Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.
Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated. Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.
I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.
When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.
The scene for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever. And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.
Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.
The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.
The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:
- Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
- Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
- Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
- Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community. I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
- Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
- Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.
The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?
As the director of security at my workplace said: It was bound to happen, it was only a question of when and where. It was yesterday and it was at Tree of Life, a congregation in Pittsburgh.
The finger-pointing and blame game began almost immediately.
It was the president’s fault.
It was the fault of the liberals who want gun control.
It was the fault of the victims, because their synagogue didn’t have armed guard (I have no idea whether it did or not, by the way).
It was the fault of Israel’s policies.
It was the fault of all Jews for being too complacent.
It was the fault of the mental health system.
It was the fault of one single person with hatred and bigotry and weapons.
These are the absolutely unconstructive, if not outright dysfunctional responses from people trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of something that cannot be rationalized away. Like the Holocaust or natural disasters, if we can explain it, it will put our minds at ease. But, like the Holocaust or natural disasters, we cannot. So, we bicker over our responses and come up with all sorts of ways of avoiding what we really have to do today – mourn, and what we have to do tomorrow – act.
The individuals who are creating chaos in our society are not monolithic. They are responding in horrible ways to very complex times. To expect their motivations to fall into one single category is absurd. As a result, the appropriate responses (both in mourning and in action) are going to be complex.
Here is the only simple thing: All those who are conducting acts of terror and of mass murder are creating chaos and festering more hatred and violence.
We are in a war, but probably not the one you think: It’s the war that the Dead Sea sects of the Jewish people spoke of in ancient times: The Sons of Darkness against the Sons of Light. But unlike the tribal designations for who are the forces for darkness and who are the forces for light, today the forces for darkness are those who promote anger, dissent, violence and terror. Today’s forces for light are those who are, to use the words of the Jewish tradition: rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, merciful humans who are the descendants of merciful ones. In other words, those whose characteristics of mercy are so ingrained on their souls, that it is practically part of their DNA.
Today, the Jewish community and its allies sit shiva. We mourn, comfort the mourners and each other.
Tomorrow we mobilize for action. We join the war on the side of the Sons of Light through acts of kindness, increasing mercy and love, decreasing the capacity for violence, and taking necessary measures to protect our community and our society.
By this point, those of us who are fairly traditional Jews begin to get confused every year.
These weeks are disorienting, as we work for a few days of each work week, take a few days off, work again and off again — all while trying to do a full week’s work in half the days.
A similar disorientation is actually part of the holiday of Sukkot that begins late Sunday: Then we go out to the Sukkah to eat, come back inside, go back outside.
In both of these situations, our Jewish traditions keeps us a bit off balance, but also keeps us on or toes.
If, as I believe, the purpose of the Jewish tradition is to transform who we are as humans, then this off-balance piece makes perfect sense: When we are in secure and predictable places and times, there is little incentive to change and to grow. On the other hand, the on-again off-again work week pushes us to rebalance our work-life lives and moving between the sukkah and the home is a reminder that even “the roof over our head” is not to be taken for granted, but is something that needs to be re-valued. Indeed, for many people, there is no roof or home and food isn’t even a given.
So, while we struggle to remember what day of the week it is (when the next work week begins on Tuesday or Wednesday) and whether we’re going to be feasting outdoors or living inside, let’s learn from it. This is the time to be creatively off-balance and to use this opportunity to re-calibrate our lives and our values.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
During the holiday season, the Selichot / Penitential prayers include the following declarations:
דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי – We have slandered
זַֽדְנוּ – We have sinned with malicious intent
טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר – We have added falsehood upon falsehood
לַֽצְנוּ – we have mocked
צָרַֽרְנוּ – We have caused others to suffer
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּטֻמְאַת שְׂפָתָיִם
For the sin we committed before You through impure speech…
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה
For the sin we committed before You through the words of our mouths …
וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּשִׂנְאַת חִנָּם
For the sin we committed before You through free hatred…
In all, there are around a dozen or more references to how and what we communicate that are on the list of what we seek forgiveness for at this season.
Following that point, allow me to share some bipartisan dialogue that we’ve seen from those who either ran for office on either of the two major parties ballots or who actually currently hold elective office in our United States.
In no particular order:
“XXX was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, XXX. He made XXX look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at XXX, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by XXX for quickly firing that dog!”
“Crazy XXX is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically”
“It’s one man, one man, myself, that’s standing for the truth, and the news media can’t stand that — the Democrats and Republicans, the cursed two-party, Jew party, queer party system — can’t stand that!”
