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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

The ‘S’ Word Has No Place In A Religious Jew’s Vocabulary

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

     Last week I delivered a sermon based on the Torah portion of the week and which compared Moses, the great Jewish redeemer, with Abraham Lincoln, the martyred American emancipator. When I finished, I was approached by an acquaintance who happens to be an Orthodox Jewish engineer. He seemed, up until that time, to be devout, educated, and sophisticated. But what he told me was sacrilegious, ignorant, and primitive.
 
      This gentleman maintained that Lincoln was no hero, seeing as he had freed a people who were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed for humiliating his father. “Ham’s children are black, and are condemned by God to eternal slavery,” he said. “There was even a rebbe in Poland who predicted that Abraham Lincoln would be shot for liberating a people against God’s wishes.”
 
      I looked this man in the eye and said to him, “I’m confused. Judaism believes that every man is judged according to his actions. Now you are telling me that every black person in the world is cursed for something an ancestor did millennia ago. We Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, and we don’t believe in vertical accountability. So how can you tell me something so abominably racist like the fact that blacks are cursed?”
 
      He responded that I was denying scripture. I told him that his views were repugnant to everything Judaism stood for in terms of the equality of all mankind. And on an angry note, our mini-debate ended.
 
      I would not even mention this unhappy episode if I had not, at times, heard similar sentiments expressed by others purporting to be religious.
 
      The foundation of Judaism is God’s moral law. The cornerstone of the Bible is that every human being is created in God’s image. One cannot call oneself a religious Jew and harbor even the smallest hint of racism.
 

      Which is why it is time for all Jews to forever retire the odious term “shvartza.”

      From the time I was a boy I have heard the word shvartza used by many Jews to describe blacks. These were decent people with no intention of causing offense. To them, the term connoted nothing more than the Yiddish word for black. But, truth be told, the term has become one of condescension; a pejorative, a word that incorporates within it a hint of derision.
 
      My children were raised around many black men and women who are close family friends. From Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is like a brother to me, to Peter Noel, my esteemed colleague and former co-host on America’s oldest black radio station, to countless others, our Shabbos table has been a home away from home for African-Americans whom we have treated as family. So when my children went to a chassidic sleep-away camp one summer and heard the expression shvartza thrown about so loosely, they returned upset and disillusioned.
 
      When they asked me why so many religious Jews used the term, I had no real explanation. The overwhelming majority of religious Jews are committed to the highest humanitarian and ethical standards. Racism, to them, would be utterly unconscionable. So why use the term? There is no excuse. And it must be permanently retired.
 
      I have wanted to write this column ever since my children expressed their indignation, but refrained from doing so for fear it might be misunderstood as implying that there is racism among Orthodox Jews. To be sure, there is racism among all groups, just as there is, unfortunately, anti-Semitism among all groups. It seems that humanity is destined to forever harbor irrational hatred, even as we do our utmost to stamp it out. But of late, I have heard the term shvartza with such frequency that it could no longer be ignored. My children were absolutely right and we must all speak out.
 
      Yes, there may be racism among other groups. But among Jews it is especially reprehensible.
 
      First, because we Jews know what it is like to be hated simply for being what we are.
 
      Second, because Jews and blacks share a common spiritual history that includes slavery and emancipation, followed by discrimination and a shared yearning for entry into a promised land of acceptance and hope. We share also a mutual love for the redemptive utterances of the great Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Micah, which formed the backbone of the most memorable speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.
 
      Third – and this applies to religious Jews even more than to non-observant Jews – because we Jews are entrusted by God with spreading the message that all human beings are God’s children. The first great theological declaration of the Torah is that all people are created in the divine likeness.
 
      I don’t think there is anything as off-putting in a religious person as even a hint of racism. When a businessman wearing a yarmulke uses the word shvartza, he undermines the spiritual integrity for which that yarmulke stands.
 
      I spent the last week reading a book on the Middle Ages. Peter Abelard, the great medieval Catholic thinker, was castrated for his illicit love of Heloise. But he was hated even more for writing, so long ago, that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus and could not be persecuted as deicides. Christianity had to go through many more centuries before it finally began purging Jew-hatred from its institutional soul.
 
      Likewise, many Muslims are today infected by an irrational hatred of Jews that belies Islamic history and which cannot be accounted for merely by the territorial dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such racist views are a sin against Islam which subscribes to the biblical belief of the divine character of all humanity.
 
