Getting it from Both Sides

Having just finished Hanukkah, a holiday focused on our connection as Jews to the larger culture, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an American Jew and how non-Jews perceive us. I believe that in America, Jews have found the most comfortable and successful home outside of Israel in our history. And yet, in 2018 there are cracks in that sense of wellbeing.

From the right we see a growing movement of neo-Nazis and white supremacism; from the left we see an intense form of anti-Zionism that often becomes anti-Semitic. At first glance these two forces, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, seem disconnected, but they actually are linked.

What unites both forms of anti-Jewish sentiment is Israel and American Jews’ relationship to the Jewish state. Most Jews in this country are liberal, pluralistic and in favor of multi-ethnic democracy, but on the left, Israel is singled out for condemnation as an example of an ethno-nation state that oppresses its Palestinian minority.

Of course this was not always the case. When Israel was a young, struggling, underdog nation it was the darling of the socialist world. It built an egalitarian society whose most beloved institution was the collectivist kibbutz. Years of capitalism and rule by the right-of-center Likud party have eroded Israel’s socialist bone fides.

While Israel is no longer a beacon of the left, it has become a model for the alt-right. Some white nationalists admire Israel precisely for its success as an ethno-nation state. They see it as a blueprint for an American future where white Europeans once again dominate (and by the way, they say, it would be fine if all the Jews in the country left for Israel).

Of course Israel-loving white nationalists have no sense of the ethnic diversity of Israel, and I am sure they don’t really care about reality. All they are interested in is the fantasy of a nation purged of any undesirables. One startling example of this embrace of Israel by the right is the response to anti-Semitism.

When Steve King, a congressman from Iowa who endorsed an anti-Semite in a race for Toronto mayor, was confronted with his association with white nationalists who have espoused anti-Jewish behavior, he responded with indignance. How dare anyone accuse me of anti-Semitism, he said. His defense was not that he done anything for American Jews, only that he has always strongly supported Israel. The president gave a similar answer when questioned about what he could do to combat anti-Semitism.

As the alt-right has shown, it is possible to love Israel and hate the Jews (some in the far left hate both). In America, the Jewish community has always steadfastly supported Israel, but there are other issues that are of grave concern to us. When we worry about the xenophobic language used by politicians that inflames anti-Semitism, the response from our government cannot only be a defense of Israel. While we want to see Israel protected, we also expect protection for the Jewish community here in this country.

Most American Jews are in a precarious position today. We support liberal, multi-ethnic democracy here and in Israel, but we see those principles being eroded in both countries. Such a position can leave us on the outs from most of the political spectrum, but maybe that is only natural. After all, even in the best of times the Jews have always stood somewhat apart from general society.

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The True Meaning of Hanukkah

For close to 150 years, Christians have struggled with the true meaning of Christmas. As the Victorians in England began to shift the emphasis of the holiday from a focus on the religious aspects of Jesus to one centered on Santa, gift giving and a tree, many felt that important theological themes of the day were being lost. It turns out Jews struggle with the contested meanings of Hanukkah as well.

We also have to contend with the commercialization and secularization of Hanukkah since our holiday has been elevated to an equivalent status to Christmas. This shift occurred decades ago so that little Jewish children wouldn’t be lured away from their faith by the trappings Christmastime.

So what is the true meaning of Hanukkah? The answer probably depends on your perspective. A recent New York Times opinion piece decried the “Hypocrisy of Hanukkah” by noting that the Maccabees, the heroes of the holiday, are really religious fundamentalist extremists. Their primary enemies were not the Syrian Greeks and their king, Antiochus, but rather their fellow Hellenized Jews.

In many ways, Hanukkah commemorates a civil war, not a rebellion, and the author of the op-ed, a Jewish novelist, declares that “it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me. They would have hated me because I’m assimilated and because I’m the product of intermarriage.” Why should liberal, secular American Jews celebrate the victory of violent religious terrorists?

The problem with this view is that it doesn’t tell the whole picture. Yes, the Maccabees were traditionalists who opposed religious change, but their opponents, the Hellenistic Jews, were just as radical. They wanted to abolish circumcision and sacrifice pigs in the Temple, and they wanted to impose these changes on all of the Jewish people.

Today there are certainly disagreements on what it means to be Jewish in our community, but most just want space to observe the religion the way they want. The ultra-Orthodox in general want to be left alone to practice their type of Judaism, and liberal Jews don’t look to impose their worldview on others. For the most part we have a live and let live perspective, except for issues that touch on personal status such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

In addition, the postscript to the Hanukkah story is quite instructive. While the Maccabees opposed Hellenism and assimilation, after they won the war and gained independence, they began their own process of reform for the religion. It was simply impossible for the nation to completely resist the dominant Greek culture of the time.

The difference between the radical Hellenizers and the Maccabees may have come down to emphasis. The former wanted to subsume Judaism into Greek religion while the latter wanted to make Judaism compatible with Hellenistic culture but remain distinct. This is the same mission we have today, to remain true to our tradition while being relevant to the times.