“The holocaust is a bunch of kosher baloney. It’s an extortion racket pure and simple to extort money out of perpetrators
“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”
And then there are the disgusting uses of the words “libtard” and “Nazi” to describe those with whom we disagree. And the mischaracterization of the detention camps for children who have entered the country as concentration camps of the Nazi model. They aren’t.
These words and behaviors are not on the extreme sidelines of American life. Their sources are the President of the United States and candidates from either of the two major parties for congress or other offices. They were from Illinois, from Minnesota, from Michigan and others.
Those are the tip of the iceberg. An average week on Twitter or on CNN or on Fox News will report dozens of these. This type of communication has replaced what used to be civil dialogue. Most of us can remember the Trumps and the Clintons pictured socializing together, we can see the Bushes and Obamas befriending each other, and during the Mc Cain funeral, we saw liberals and conservatives together mourning his passing. But today the voices of those who insult and those who hate is louder and more persistent. And every time we retweet, repeat or tolerate these types of expression, we become partners in sin and in moving the world a little bit farther from where it needs to be headed.
What has become missing in action in our country and in our world is a type of divergent thinking in which one side of an argument or the other doesn’t have to be stupid or just plain wrong. We have stopped recognizing gray areas and no longer recognize that both sides of an argument might be intelligent and that both are committed to the community’s good and welfare.
Two quick lessons, one from the Talmud, one from medieval debates: In the first, the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued over many points of Jewish law. Hillel is generally the lenient, while Shammai tends towards the strict application of law. Eventually God takes the wheel in a heavenly rant in which he states that elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, both opinions reflect God’s living words, but concludes that the law follows Hillel. In discussing why Hillel’s opinion won out, it is suggested that it was because the school of Hillel always taught the opposing opinion – that of Shammai – before it taught its own opinion (Talmud Eruvin). It was humility and openness to more than one possible truth gave Hillel and his followers the edge.
The second lesson is that of the mezuza. There was a dispute as to whether the mezuza was to be hung horizontally or vertically. The argument could have turned easily into the type of name calling and insulting that we see all over social media today. Instead it led to the compromise that is universally practiced in the Ashkenazi community. Yes the mezuza is hung in the unlikely slanted position, a compromise in which both sides were able to claim a limited victory and validation.
It would be easy to see what is happening in the United States, and even to a degree in Israel and to say “this is not Judaism’s business”. There are fringe groups in the Jewish people who do try to isolate themselves and do not bring their Jewish beliefs and core values to the greater society. But in doing so, we deprive Judaism of its greater value and deprive the world of important lessons that we have to share.
We are, according to the Torah, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, the kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Not the only nation or people in the world, but one which aims to be a model to other nations. We Jews cannot be passengers in the boat of the larger world that has holes letting leak in, lest we all drown together. We have to step up to be leaders who are fixing the moral leaks of our greater world.
Our politicians and world leaders aren’t going to be angels. Certainly, that standard was not expected or attained by even the greatest of Jewish leaders from Abraham to Sarah to Moses to King David to Golda Meir. But each of them stepped up to admit their wrongdoings, often helped by ancient or modern prophetic voices who demanded they aim higher.
We need to step up to be those prophetic voices today. As Jews, we need to demand greater wisdom and higher standards for the leaders of our people and for the leaders of our country and our world. It’s not just about “but s/he is good for Israel” or S/he is good for our Jewish neighborhood”. To accept limited self-interest as the main tipping point in who we promote as leaders, while leaving moral leadership off the table isn’t Judaism. When we look to leaders and find that they are totally immoral in their personal and business lives, and that we have to actually censor their words because they cannot be repeated in the company of children, then we’re lost our moral compass.
We need to use everything at our disposal: our votes, our letters to the editor, our letters to our leaders, social media, donations, whatever it takes, to bring back what the Talmud refers to as lashon naki, clean speech in public dialogue. We need to demand that personal and public integrity is more important than self-interest. As noted in the creation story (particularly that of the mystics) the world was created incomplete so that we can work to perfect it.
May we find the strength and courage to step forward to bringing civil discourse and respectful disagreement back, so that we can work together in service of the goal of improving ourselves, our communities, our country and our world in the coming year.
I know I’m a political moderate because I get criticized by both those to the left and those to the right. Sadly, in the world in which we live today, the word “moderate” is viewed negatively by liberals and conservatives alike. Both seem perfectly happy to throw disgusting insults like “libtard” and “Nazi” at each other without considering what the other side is saying. And having a president that routinely calls people insulting names publicly changes the nature of society, sending a message that disrespectful interactions are preferable to respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
The thing about moderate views is that they require nuanced thinking, if not downright divergent thinking. It is very simplistic (and untrue) to think, for example, that those who promote responsible gun ownership want to do away with the Second Amendment of the constitution or totally outlaw all weapons. Similarly, there are those who want to believe that opposing the recent American practice of separating children and parents who enter the country illegally means that they want completely open borders, with absolutely no safeguards.