      Religious Jews, especially, must never empower such heretical views by harboring even the slightest hint of bigotry or prejudice.
 
      It is not just the Jewish engineer who told me that blacks were cursed by God. I once heard the same despicable view from the mouth of a teacher in a Jewish day school. Rabbis must be at the forefront of arguing the theological absurdity of such disgusting and ignorant ideas so that a generation of Jewish children grows up to love all humanity with the same fervent intensity of the first Jew, Abraham, whose very name means “the father of many nations.”
 

      Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home,” the new season of which begins airing on March 4. His upcoming book, named after the TV show, will be released on the same day and is published by Meredith. Rabbi Boteach’s website is www.shmuley.com.

Parshat Vayechi

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

December 1862 was a terrible month for Abraham Lincoln. General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg had just defeated his principal army, the Army of the Potomac. As a result, the Radical Republican senators felt that now was the time to force Lincoln to push the war more vigorously. More importantly, they wanted to replace Secretary of State Seward who was viewed as the power behind Lincoln.

Based on information, sent to them by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon B. Chase, they felt that Seward controlled the President, prevented the cabinet from helping the President and, “hindered Lincoln’s intention to make the war a crusade for emancipation” (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster New York, 2005, p.486).

In letters to the senators, Chase implied, among other things, that had the members of the cabinet, especially himself, been consulted by Lincoln the country would not be in the bad situation it currently found itself in. Based on Chase’s information the senators felt Seward had to be replaced in order for the Union to win the war. To press the issue, the senators selected a Committee of Nine to visit Lincoln and demand Seward’s dismissal. The Committee arrived on December 18.

While Lincoln dreaded the meeting, he heard them out. At the meeting’s conclusion, despite being depressed, Lincoln realized he had to work this problem out himself and do it in a creative, non-confrontational manner. He had to demonstrate that his cabinet was both consulted and united. Additionally, he had to expose Chase’s duplicity and prove Seward’s indispensability. Not one to feel sorry for himself, Lincoln got to work.

Lincoln invited all the members of the cabinet other than Seward to a meeting at the White House on December 19. Unbeknownst to them he also invited the Committee of Nine. Among the cabinet members present was Salmon Chase. When Chase saw the joint session he panicked, “since tales of the malfunctioning cabinet had originated largely with his own statements to the senators” (p.491). In front of the senators, Lincoln asked his cabinet members whether major issues had been discussed with them. All of them concurred – even Chase.

Additionally, Chase was forced to publicly concede, that Seward did not object to the Emancipation Proclamation and was not soft on slavery. Rather, in actuality, “Seward had suggested amendments that substantially strengthened it” (p.492). Forced to admit, in front of the senators that he had been disingenuous, Chase felt compelled to resign. Lincoln accepted his resignation and placed it in a drawer. Lincoln let Chase know that for now his job was safe, but if he ever showed disloyalty again (which he eventually did) he would be dismissed from office.

Lincoln, by rebounding from his depression and creatively tackling the crisis he faced, achieved firm control of his cabinet and silenced the attacks by the Radical Republicans. “For Lincoln, the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency had ended in victory. He had treated the senators with dignity and respect and, in the process, had protected the integrity and autonomy of his cabinet” (p.494).

In this week’s parshah Yaakov blessed Yehudah and assigned him the leadership of Bnei Yisrael. As part of the blessing the Torah states (49:9): “Judah is a lion cubhe crouches and lies down like a lion” Many works quote a beautiful insight in the name of the first Rebbe of Ger, the Chiddushei HaRim. The Torah’s choice of words captures the essence of Yehudah’s character. Although at times he is forced to crouch down and deal with setbacks, he ultimately responds like a lion and gets back up with renewed vigor and strength. As leaders, Yehudah and his descendants had to deal with local failures and disappointments. However, as leaders they also knew that they had to move on and exploit the opportunities such setbacks presented. People of lesser character would have surrendered to circumstance.

We can discern a second leadership character trait of Yehudah when we contrast him with Reuven. When Yaakov blessed Reuven, the Torah described (49:4) Reuven as being “hasty like water.” In other words, Reuven often acted impulsively. While impulsivity is called for at times (e.g. jumping into save a life) it is a bad character trait for a leader who must think things through. Yehudah, although capable of acting when necessary, always acted deliberately and after careful evaluation. Whether it was by patiently judging Tamar, waiting out Yaakov during the famine, or approaching Yosef, Yehudah always had a plan.