To Attend or Not?

Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the worldwide network of Conservative rabbis, made a decision that was not really a decision. The group clarified a standard of rabbinic practice for its members which states that they are not allowed to officiate at an interfaith wedding but they may attend one.

For decades the perceived policy of the RA was that the mere attendance at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew was grounds for removal from the organization. Some rabbis were forced to choose between attending a family wedding and their job.

In reality, no one was ever disciplined for attending an interfaith wedding. Most of us knew this was the real policy, no matter what the rules were. I personally have attended such family weddings without fear of repercussions.

The recent RA decision merely codified the unwritten policy, although there was at least one rabbi who was unaware that the prohibition on attending interfaith weddings was never enforced. He was angry to learn that he had risked damaging familial relationships for a non-existent rule.

The New Jersey Jewish News recently ran an article surveying the thoughts of local rabbis on this new (non)change. Most, including me, were supportive. No one seemed to be against the idea that rabbis should attend the weddings of family and friends who married non-Jews.

The one question that does divide Conservative rabbis is whether to allow RA members to go a step further and officiate at intermarriages. There is a significant group of members who believe we should move in that direction. As I mentioned in a sermon I gave on the High Holy Days, I believe we should continue to maintain the ban and not perform such weddings.

Does this move by the RA to allow rabbinic attendance signal that in the future it will also allow officiation? It’s hard to say. On the one hand the history of the Conservative movement has been one of progressive liberalization: first we allowed men and women to sit together, then we allowed women to read Torah, then we ordained women as rabbis and cantors.

Similarly with LGBT Jews, first the movement encouraged their inclusion in our communities and only later allowed them to be ordained. In fact, I distinctly remember being in rabbinical school and someone who was against the ordination of LGBT Jews arguing that the next step was permitting interfaith weddings. The comment struck me then as odd since the two topics have nothing to do with each other.

In rabbinical school I thought the Conservative movement would not change its policy on intermarriage any time soon, but 12 years later I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is only a matter of a few years before we allow rabbinic officiation of intermarriages. While I may disagree with such a decision, I hope it would be one reached through a halakhic process that takes into account the tradition as well as contemporary realities.

Drive out the Darkness

I am blessed to have a lot to be thankful for this year. We recently celebrated the bar mitzvah of our son Jonah with many family and friends and a great community. I want to thank everyone at Adath for help making the bar mitzvah so special.

A family simcha really helps to put things into perspective. As both the rabbi and the father of the bar mitzvah boy, I loved looking out at the congregation and seeing so many special people, from so many different parts of our lives. These moments are the only times when these configurations of people will all be together.

Thanksgiving is another opportunity to reflect on the joys of life but in a different way. While some people do something different each Thanksgiving, others have family traditions that they repeat every year. Unlike a unique family celebration, the yearly holiday offers the chance to find comfort in the familiar.

One such tradition in our community is the yearly Lawrence Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration which takes place the Tuesday before the holiday. Each year we gather in a different location to come together and reflect on what we are thankful for, while demonstrating the diversity of our township.

This year our theme was Light in the Midst of Darkness, which was inspired by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. It seems that our country is lately consumed by darkness and violence. We need to add as much light as possible by transcending the differences that keep us apart.

Adath hosted the event this year and it was heartening to hear Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer in our sanctuary. Only by coming together can we fight the hate, anti-Semitism and racism that plagues us. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

I hope that as we gather around our tables for Thanksgiving, that we reflect upon the light in our lives. What experiences, people and organizations inspire you? How can you bring more light into the world? In what shadowy corners and rooms can you light a match and drive out the darkness.

Historic Irony

The first civilian settlers of the city of San Antonio, where I was born and raised, came to the area in 1731 from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Legend has it that some of these families were actually crypto-Jews, that is Spanish Catholics whose ancestors had converted to Christianity but who secretly continued to practice Jewish traditions.

It’s intriguing to think that some of the early history of my hometown is connected to Jewish culture. Many people of Hispanic descent in the Southwest believe that they descend from the conversos. Some have even returned to Judaism either by exploring their roots or actually converting back to their ancestors’ original religion.

Many of these people report odd customs that they never understood, such as family members lighting candles in the basement or in closed rooms on Friday nights. They never understood these practices or the need for secrecy until they learned that these are typical traditions for cryto-Jewish families.

There are some misconceptions about the conversos and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. While anti-Semitism played a major role in the edict that exiled the Jews, the story is somewhat complicated. Spanish authorities were less concerned with the Jews than they were with conversos.

In the century before the expulsion, many Jews had converted to Christianity, but they were a suspect class. Were these new Christians truly loyal to their new faith? Were their intentions pure or did they just convert in order to succeed in society?

The result of this suspicion was the Inquisition, which tried to find out who was a “real” Christian and who was a cryto-Jew. The actual Jewish community was considered a threat as a negative influence on the new Christians. As long as authentic Judaism existed in Spain, it could serve as a temptation for families to maintain ties to their old faith.