On the other side, the idea that children in detention facilities are in “concentration camps” or that President Trump or his advisors are “Nazis” is equally simplistic as well as minimalizing what the Nazi era or concentration camps actually were.
So, how do we get to nuanced thinking? One way is through Talmud study. No, seriously. Talmud isn’t just for Jews anymore. Even South Korea adopted Talmud study on some level in order to become “smart like the Jews” click here . While I was probably already a divergent thinker, Talmud study (even when it sometimes bored me to tears or required me to study it in a pretty dead language) opened some critical thinking horizons for me. Such as:
- Two schools of thought that disagree can both be based on data, observations, and knowledge of precedent
- Name calling and insults by one school of thought to another may appear, but are very infrequent
- Sometimes the final answer in a disagreement is: Hell, we don’t know either. Can we kick it off to Elijah the Prophet to figure out?
- There’s the very cool response to two diametrically opposed views: the question of whether a mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally ends up with moderation and compromise – in most communities, the decision is to hang it at an angle between the two views
- And in reflecting on the Talmud and on personal characteristics, Maimonides, in the 12th century, states that the “golden path” is that of moderation rather than extremes
So we need to realize that in political and social matters (as in just about everything), there is a bell curve. There will be those few at the extremes that will take radical positions. Like the recent few Republican candidates that had been affiliated with the Nazi party or their friends, the extremes are out there, but in the very far edge of the bell curve with very few voices or followers.
Most of us congregate in the middle, at either side of the top of the bell curve. We’re the people that agree that you can’t have totally open borders, but disagree on how to reach an intelligent policy; The folks who don’t want individuals with serious mental illness or criminal intent to have guns, but disagree on how to assure it.
It’s time for us (Americans, as well as other countries that face polarization) to stop obsessing about the extremists and to focus on the vast majority that actually want civil, respectable discourse and the ability of our leaders to find the compromises needed to really make our world better.
And if picking up Baba Metzia helps them do that, so be it!
Listen, I’m not a politician. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am not even a registered party member anymore…changed my registration to “no party” in order to avoid the snooping that the federal government was trying to do, when it demanded that states turn over voter records.
I’m just a Rabbi. A Jewish educator. I vote Jewish. That is to say, I care about a wide range of issues and I look at them with a mindset that says: My Jewish values don’t dictate my vote, but they definitely inform it. Specifically, my Jewish lens includes:
- Personal integrity. Not perfection. Striving for good. Striving for ethical. Striving for moral [includes idea of teshuva, that a person can change and improve]
- Truth [a name of God]
- Peace and its pursuit [Shalom is another name of God]
- Responsibility [Ours is a religion of responsibility, not of rights]
- Consistent values
- Compassion [according to the rabbis, a litmus test of a Jewish person]
- Justice [as in: Justice, Justice you shall pursue]
- Strength [not power. Strength]
- Standing up for minorities [I’m a member of a minority religious group, so I notice] or for those historically disenfranchised
- Partnership with God [or with the Godly, if you prefer] in protecting creation
- Security and safety [“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them”]
- The security, safety and peace of Israel as the sole Jewish state in the world
So, when it comes to state-wide or national positions that are going to be on the ballot, I’ll be sending off my questionnaire to candidates and publishing those who answer these simple questions:
- What are the five top values that guide you in life and in public service?
- Are you respected by those of the other party/parties?
- How do you “play in the sandbox” with those whose views you disagree strongly?
- Are you respected by those in other branches of government?
- How do you “play in the sandbox’ with those in other branches, especially when they oppose you?
- How will you protect the right to bear arms?
- How will you protect citizens from gun and other violence?
- What do you think of scientific knowledge, such as global warming? Should our country be joining the rest of the world in environmental action? Is coal “clean” as a fuel, in your opinion?
- Do your religious beliefs, or those of religious leaders you honor, promote the idea that Jews (or Moslems, or any other group) will “not be saved” or “are doomed to burn”because they haven’t accepted a particular religion?
- What actions will you pursue to safeguard the security and promote peace in Israel?
- What are the three special interest groups or corporations that contribute the most to your campaign/s?
How about you. What are YOUR questions for those who want your support as they pursue leadership roles?
