore, a single person was created in order to teach that Scripture considers one who destroys a single Jewish life as one who has destroyed an entire world, and that Scripture considers one who saves a single Jewish life as one who has saved an entire world.
Two things are worth noting here. First, the logic of the proof text doesn’t limit this to Jews. This isn’t about the children of Abraham, but about all the children of Adam. Second, the statement about one who saves a single life being like one who saves a whole world follows from the verse about Cain and Abel. It doesn’t follow from our descent from a single person. But this is the Mishnah, so who am I to argue?, and I’ll be using the fact that this follows from our common origin later in this sermon. To continue:
It [viz., our having come from a single person] was also for the sake of peace, so that one person wouldn’t say to another, “My father was greater than your father”...
Or as a rabbi in Pittsburgh whose name I don’t remember put it, the first syllable of yichus [inherited prestige; a pedigree] is yich. In the Ortho community, we’re not very serious about this. “He’s Rav Alef’s brother-in-law and a scion of the Beit rabbinic family--sorry, I meant rabbinic dynasty.” Or “I’m an nth-generation direct descendant of the Important Gadol of Kfar Yehupitz, which means I’m cooler than my parent. I have n­ - 1 ancestors who were direct descendants of the Gadol, and my parent has only n - 2.” It gets pretty annoying after a while.
...and so that sectarians wouldn’t say that there is more than one power in Heaven. Finally, it shows the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. A person stamps many coins from a single die, and each looks like the other; the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, stamps each person from the single die of the first person, and none of them looks like another.
This mishnah also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4.9 [23a]):
...one who saves a single life is considered as one who has saved an entire world.
Here, it isn't limited to Israelite lives. Maimonides paraphrases the Jerusalem text in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12.3:
...one who saves a single life in the world is considered as one who has saved an entire world. (emphasis added)
The Tif’eret Yisra’el commentary by Rabbi Israel Lifschütz (1782-1860), the head of the rabbinical court in Danzig, applies the metaphor of unique coins from a single die not only to individuals but to whole peoples (Yakhin note 39 on Sanhedrin 4.5):
There are those who are black as coal such as the Ethiopian (כושי), the Negro (נעגער), and the Hottentot (האטטענטאט), and those who are white as snow such as the Samoyed (זאמעידען) and the Albanian (אלבאנוס), those who are the reddest (אדומים ביותר) such as the American Indian (תושבי אמעריקע), and many other various colors.
Rabbi Lifschütz is commenting here on the biblical verse on which the statement about saving a single life is based. So I surmise that he would have taken that statement to apply universally and not just to Jews. I don’t know whether my reasoning here is rabbinically acceptable, but that’s OK, since I’m not learned in Torah, and this isn’t about Jewish law anyway, so who cares?
* * *
Rabbi Lifschütz assigns colors to the peoples differently than we do. He doesn’t use the people of Danzig--the Jews and their Polish and German neighbors--as an example of a white people. I wildly guess that he had no actual contact with Samoyeds or Albanians and believed that they were literally white: the Samoyeds because of their association with the snowy north, up near the White Sea, and the Albanians because their name might have seemed related to albino and the Hebrew word for white, lavan. (The speculative translation of זאמעידען as Samoyeds was proposed by Felix Blank of the Jewish Theological Seminary library. I asked for suggestions from both Slavic and Jewish reference librarians, and his idea made the most sense. זאמעידען is a strange word; the עי is probably pronounced /ei/ as in rein, but that sound is usually spelled יי in a context like this.) Does this mean that he thought of the people we usually call white not as white, but as just normal--flesh colored, as it used to say on the crayons? Maybe. Why does he call American Indians "reddest" instead of just plain "red"? Maybe because he considered the flesh-colored people the basis for comparison. I leave it to people who are smarter than I am (which is a lot of people) to decide whether we should call him a racist.

When I was talking to some people about this a while back, a few of them objected to my using the word Negro. The word may be out of fashion now, but translating נעגער in any other way would have been anachronistic and incorrect. Negro was an honorable word until fairly recently. I was eleven when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is full of references to "the Negro."

