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December 20, 2014 / 28 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘God’

Religious Right and ACLU Protest Judge’s No Messiah Ruling

Monday, August 19th, 2013

It began when Jaleesa, 22, took the father of her baby, Jawaan P. McCullough, 40, to family court in Tennessee, to establish paternity and to set child support. Oh, and the baby’s name was Messiah, according to the LA Times.

In court it was revealed that the father had wanted to name the baby Jawaan P. McCullough Jr., but he no longer objected to calling the boy Messiah Deshawn. But the judge decided to change the baby’s name anyway.

“It is not in this child’s best interest to keep the first name ‘Messiah,’” Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew wrote in her decision. “‘Messiah’ means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God’s Kingdom. ‘Messiah’ is a title that is held by only Jesus Christ.”

An entire Jewish family of Iraqi extract named Mashiach would argue differently, but you don’t get many Iraqi Jews in Tennessee. But even without that Iraqi-Jewish input, “Messiah” is an increasingly popular American baby name, according to the LA Times, as are the names Lord and King.

The name would impose an “undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill,” the judge wrote, although she really didn’t know just how spiritually gifted the baby Messiah was.

She also noted that in Cocke County, Tenn., where the new Messia resides, there is a “large Christian population” as evidenced by its “many churches of the Christian faith.”

“Therefore,” the judge concluded, “it is highly likely that he will offend many Cocke County citizens by calling himself ‘Messiah.’”

Maybe, maybe not – there’s a slew of Jesus’s out there and no one seems to mind, and then, come to think of it, using that same logic, the name David should also irk some people. So the ACLU of Tennessee got on the case, and, surprisingly, received many calls of support from the religious right, which typically threatens to blow up their offices over abortion cases.

“I got the classic call the other day,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told the LA Times. “They said, ‘I really don’t like the ACLU, but I support what you are saying and doing about the baby Messiah.”

UC Davis constitutional law professor Carlton F.W. Larson said the judge’s “entire line of reasoning totally violates basic freedom of religious purposes. This kid can’t be a Messiah because the Messiah is Jesus Christ? Judges don’t get to make pronouncements on the bench about who is the Messiah and who is not.”

The ACLU’s Weinberg agreed: “The judge is crossing the line by interfering in a very private decision and is imposing her own religious faith on this family. The courtroom is not a place for promoting personal religious beliefs, and that’s exactly what the judge did when she changed the baby Messiah’s name to Martin.”

On the other hand, if a certain Miriam from Nazareth had gone ahead and changed her own child’s name to Martin, we’d all be spared a lot of embarrassment…

St. Peter and the Reform Movement

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The three articles we ran at the end of last week regarding the notion that the Reform movement now ordains “rabbis” who are not Jewish resulted in a huge explosion of responses, and that’s always a good thing, even if in the process yours truly came across as a big meanie, a racist, an extremist, a divider, a hater, and someone who contradicts the very spirit of the month of Elul.

There is a midrash (homily) about Shimon Kefa, who was none other than Peter the Rock, the first Christian pope. Jewish sources have been doing battle over the veracity of this story since at least the time of Rashi and the Machzor Vitri (earliest cited Jewish prayer book), in the 11th and 12th centuries. There are at least four versions of the same midrash, which vary on specifics, but relate essentially the same story:

The Christians were persecuting Jews and encouraging Jews to join their fold, which they did in droves. The sages were distraught about this, until one of them, a sage by the name of Shimon Kefa (rock in Aramaic) volunteered to go as a Trojan horse into the Christians’ camp and change Christianity forever so it would not look Jewish.

He received the sages’ blessings and went to carry out his mission. In a major Christian enclave, he told the gathered that he is the messenger of Jesus. To prove this, he performed some of the miracles Jesus was famous for: healed a leper and resurrected a dead person. When they were convinced he was truly a messenger of their departed master, he started instructing them—and here each version differs on what he told them to do, except that they all emphasize not attacking Jews any more.

Other than persuading the Christians to leave the Jews alone, in several versions Shimon Kefa—Peter—tells them to move the day of rest to Sunday, to eat all the animals and all the blood they wish, and not to circumcise their sons. And so, in short order, the gap between Christianity and Judaism became so wide, no one in his right mind would suggest they’re the same religion.

What was is it about Christianity that so disturbed the sages? After all, Christians to this day embrace many of the Torah commandments and rely on Biblical verses for practically everything they do and say. Why couldn’t the sages say, well, it’s true that Christianity is not exactly Orthodox Judaism (a 19th century term which I doubt they were familiar with), but at least it keeps them away from paganism.