When I interview people for a job, one question that I’ve used for quite a few years is: What type of music do you like? I’m not interested in genres, but in songwriters and performers. I’ve been inclined to hire people who like Springsteen, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Sinatra, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and for my classical music, Tchaikovsky.
Why do I use this question in an interview? Because it’s a great way to get to know a person. When they’re mentioned one of the above, I know that they like music that:
- Tells a story and means it.
- Flows. Seamlessly. Both the story and the music.
- Can be moved to. After all, you want the story to make you move. Not just dancing, but also move people to get up and act.
- Is passionate. Like the people I want to have around me, working towards a goal passionately.
Think about these storytellers:
- You can just see the policeman stopping Jay-Z, when you hear him tell the story in 99 Problems
- Even if you’ve never seen the Nutcracker Suite, listening to the music gives you insight into the story and let’s you imagine it.
- Steely Dan’s My Old School gives you a picture of the former student who is now with the “working girls at the county jail.”
- Who doesn’t recognize the characters that we’re introduced to at the bar in Piano Man?
Each performer and/or songwriter puts you up close to an unfolding story in a passionate way, and actually gives you such a clear picture that you are there.
Sound familiar? At this time of year, it should. This is exactly what is asked of us at the Passover Seder: Engage people in your storytelling and in your story-singing in such a way that we all see ourselves in the story (“as if he personally came out of Egypt”).
Let’s all learn from those people whose storytelling skills we respect: musicians, songwriters, artists, and storytellers. On the Seder night ahead, let’s use the passion and our best ways of communicating to see the story, experience our presence in the story and to envision how the story continues from generation to generation.
And as we invite others into the story, may we move them and ourselves to continue the story and move to the world we want for ourselves and for generations to come.
Chag Sameach, a Happy and Joyous Pesach to one and all!
If you’re old enough to know where the title of this post comes from, you’re not a kid, or even close to being one anymore. But for the first time in ages, everyone in the United States (and in a good portion of the world) is watching teens step up, beginning in Parkland Florida and expanding out.
Watching teens in very public places as they take positions on public policy is watching a roller coaster. One minute, a young lady is delivering a wonderful speech, delivering moral messages to a world that’s watching. The next moment, she’s spinning herself around, because she knows she’s hit the mark. An idealistic young man takes on a government leader, successfully. Then he takes a victory lap to get high fives from his friends.
Having worked with teens for several decades, this is actually wonderfully normal teen behavior. Having total idealism and passion, unrestrained by the life experiences that beat us older people down, is incredible to witness. And doing a victory dance even while at the center of one of the most important crossroads of American life – so unacceptable for adults – is something that we understand for teens. Because, well, teens.
One of the most important teens to have ever lived is Anne Frank. The wisdom she imparted in her short life continues to be read and studied. And yet, as Dennis Prager once pointed out: I’m not going to take the philosophy of a 15-year old as the guide for my life. My addition to that insight mine would be: At the same time, don’t dismiss her idealistic thinking. She had the life experiences in the time in the attack to develop her thinking pretty quickly. So have the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
As I sat in the BB&T Center last night I briefly judged the kids who performed their dances after scoring points in a discussion with some pretty hefty leaders. After all, it was “immature”. But then I thought some more. I’m 62 years old. I’ve been in leadership roles since I was a youth group president. I had a pulpit at age 23. So, yes, I’ve learned not to take a victory lap after I’ve said something important. But what right do I have to expect a 17-year old – who has been violently taken from a life of homework, snapchat and dating – and thrust unexpectedly into the international spotlight to have the knowledge that the “adults” (who, incidentally, had failed to protect them) would find their celebration unacceptable?
Here are teens: One teen legally obtained a semi-automatic weapon (among other firearms) and brutally murdered seventeen people. Hundreds of other teens are speaking out publicly, calling out adults for not being responsible, and protesting in school. According to scientists, none of these teens have fully developed “executive” skills. Yet, one is a mass murderer and the others are exercising leadership.
At the very least, we need to listen to the teens who are leading the way. Do they have all the answers? No. But they are stepping up in ways that people three and four times their age have failed to. The job for us as adults is to listen to what they are teaching us, mentor them as leaders and help move them to be effective as they set their paths.
And forgive their victory dances because, frankly, even us old folks would like to do those sometimes.
I get it. You had plans to give a concert in Israel and the pressure to cancel got to you. After all, there are dozens of other countries to play, and many of them don’t have a peace process that remains incomplete. Cancelling is an easy way out. Doesn’t give you more insight into the beautiful democracy that Israel is; doesn’t help you to know a start-up nation that has brought innovation to technology, communications, medicine, fashion and more; doesn’t help you better understand the 18-year old men and women who defend themselves and their country every day; doesn’t help you to know the women who are working within a democratic system to fight for women’s rights in a country that already gives women more rights that the countries that surround it; doesn’t give you insights into the country that is rated as one of the most LGBT-friendly in the world.