תושבי אמעריקע translates almost literally into Native Americans, but I think that would have been anachronistic.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nahum and Nokhem

Mississippi Fred MacDowell comments on one of his own posts (using his nom de comment, "S.") that some people pronounce the biblical name Nahum as Nokhem even though the first vowel of the Hebrew name—נַחוּם—is pronounced ah in all dialects of Hebrew. This post started as a comment on the comment, but it got too long, so I made it even longer with clarifications, and here it is. Those who don't need the clarifications can skip the numbered paragraphs, but I don't know how you know whether you need them until you've read them. It might be easier to skip the numbered paragraphs for now and come back to them when you need them (if you do). There are cross-refs to these paragraphs.

1. The Hebrew vowels pataḥ ( ַ ) and ḥataf pataḥ ( ֲ ) are pronounced /a/ in both the Sefardic and the Ashkenazic dialects. The pataḥ is a short vowel, and the ḥataf pataḥ is even shorter; it should be pronounced hurriedly (see paragraph 2). The first vowel in נַחוּם is a pataḥ.

2. The ḥataf pataḥ (paragraph 1) is so short that technically it isn't even a full vowel; it doesn't produce syllables, and therefore isn't accented. It stands in for a sheva ( ְ ), which is either silent (sheva naḥ) or is pronounced like a schwa (sheva naʿ) (and this is where the English word schwa comes from). Other ḥataf vowels, which follow the same rules, are the hataf qamats ( ֳ ) and the ḥataf segol ( ֱ ).

3. There are two kinds of qamatz ( ָ ) in Hebrew; they are identical in appearance. The qamatz gadol is the long vowel corresponding to the pataḥ (paragraph 1); the qamatz qatan is the short vowel corresponding to the ḥolam ( ֹ ). (The long and short qamatzim are not the long and short vowels corresponding to each other.) Both qamatzim are pronounced /o||u/ in Ashkenazic Hebrew. In Sefardic pronunciation, the qamatz gadol (which appears much more often) is pronounced /a/, and the qamatz qatan is (or "should" be) pronounced /o/, but it usually isn't. So from a linguistic point of view, why SHOULD something be pronounced in a way most people usually don't pronounce it? Good question.

4. A dagesh is a dot appearing within a consonant, and there are two kinds. A dagesh ḥazaq may appear in any letter other than an alef, hei, ḥet, or ayin, and only rarely appears in a resh. (When a dot appears within an alef [rare occurrence] or a hei, it's a mappiq, which is a whole other story.) It serves to geminate (double the pronunciation) of the consonant; for example, הֵלּׅמּוּד is pronounced /hallimmud/, not /*halimud/. Or not; we don't really geminate in either Ashkenazic or Sefardic pronunciation. Gemination is sometimes important for theoretical purposes, some are careful about it when chanting the Torah or saying the Shema, and I believe the Yemenite Hebrew pronunciation preserves the gemination. In the case of a bet, gimmel, dalet, kaf, peh, or tav (the begad kefat letters), the dagesh ḥazaq also makes the consonant a stop instead of a fricative. The second kind of dagesh is the dagesh qal, which appears only in the begad kefats and only makes the letters into stops; it doesn't geminate. In practice, gimmel and dalet are always stops in Ashkenazic and Sefardic pronunciation, and in Sefardic tav is always a stop as well. Again, this is sometimes theoretically important even when it doesn't affect pronunciation.

5. An open syllable in Hebrew is one that ends in a vowel, and a closed syllable ends in a consonant. A consonant that is geminated with a dagesh ḥazaq (paragraph 4) or has a sheva naḥ or a ḥataf vowel standing in for a sheva naḥ (paragraph 2) closes a syllable. Broken into syllables, הֵלּׅמּוּד is /hal.lim.mud/.

Max Weinreich notes that in the Hebrew component of Yiddish, closed syllables tend to have short vowels and open syllables tend to have long vowels; although this tendency applies to the Hebrew component, it comes from the German component. He mentions several words that have either a pataḥ or a ḥataf pataḥ (/a/) (paragraph 1) in Hebrew that is pronounced like a qamatz (/o||u/) (paragraph 3). The Hebrew syllables of interest are open (paragraph 5). Recall that the qamatz gadol is the long vowel associated with pataḥ. Among the words Weinreich mentions are hodes (myrtle branch), kholem (dream), khotse (half), kadokhes (ague), tokhes (buttock), and tones (fast), as well as Nokhem.

There may be at least one mistake in the list. Lehokhes (spite), a Yiddish noun, is a repurposing of the Hebrew infinitive לְהַכְעׅיס (to anger). The sheva here is naḥ, which closes the syllable; Weinreich says this is an open syllable. He notes that in eastern Yiddish, it's pronounced lehakhes. Lehakhes is also the pronunciation given in Uriel Weinreich's dictionary.