Because it doesn’t. By placing man at the center of the story, even when it is a god who becomes man through congress with a mortal woman, Christianity is paganism 2.0, promoting the same self-centered ideas but using Biblical verses in the process.

I’m well aware of the scant few sources in the Talmud which defend Christianity as an essentially monotheistic religion which employs pagan concepts. I’m not a scholar and this is not a scholarly article, so I’ll cut to the chase: according to Jewish law, a Jew is not allowed inside a Christian church where Christian icons and symbols are on display (but we are permitted to enter a mosque and even pray—Jewish prayers—there).

Our modern poskim, most notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, have already prohibited Religious Jews to set foot in a Reform temple. Rabbi Feinstein rules that Conservative and Reform temples are the same as places of idol worship with respect to both of the following rabbinical notions (source: Institute for Dayanim):

1. Since praying together with a Conservative or Reform congregation is forbidden, the need to avoid the appearance of worshipping in a prohibited manner is applicable to these temples.

2. Similarly, the prohibition on being in the vicinity of a place designated for people with heretical beliefs applies equally to idol worshippers and to Jews who do not accept the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism. (Orthodox Judaism itself has a broad spectrum of beliefs. For a working definition of Orthodox Judaism we can use the thirteen fundamentals of the Rambam [Maimonides]. All streams of Orthodoxy accept the thirteen fundamentals of Judaism of the Rambam as correct. Anyone deviating from those principles is considered a kofer-heretic).

(There are some who make a distinction between the Conservative and the Reform, in that while the Reform completely removed themselves from rabbinical halacha, the Conservative still consider halacha as their legally binding law, they just interpret it differently. Not my place to decide that one.)

Before we continue, I want you to understand that these supposedly harsh and firm demands, as presented by Maimonides, are broad enough to include a huge variety of Jewish congregations, all the way from ultra-Haredim in the neighborhood of Geula in Jerusalem, to the most left-wing shuls in hip America. They all manage to find themselves inside this tent, and quite comfortably and happily at that (OK, some not as happily as others, can’t win everything).

There is only one fundamental, unwavering rule at the core of all these varied congregations: we all connect to God through the commandments, and we all do this in line with rabbinical interpretation.

This is the core difference between the monotheistic and the pagan: in our tradition, we do the will of God, in theirs, it’s the god who does their will.

Their god provides the beauty of a great singer, the loving kindness of a great teacher, the spiritual wonder of the seeker, the helping hand to the needy, the diversity of all of mankind, the generosity of the human spirit – there are so many incredible things their god does for them. It’s truly lovely, and as a recent comment suggested on one of our articles: “Yori Yanover, listen to the singing one more time. Only THIS time, listen with your 2,000 year old ‘wandering Jew’ neshamah, and NOT with your intellect.”

And that is the essence of paganism. A Jewish relationship with God is anchored in a covenant, a legal document the essence of which we recite twice a day, every day, in the Sh’ma. We accept the yoke of mitzvot and in return we have a relationship with God, we get to be alive and to have national and personal continuity.

It’s wonderful when this relationship results in a lot of beauty and personal satisfaction – why the heck not. But it is there also when He in His wisdom kills us en masse, kills our babies, ravages our fields, inflicts cancer and boils on us – we still hold on to the covenant, and we work hard to love Him, especially when He in His wisdom makes it so difficult.

We don’t do this out of an emotional or spiritual yearning – those are wonderful aspects of our faith, but not the essence of our religion. We do this out of a commitment to the mitzvot as a clear expression of the Will of God. we don’t need to imagine what would God want of us – He came down on Mount Sinai and told us specifically, and empowered our sages to teach us the meaning of His words.

And so, we insist that Jews be made aware that only our places of prayer and study are sanctioned by our Jewish tradition, and that non-Orthodox places are not – despite all the sometimes incredible beauty emanating from them.

An ugly etrog is still an etrog, but a beautiful lemon is never an etrog.

Haredi Settlers Push Back: Rebbe’s Dad Was Pro-Settlements

Monday, August 12th, 2013

In response to the Sunday report about the unrestrained attack by the visiting Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park (Grand Rebbe Attacks Settlers, Compares Israeli Media to Nazis), a local movement of pro-settlements Haredim known as Halamish (acronym for Haredim for Judea and Samaria) published considerably different statements on the same issues by Rabbi Halberstam’s father, the late Grand Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the First Klausenburger Rebbe and the author of “Shefa Chayim” and “Divrei Yatsiv.”

The Klausenburger dynasty was founded by the late Rabbi Halberstam in 1927, when he became the Rav of Klausenburg, capital city of Transylvania, Rumania. The Klausenburger Rebbe was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, founder of the Sanz Chasidic dynasty.