And you know what? Not going to Israel also cost you the opportunity to get to know the Arab and Palestinian populations within Israel and in the West Bank. You opted out of Tel Aviv, but also out of Jericho, Ramallah and Gaza, cities that happen to have free elections for Palestinian leadership. Who knows? They might have wanted to hear your music there, too.
At concerts in Israel, Arab and Jew enjoy music. Together. Wouldn’t it have been great to stand before audiences and speak about the future, about peace, about a time free from violence?
So I have a very serious offer for you. Let’s go to Israel together. We can visit Tel Aviv and East and West Jerusalem. We’ll travel to Palestinian communities to hear what its people are thinking. We can visit the Arab member of Knesset who advocates for the rights of women (Jewish and Arab). We can visit kibbutzim founded by idealists who wanted to live in peace with the Arabs of neighboring villages. I’ll take you to drop in on some of my family members who are settlers in their West Bank city, just across the valley from Ramallah. They’re regular people, like you and me, working for a living and wishing their grandchildren wouldn’t have to go off to the army. We’ll go to Hadassah Hospital, where Jewish and Arab doctors work together to save lives of Jewish and Arab patients.
We can probably even hook you up to meet with Israeli leaders from across the political divide (both Arab and Jew), who struggle daily with how to reach a peace that assures the security of all parties.
Want to make a difference? So do I.
Have your people contact me and let’s go. Seriously.
Memory: Back in my youth, students came to the school I attended a day after their parents had been on the front page of the local newspaper for criminal wrongdoing. We spent the day ignoring them, feeling badly that they were caught in a situation not of their making. But we knew that a wrong had been done.
We also knew to feel terribly about other scandals in which Jews were implicated – whether it was “white collar” crime or violent crime. When we read the newspaper (back in those days, it’s how we learned the news), our eyes went to the Jewish-sounding names to see who had embarrassed the Jewish people and how. Berkowitz, Ruby, Goldstein, Mezvinsky…We felt a sense of shame that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah could behave in these ways.
To be truthful, some of the shame my generation felt about Jews behaving badly had to do with being a first or second generation American Jew. My Judaic teachers growing up were mostly immigrants to this country. They had fled Europe just before or after the Nazi era. Or they had left Israel during times of economic hardship. They were proud Americans. They were also forever indebted to the United States, feeling that the country had accepted them as citizens who were nonetheless aliens in a foreign (and, frankly, Christian) country. And, as immigrants often do, they tended to feel a bit at risk. So the message that came through their teaching was: you (at age 15) represent the entire Jewish people in the United States. Your behavior directly impacts our safety in this great country. So stay on the straight and narrow, and be sure to express regret and consternation when one of your fellow Jews does something bad.
At the time, we joked about that message, but in hindsight, there was wisdom there: All Israel is responsible for one another (Mishnah).
Dr. Karl Menninger, in a memorable book, Whatever Became of Sin, alluded to how, in a world of moral relativism, society can lose sight of what is absolute wrong. Sadly, that spirit has infiltrated Judaism today. I’m no longer shocked to see Jews explain away acts of Jewish terrorism (which, admittedly are not commonplace, but do occur). Jewish felons were “railroaded” by the system, say defenders of some Jewish criminals. We were even treated recently to scenes of singing and dancing in celebration of a felon being released from prison (and yes, it is possible that he received a longer sentence than usual for the crime for which he was convicted, but it doesn’t change the reality of that crime).
As a rabbi and Jewish educator let me be absolutely clear: Felonies are wrong. Defrauding is wrong. Routinely hiring undocumented immigrants and having them work and live in poor conditions is wrong. When one does so as a Jew, it is what we call a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name publicly. When one does so in the act of providing for the needs of observant Jews like myself, it is unconscionable. Period.
Just to get things out of the way, I fully expect negative comments to this piece. I’ve already been told (after 36 years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal service) that I’m a self-hating Jew or that I hold Orthodox Judaism or Jews in general to an unfair standard (isn’t holding one’s self to a higher standing the point of Judaism?). Here’s the thing: I deeply respect those who disagree with my opinion. All I ask is that those who disagree commit themselves to respect for mine.
Personally, I am happy for any family reunited after incarceration. If you’re the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, your release is cause for public celebration. But if your crime was not of those types, celebrate humbly with your family this Shabbat and commit yourself to a life as a law-abiding citizen who will work hard to be a credit to our people.