Some of the other things Weinreich says about open syllable/long vowel and closed syllable/short vowel correspondences don't seem intuitively right to me, but I'm not chutzpadik enough to say he's wrong unless I'm sure, which I'm not.

Source: Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, 2 vols., ed. Paul Glasser, trans. Shlomo Noble with the assistance of Joshua A. Fishman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); original Yiddish publication, 4 vols., 1973. The list of words is from 2008, 2: 389/1973, 2: 44; the statement about the phenomenon's German origin is from 2008, 2: 387/1973, 2: 42-43.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What does G-d demand of us?

This d’var Torah on parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) was delivered by Phyllis Nutkis at Kol Sasson Congregation, Skokie, Illinois, on August 9, 2014. Thank you, Phyllis, for giving me a copy and letting me post it.

When I started preparing for this d’var Torah, I really did not want to talk about the current situation in Israel and Gaza. But I haven’t been able to think about anything else. So I’m going to jump right in here and to share my thoughts with you, with the hope of starting a conversation.

The more I hear and the more I read about what’s going on, the more troubled I feel. I’ve read columns and articles from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Al Jazeera; from Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post; listened to NPR and Fox News; read lots of comments and opinions from Facebook; and more, as I’m sure many of you have. Even if we ignore the obviously anti-Semitic rants, and disregard comments that are obviously ignorant or uninformed, we’ve heard and read everything from “Israel should give up all the land” to “We should just kill all the Arabs.” But it doesn’t seem as though there are any clear answers. So it seemed natural, as I sat down to write this d’var Torah, to see if there was anything in the parsha that could shed any light on this subject, or perhaps clarify or broaden my understanding. So let’s start with a question from the parsha:

What does G‑d demand of us?

Deuteronomy 7:12: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, The L‑rd your G‑d will with lovingkindness maintain the covenant with you that He made on oath with your ancestors.”

The parsha begins with Moshe describing the specific ways in which G‑d will sustain the covenant, to bring us into the land He has promised us, IF we follow His commandments: the land he will bring us to will be fertile; crops will thrive; there will be just the right amount of rain, at just the right times; we will bear children, and they will survive; our cattle will reproduce; we will be healthy... G‑d will reward us with this land, because the land embodies (and in fact is critical to) everything that matters for our survival.

? But it’s conditional: “And IF you do obey these rules and observe them carefully.” But we have a terrible track record in obeying G‑d’s rules. We have been “stiff-necked,” stubborn, and defiant. So why didn’t He just destroy us and “blot out our name from under the heaven”?

It’s clear from this parsha, and from many other places in the Humash, that G‑d hasn’t drawn a line in the sand. He is willing to be persuaded that we shouldn’t be destroyed; that we should be given another chance. He repeatedly invites human moral critique. He invites us to argue with him; to make our case. He considered wiping us out, and he said so out loud because he wanted Moshe to argue with Him, to defend us. So this is one thing that G‑d demands from us: He wants us to be His partner in a moral debate.

But in this midst of all of this—the descriptions of the land AND of our failures to keep the commandments—, there are a couple of verses that seem out of place.

In 10:18-19: “[G‑d] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.” “V’ahavtem et ha-ger ki gerim hayitem b’eretz Mitzrayim. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“Ger” is usually translated, literally, as “stranger.” Hazal took the biblical notion of “ger” to mean a “convert.” But in the Humash, a “ger” is more accurately described as “resident alien.” The state of being an “alien” is a result of belonging to a different culture than ours; it’s a result of that person’s “strangeness” to us. In other words, what makes a person a stranger—a ger—is our alienation from his or her difference. So if we are to “love the stranger,” we need to change the way we regard him. If I understand another’s culture, he is no longer alien to me. It’s very important to make clear, though, that does NOT mean that we should adopt the alien’s culture; in fact we are warned against this. But the other extreme is also not desirable: when we know nothing about the culture of the resident aliens who live among us, we need to familiarize ourselves, so that the “alien” is no longer a “stranger.” And as Jews, the prototypical “aliens” in a now-connected global world, we should appreciate that need.

The Talmud mentions that “Ahavat haGer,” the instruction to love, and not oppress, the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah; in fact, it’s mentioned more times than any other mandate in the Torah. Nechama Leibowitz says that empathy for the stranger is an outgrowth of experience. "We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land."