Rabbeinu Bachaya learns an additional important leadership lesson from the letters of the blessing. Within the text of Yehudah’s blessing every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is used except the letter zayin. When viewed as a word zayin means weapons. In light of this, Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that the Torah is teaching us a critical lesson. Yehudah’s leadership will ultimately succeed due to G-d’s providence and not because of Yehudah’s military prowess. Although as leaders, the children of Yehudah will at times need to resort to military force, the absence of the letter zayin is a permanent reminder that G-d is the source of all successes and failures.

Based upon Rabbeinu Bachaya’s explanation, Rav Avraham Korman in his work HaParsha L’doroteha offers an interesting addendum. Although, leaders must be prepared to use force, the Torah, by avoiding using the letter zayin, is instructing leaders that if they want their leadership to be truly effective, they should rely on approaches based on persuasion and inspiration. Force should only be used as a last resort.

Abraham Lincoln intuitively understood these important leadership lessons. All leaders should heed them as well. Leaders must learn to bounce back, plan perfectly and influence ingeniously.

Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.

Parshat Vayechi

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

         December 1862 was a terrible month for Abraham Lincoln. General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg had just defeated his principal army, the Army of the Potomac. As a result, the Radical Republican senators felt that now was the time to force Lincoln to push the war more vigorously. More importantly, they wanted to replace Secretary of State Seward who was viewed as the power behind Lincoln.
 
         Based on information, sent to them by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon B. Chase, they felt that Seward controlled the President, prevented the cabinet from helping the President and, “hindered Lincoln’s intention to make the war a crusade for emancipation” (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster New York, 2005, p.486).
 
         In letters to the senators, Chase implied, among other things, that had the members of the cabinet, especially himself, been consulted by Lincoln the country would not be in the bad situation it currently found itself in. Based on Chase’s information the senators felt Seward had to be replaced in order for the Union to win the war. To press the issue, the senators selected a Committee of Nine to visit Lincoln and demand Seward’s dismissal. The Committee arrived on December 18.
 
         While Lincoln dreaded the meeting, he heard them out. At the meeting’s conclusion, despite being depressed, Lincoln realized he had to work this problem out himself and do it in a creative, non-confrontational manner. He had to demonstrate that his cabinet was both consulted and united. Additionally, he had to expose Chase’s duplicity and prove Seward’s indispensability. Not one to feel sorry for himself, Lincoln got to work.
 
         Lincoln invited all the members of the cabinet other than Seward to a meeting at the White House on December 19. Unbeknownst to them he also invited the Committee of Nine. Among the cabinet members present was Salmon Chase. When Chase saw the joint session he panicked, “since tales of the malfunctioning cabinet had originated largely with his own statements to the senators” (p.491). In front of the senators, Lincoln asked his cabinet members whether major issues had been discussed with them. All of them concurred – even Chase.
 
         Additionally, Chase was forced to publicly concede, that Seward did not object to the Emancipation Proclamation and was not soft on slavery. Rather, in actuality, “Seward had suggested amendments that substantially strengthened it” (p.492). Forced to admit, in front of the senators that he had been disingenuous, Chase felt compelled to resign. Lincoln accepted his resignation and placed it in a drawer. Lincoln let Chase know that for now his job was safe, but if he ever showed disloyalty again (which he eventually did) he would be dismissed from office.
 
         Lincoln, by rebounding from his depression and creatively tackling the crisis he faced, achieved firm control of his cabinet and silenced the attacks by the Radical Republicans. “For Lincoln, the most serious governmental crisis of his presidency had ended in victory. He had treated the senators with dignity and respect and, in the process, had protected the integrity and autonomy of his cabinet” (p.494).
 
         In this week’s parshah Yaakov blessed Yehudah and assigned him the leadership of Bnei Yisrael. As part of the blessing the Torah states (49:9): “Judah is a lion cubhe crouches and lies down like a lion” Many works quote a beautiful insight in the name of the first Rebbe of Ger, the Chiddushei HaRim. The Torah’s choice of words captures the essence of Yehudah’s character. Although at times he is forced to crouch down and deal with setbacks, he ultimately responds like a lion and gets back up with renewed vigor and strength. As leaders, Yehudah and his descendants had to deal with local failures and disappointments. However, as leaders they also knew that they had to move on and exploit the opportunities such setbacks presented. People of lesser character would have surrendered to circumstance.
 