As Spain unified with the ouster of the final Muslim stronghold at the end of the long Reconquista, there was a need for social cohesion. The solution for Spanish authorities was to kick out the Jews, ending a thousand year old community.

Modern Spain has tried to rectify the historic injustice of the expulsion by offering Spanish citizenship to anyone who can prove descent from an ancestor forced to flee the country in the 15th century. Some have taken up the offer in order to explore their roots or obtain a European passport.

Now some Hispanic Americans are exploring the possibility of obtaining Spanish citizenship in case the environment in this country becomes so hostile that they are forced to leave. How ironic that “[s]ome whose families have been here for centuries now feel so vulnerable about their place in society that they are finding refuge in the country that expelled their ancestors five centuries ago.”

History often presents us with these odd twists of fate, but really these are themes that repeat over time. Just as in Spain in the 1400s, radical nationalists look for a minority community to persecute and vilify in order to unite the favored ethnic group. Then as now, it is the Jews who lose in such a scenario.

The Waste of War

This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. The end of the fighting at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” became the inspiration for Veterans Day, replacing the name Armistice Day, which honors all who served in the armed forces.

World War I has a relatively minor place in American history. The US only entered the war in 1917 when Europe was nearly exhausted after 3 years of brutal fighting, but the American entry into the war most likely swung the conflict in favor of the Allies.

American involvement may have been decisive, but our memory of the war is overshadowed by World War II, which we also entered late. In that conflict we participated for over three and half bloody years.

While for Americans the defining war of the twentieth century was World War II, for the British and the French it was World War I. They lost whole generations of men to the killing fields of Flanders and northern France. That war totally reshaped those societies by destroying the old order and ushering in the modern age.

My grandfather was a veteran of the First World War who fought on the other side, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The experience deeply affected him. Although he died when I was a child, years later I interviewed my father about him for a college paper. Here is what he said about the war:

He was drafted into the army to fight in World War I, and he talked about his hatred of war and the waste of war. The great Italian campaign, how they slaughtered farm animals and they were very cruel to the Italians during their crusade through Italy and the Italian battle. And he just had a sour taste in his mouth for war. And he got a bullet in his finger. It messed up his knuckle.

My grandfather’s experience was not unique – many Europeans of his generation were disgusted with war, which is why the appeasement policy toward Germany was so popular in Britain in the 1930s. No one wanted to fight again a War to End all Wars.

It turned out, of course, that militarily the Second World War looked nothing like the first, even if the political conflicts were essentially the same. In fact, many of the players remained as well. Hitler was a lance corporal in the German army while Truman served as a captain in the American army in France.

One figure with a very different reputation in each war, Marshal Philippe Pétain, has become a source of controversy as France commemorates the armistice centennial. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, intends to honor Pétain for his leadership at the end of World War I. The problem is that Pétain also led the notorious Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis and helped send thousands of Jews to their deaths.

How should a nation think about a figure like Pétain, someone who helped save the republic but also participated in its destruction? The reality is that history is complicated, and we continue to live with its consequences.

From Darkness Into Light

Out of communal tragedy we strive for hope. The murder of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh has hit our community hard. How do we respond to such an evil act of violence? Obviously not even a week after the attack we are still trying to sort out our feelings.

It is important to keep in mind that while this attack reminds us that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America, others stand in solidarity with us. In the days since Saturday, I have received many emails from individuals and clergy of other faiths offering condolences and good wishes. At Adath Israel we also received two bouquets of flowers from two separate individuals expressing their common humanity with us. I have put all of these messages into a document for people to read.

If the shooter in Pittsburgh’s goal was single out Jews for his hatred and violence, we must as a society strive to come together in response. This weekend, the Jewish Federations of North America has declared a Solidarity Shabbat and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has created the social media campaign #ShowUpForShabbat.

The goal of these initiatives is not merely for Jews to come to synagogue, but for non-Jews to have an opportunity to join us as well. We have already received phone calls from non-Jews who plan to be with us at services this Shabbat. If you are Jewish I hope you will join us to welcome these guests and build bridges within our community.

We can also come together to show our support for the first responders who defend our religious institutions every day. For centuries Jews have lived in fear of the police, but in America they put their lives on the line to defend us. In response, GoFundMe campaigns have been started to help wounded Pittsburgh police officers who helped capture the Tree of Life synagogue attacker.

Last Sunday the Jewish community in Mercer County gathered at Adath for a vigil and I participated in another one at Rider University on Tuesday. In a few weeks (Tuesday, November 20th, 7:30 PM) we in Lawrence Township will gather for our yearly Community Thanksgiving Celebration, also at Adath. The theme this year is From Darkness Into Light and it will be another opportunity to stand up to anti-Semitism and racism. May our continued efforts push back against hatred of the other and all the forces that seek to divide us.