Emmanuel Levinas defines the stranger as the “Other.” “The Other is what I am not. The Other is this, not because of his own character or psychology but because of his very…‘otherness.’ The Other is, for example, the weak, the poor, ‘the orphan and widow,’ whereas I am the rich or the powerful.”

Why are these verses here? How do these two things—the land, and befriending the “other”—fit together?

Nechama Leibowitz says: “We are accustomed to reading [this] as the classic description of the fertility and other wonderful qualities of the holy land. But we must not ignore its other implication. The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasize too the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them.”

Here are two potential pitfalls.

1. We are warned against worshipping other gods, so when we attempt to understand and familiarize ourselves with the “strangers” among us, we have to be careful to select and appreciate the aspects of this foreign culture that enlighten and enlarge us (everything from Galileo, Roman architecture, and seventeenth-century European music to yoga, acupuncture, and pizza), and yet reject the aspects that will undermine us and corrupt our moral standing.

2. We are warned against hubris; to be careful that “when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the L‑rd your G‑d.”

Receiving G‑d’s gifts, and enjoying the riches of the land, may lead us to say (8:17), “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” But Moshe tells the people, “Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the L‑rd your G‑d is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” Believing that we have the power to manipulate the world can lead to our downfall. Hubris, by definition, undermines our relationship with G‑d. Arrogance and smugness are based on dismissiveness and disregard for the “Other.” When we act with hubris, we are rejecting our relationship with G‑d. Who are we to be dismissive of another human being?

So all along, we’ve been hearing about the wonderful land to which G‑d will bring us. But, of course, there’s a big problem. This isn’t just empty, uninhabited land—it’s full of people. Other human beings. They may be idol worshippers, even child sacrificers, and they’re hostile; but they’re people, and they’re there. And to make things more complicated, almost immediately after we hear about the land, we hear this:

7:16: “You shall destroy all the peoples that the L‑rd your G‑d delivers to you, showing them no pity.” 7:24: “You shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” This seems to be in direct opposition to what we’ve just been told—“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I am not sure what to make of these statements; I find them very troubling, but that will be a subject for another d’var Torah. In the meantime, I think this is another warning: history shows that those who have been oppressed frequently become worse oppressors when they acquire power; we are thus cautioned against becoming oppressors when we have power of another.

We were strangers, or “others”—resident aliens—in Egypt, and suffered under our oppressors. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that, when we are in a position of power, we should beware of making human rights conditional on anything but “the simple humanity which every human being bears. With any limitation of these human rights, the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings.”

I think these concepts can help us answer the question we started with: What does G‑d demand of us?

We are made in G‑d’s image, and therefore we are to emulate G‑d, who (10:18) “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger…” Ibn Ezra says: If one person “afflicts” a widow or orphan and the community doesn’t intervene to protect him/her, all will be punished; we all bear responsibility. Anyone who sees a person oppressing society’s most vulnerable and does not come to his/her aid, will also be considered an oppressor.

But exactly how we are to do this isn’t spelled out; in the current situation, there are certainly no easy answers, or even any answers at all. But we know that G‑d invites, and expects, moral and ethical debate; so perhaps we are meant not to find a definitive answer, but to continually reexamine the question. We will never all agree; but the debate shouldn’t be about what is the “most accurate” or originalist interpretation of the text—instead, it should be about what is the most moral and ethical interpretation. What is the best for the Jews, and for all of humanity? This is also what G‑d demands of us.

Among all of the things I’ve read the past month, there are some very disturbing things; and a lot of, I think, useless things that we use to avoid the really difficult questions. For example, there are lists all of our achievements—the Nobel prizes, the amazing Israeli technology, the polio vaccine. But as the parsha makes clear, we should not hide behind our accomplishments and use them as justification for our supposed “superiority” over the “other”; we aren’t getting the land because we’re so good; our victory is not proof of our virtue. 9:5, 9:6: “It is not because of your righteousness.”