         We can discern a second leadership character trait of Yehudah when we contrast him with Reuven. When Yaakov blessed Reuven, the Torah described (49:4) Reuven as being “hasty like water.” In other words, Reuven often acted impulsively. While impulsivity is called for at times (e.g. jumping into save a life) it is a bad character trait for a leader who must think things through. Yehudah, although capable of acting when necessary, always acted deliberately and after careful evaluation. Whether it was by patiently judging Tamar, waiting out Yaakov during the famine, or approaching Yosef, Yehudah always had a plan.
 
         Rabbeinu Bachaya learns an additional important leadership lesson from the letters of the blessing. Within the text of Yehudah’s blessing every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is used except the letter zayin. When viewed as a word zayin means weapons. In light of this, Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that the Torah is teaching us a critical lesson. Yehudah’s leadership will ultimately succeed due to G-d’s providence and not because of Yehudah’s military prowess. Although as leaders, the children of Yehudah will at times need to resort to military force, the absence of the letter zayin is a permanent reminder that G-d is the source of all successes and failures.
 
         Based upon Rabbeinu Bachaya’s explanation, Rav Avraham Korman in his work HaParsha L’doroteha offers an interesting addendum. Although, leaders must be prepared to use force, the Torah, by avoiding using the letter zayin, is instructing leaders that if they want their leadership to be truly effective, they should rely on approaches based on persuasion and inspiration. Force should only be used as a last resort.
 
         Abraham Lincoln intuitively understood these important leadership lessons. All leaders should heed them as well. Leaders must learn to bounce back, plan perfectly and influence ingeniously.
 

         Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.

Never Fear Being Hated

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

Mendy, today is your bar mitzvah. As your father, I want to help inspire you on this momentous occasion with words that I hope will stay with you forever.
 
In your Torah portion you read God’s seminal command, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev. 19:2).

To be holy is to be set apart. The Sabbath is holy because its restfulness distinguishes it from the workdays of the week. The Temple in Jerusalem is holy because its consecrated space is set aside for lofty spiritual pursuits.

If one is to be holy, Mendy, then one must be different.

When all the world was worshipping idols, carved from stone and sculpted from rock, Abraham affirmed the invisible Creator who hid behind the starry night. When all of Egypt enslaved an innocent people, Moses distanced himself from his royal upbringing by striking an Egyptian task master who had mercilessly beat a helpless slave.

In so doing, both these men exuded a preparedness to be hated for their righteousness. Abraham would henceforth be called Avraham Haivri – the man who dared to stand apart. Moses would be forced to flee his native country, only to return and bring the mighty Egyptians to their knees.

What does it mean to be a Jew, Mendy? It is the courage to be different. Benjamin Disraeli, the celebrated British prime minister, expressed that difference in response to an anti-Semitic parliamentarian’s derogatory reference to him as a Jew: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

You now become a man, Mendy, and you have a choice as to what kind of man you will be. Small men want to be loved. But big men are prepared to be hated. Small men tailor their actions to suit the multitude. But big men will do the right thing no matter how much it inflames the masses.

Abraham Lincoln was detested by both South and North as he fought for the highly unpopular cause of emancipation. Winston Churchill was loathed in Britain for speaking out against Chamberlain’s fictitious peace with Hitler. And Martin Luther King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet for speaking out against the injustices practiced against black Americans. No great man or woman has ever lived who was not prepared to be hated.

Do not the make the mistake of believing, Mendy, as you bask in the adoration of family and community, that popularity is virtuous. On the contrary, as you steel yourself to become a man, prepare yourself to practice justice whatever the consequences.

While the rest of the world will strive to be loved, you strive to be holy. Do what’s right even it costs you friendship. Do what’s virtuous even if it leaves you lonely. Seek to impress not your fellow man, but none but God alone.

How many Jewish students did I meet in my eleven years at Oxford who were afraid to be different, terrified to stand apart? They would arrive at the university with their yarmulkes on and quickly take them off. They weren’t just abandoning God, they were betraying themselves, displaying weakness and a desire to be part of the pack.

Remember, Mendy, when we traveled in an RV to Badlands National Park in South Dakota? There was a terrible storm, and we saw hundreds of cows herded together, out of fear, under the thundering skies. And that’s what most people do, Mendy, as they confront their one great fear in life: that they won’t be loved. The herd instinct is a reaction to the fear of being different, of being rejected, of being an outcast. The desire to be loved is so strong that most people are prepared to erase their individuality, obliterate their uniqueness, just in order to be accepted.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked that the tragedy of being human is that while all of us are born God’s original, most of us die man’s imitation and copy.

There are kids prepared to start taking drugs just to win friends. There are teenage girls who are prepared to be intimate with boys in the false belief that if they deliver their bodies the boys will offer up their hearts.

You be different, Mendy. Never look to be loved. Look to be holy. Don’t look to be popular. Look to be righteous. Endeavor not to fit in, but to remain you.

The prophet Micah said it best. “What does God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” Walk with God, Mendy, even when it forces you to walk without human company. Walk with God even when if feels, as it did in Auschwitz, that God Himself has ceased to walk with you.

In my life, I have often made the mistake of thinking that being loved was more important than being holy. I always wanted to do virtuous things with my life, but I wanted to be known for those good things. And in my quest for recognition, I made big mistakes, like believing that Hollywood celebrities would be a proper way to promote Godly values. My need to be loved was too great, the desire for external affirmation too overpowering. I was flattered that famous people admired me.

Now I know that my error was simply to want to be loved rather than to be righteous. Had I wanted to be holy, I would never have lent credibility to a pop star who made himself into an idol. Had I wanted to be holy, I would still have written controversial books to save marriages, but I would have paid greater heed to my detractors in the knowledge that one learns far more from one’s critics than one’s fans.

Devote your life, Mendy, to being a kiddush Hashem, to making God shine. Act compassionately, and you will make God glitter. Greet people with dignity, and you will make God sparkle. Give a homeless man a dollar, and you will make God shimmer. Control your temper, and you will make God glisten.

You have made proud to be your father. But from today, you become a man. Be a big man, Mendy. Live for the big things that electrify the heavens and cause the earth to quake.

Adapted from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s address to his son Mendy in synagogue on Saturday, May 6. Rabbi Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home” and the author of “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children.” His website is www.shmuley.com.

Title: Why Lincoln Matters

Wednesday, August 4th, 2004

Title: Why Lincoln Matters
Author: Mario M. Cuomo
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc., New York, N.Y.

 

If the title suggests that this is a book about Abraham Lincoln – you’ve been tricked!

The book is really about attacking President George W. Bush, and Mario Cuomo, now political philosopher to the Democratic party, utilizes an analysis of the writings and history of our sixteenth president in comparison with our current office holder to reveal, in Cuomo’s opinion, his ineffectiveness.

The former three-term New York State governor claims that on every one of the big issues, such as equality, multilaterism, role of government, war and peace and the responsibilities of the fortunate few, the current Republican administration is lacking in adherence to the principles set forth by the first Republican president. He claims that the current situations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terrorism are all shadowy wars, that there is increasing
inequality in our society among whites and ethnic minorities, and that there is a lack of vision in the nation’s leadership.

Much of the book deals with issues that are too current to confirm. Governor Cuomo claims that the tenure of President Bush has so far recorded the worst job creation performance in modern history, and that although the administration “brags” that most American’s have become stockholders in American industry, most only own a few thousand dollars worth of securities and the majority is held in the hands of just the few.

The current president is lauded as a “born-again Christian,” and is noted for freely quoting Scripture (most notably – the New Testament), as did President Lincoln – who, although he enjoyed a well-worded sermon, is frequently thought to have been an agnostic. Both in his speeches and in his written correspondence Lincoln freely referred to “the deity,” although he himself was never a formal member of a church. In Why Lincoln Matters Cuomo relates
that when President Lincoln did attend church services he almost invariably sat in the minister’s study and listened with the door ajar rather sit with his wife in the family pew. He didn’t wish to be seen as a member of organized religion.

Both men were believers in fairness – Lincoln reversed anti-Semitic decisions of General Ulysses Grant to eliminate Jewish vendors from selling to Union forces, and President Bush has become quite well-known for his philo-Semitic attitude. These policies also extended to members of other faiths as well.

The book calls attention to the economic successes of the prior Clinton administration, to which the current Bush administration is heir, and compares current, Republican, economic and social policies with those of prior Democrat administrations – negatively.

All political ideas deserve free expression in a democracy, but this is a book attacking President Bush disguised as a book about Abraham Lincoln. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the findings of Governor Cuomo, we believe in “truth in advertising,” and Why Lincoln Matters should have been titled: Why You Shouldn’t Vote For Bush.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/title-why-lincoln-matters/2004/08/04/

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