Often, when we are confronted with seemingly impossible situations, we tend to rely on stereotypes to reinforce what we think we know and what we want to believe in order to “justify” our beliefs. We’ve all seen dozens of examples of these stereotypes lately, but here’s one I saw the other day: there’s a picture that’s being circulated on FB of an ugly, toothless old woman, with the caption that she is one of the seventy-two virgins promised to Muslim martyrs. I find this no less offensive than the stereotypical images used by the Nazis of Jews with hooked noses, grabbing fistfuls of money. How does this help? What does this accomplish? I think it’s worse than useless, because it diverts us from examining the real issues; looking at the actual human beings before us, and looking at ourselves honestly.

But doing this is incredibly hard, because we know that there are many serious and perhaps irreconcilable differences. But to say that’s it, end of conversation—that’s not helpful. Especially when it seems futile, we have to continue searching, talking, not closing our hearts and minds to those of the “other,” to continue to broaden our understanding of him and be mindful of our own power.

We were strangers in Egypt, and thus we have a responsibility toward the strangers among us, regardless of their behavior. Even though we haven’t entirely succeeded in keeping the rules of behavior G‑d has laid out for us, he indicates that he isn’t giving up on us now or in the future. Our task is to keep trying; we aren’t to give up either. We should continually and continuously aspire to be a people that truly deserves this land and all it represents. The giving of the land should induce a perpetual attitude of gratitude and humility. It’s a gift we didn’t earn. The parsha makes clear this gratitude is best expressed by treating the most vulnerable in society well, especially when we have wealth and power.

There are no clear answers, but we should engage in serious and sophisticated thought and discussion about how to relate to the “strangers” who are in the land, and who will always be in the land; there will always be “others.” Yes, many of them, but not all, are hostile. But what do we really know about the “other” who threatens us? Without knowing, we can’t decrease his “strangeness.” We need to take responsibility for familiarizing ourselves, and to have empathy; then the “alien” is no longer a “stranger.”

This is what G‑d demands of us: to engage in a moral debate with Him, to consider and argue and devote our strongest energies to our relationship with the “stranger” among us, especially when we are in a position of power. This is HOW we fulfill the commandment to love and obey G‑d.

We don’t just look for easy answers; and we don’t just walk away in disgust or despair when we don’t find the answer. We don’t resort to slogans or shallow simplifications. We live with the tensions, with the uncertainty, with the dissatisfaction of not having found a solution—yet. We keep trying to reach different and ultimately more helpful understandings of our responsibility towards the “strangers” who live among us, adopting the best of their wisdom and values, without compromising our own, keeping in mind that Judaism has survived and flourished exactly by such adaptation and adoption.

As I said at the beginning, I want this to be a conversation. I hope we can keep talking about it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Shoveling snow on the Sabbath (ver. 2013)

Snowy sidewalks are no big deal in themselves, but they become sidewalks with packed ice after they've been walked on for a while, and those things are dangerous and, depending on the weather, can last for weeks.

When it's necessary to shovel on the Sabbath, I always do so, wearing socks on my hands as a shinnuy. I haven't asked a rabbi about this, and this is out of respect for the rabbinate--I want to save them the embarrassment of possibly giving the wrong answer.

As a side note, I once told a friend, former and (I hope) future hevruta, and ethical adviser about this. He (who lives in an apartment where the landlord is responsible for shoveling, so it's not his problem) said he thought this a fine idea. Since it's just me, he said, I should do it without any distinctive Jewish accessories visible. If, however, I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, av beit din of the Rabbinical Council of America and rosh beit din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who lives nearby, he'd advise me to do it looking like I was R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz so everyone would know it's OK. I take his point, although if I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, I wouldn't need his advice.

One Sabbath morning in 2009, there was a thick layer of slush on the sidewalk. I ignored it, since it was the Sabbath, and what would the people coming to lunch think? By the time the Sabbath was over, the slush had turned into solid ice with footprints.

So let's imagine that someone had injured themselves on the ice that I piously left there, and let's further imagine that I'd passed away and had to face the Heavenly Tribunal.
Members of the Tribunal (M"T): Well, what about that nice Mr. McNotzreigh who broke his whatsits on your ice?
Me: Sorry about that, but only a little, since I was observing Shabbat.
M"T: Very nice.
(I assume the M"T are Orthodox Jews, among whom "very nice" means "yeah, right, whatever.")

Right. Well, very nice. But from now on, I'm going to do what needs to be done and forgo the after-the-fact teshuvah.

In the morning service, we ask God to rescue us from a bad neighbor (unless we're praying in a congregation that skips that paragraph). Reading between the lines, I am guessing that the liturgist also doesn't want us to be the bad neighbor.