According to Kikar Hashabbat, which quotes from the Halamish messsage citing what the late Rebbe has said in 1976 about settling Eretz Israel:

“When we look at the map today we are ashamed that, because of our numerous sins, Eretz Israel looks so shriveled, compared with the black, threatening balloon. And when you need to write ‘Jerusalem’ on the map, the word ends up somewhere abroad and you’re unable to write ‘Jerusalem’ within the map. And they want to take that, too, away from us, that, too, they won’t have the charity to give the Jews, that, too, they wish to divide, God forbid, may God wipe out the names of the wicked and the terrorists with whom Jews are collaborating…”

In fact, when it came to comparisons with the Third Reich, it appears the first Klausenburger Rebbe had his priorities straight: “There are Jews, may we be spared this, who join up with the Arabs, who are worse than the cursed Nazis,” he said.

In 1984, according to Halamish, the Klausenburger Rebbe made another WW2 comparison: “To our chagrin, there are Jews who join up with the terrorists and try to appease them all the time, and they hate the Jewish faith, especially the press and the media who curse the Jews and glorify the haters of Jews.”

The Rebbe was an enthusiastic supporter of the Haredi town of Imanuel, established in 1983 in Samaria. It was growing and flourishing initially, but the Oslo accords discouraged new investors and the town declined to only a few thousand residents today.

But in 1984, the Rebbe said proudly, during a visit to the Haredi town: “Praise and thanks to Hashem Yisborach that I merited to participate with a group of Jews in the prominent city in Israel, Immanuel, and even though there are some who try to discourage the founders of the city, saying it’s dangerous to live in it because of its vicinity to Arab settlements—but according to us this only means that because there’s the possibility of danger involved, the reward for this mitzvah would be greater in the world to come.”

And then, as if in a direct rebuke to his son, who actually said last week that the National Religious teach that “for the sake of settling Eretz Israel we should uproot all the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah,” the first Klausenburger Rebbe said:

“The mitzvah of settling Eretz Israel is among the biggest mitzvahs… and he who bought a parcel in Eretz Israel it’s as if he bought a share in the world to come.”

On a personal note: my original article, Sunday, received mostly supportive comments, but there were a few who accused me of promoting hatred against Haredim. And, of course, there were the usual calls to get over my apparent penchant for Sinas Chinam-baseless hatred, for which, according to our sages, the second temple was destroyed.

I must say that, in my opinion, those very calls for inhibiting an honest discussion of our values as religious Jews, under the bizarre guise that any reporting of the truth might somehow add to hatred, is in itself the most blatant expression of baseless hatred to the value of Truth.

The language Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe of Borough Park, used in his speech in Beit Shemesh, was violent, brutal, uncivilized and rife with self pity. Reflecting the worst in modern haredi punditry, it accused religious Jews of the worst possible motives–that their goal is to eradicate Torah, for heaven’s sake–and compared to Nazis the non-religious Jewish journalists critical of the Haredi society in Israel. That was not civilized language, and the notion that an inspired Chassidic leader who influences many Jews would use this language is saddening and, frankly, scary.

I come from a family of Gur Chassidim, I wrote a book about a great Rebbe and I davened many years with Chassidim. I never imagined this kind of speech coming from a Rebbe. I don’t know the man, I don’t wish him any harm, God forbid, but as a lover of Chassidism and Chassidic Jews, I had to voice my personal objection.

Testing And Prophecy

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

How did our ancestors distinguish a true prophet from a false one?

Unlike kings or priests, prophets did not derive authority from formal office. Their authority lay in their personality, their ability to give voice to the word of God, their self-evident inspiration. But precisely because a prophet has privileged access to the word others cannot hear, the visions others cannot see, the real possibility existed of false prophets – like those of Baal in the days of King Ahab.

What was there to prevent a fraudulent, or even a sincere but mistaken, figure, able to perform signs and wonders and move the people by the power of his words, from taking the nation in a wrong direction, misleading others and perhaps even himself?

Moses addresses this concern in our sedra:

“You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

On the face of it, the test is simple: if what the prophet predicts comes to pass, he is a true prophet; if not, not. Clearly, though, it was not that simple.

The classic case is the Book of Jonah. Jonah is commanded by God to warn the people of Nineveh that their wickedness is about to bring disaster on them. Jonah attempts to flee, but fails – the famous story of the sea, the storm, and the “great fish.” Eventually he goes to Nineveh and utters the words God has commanded him to say – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” – the people repent and the city is spared. Jonah, however, is deeply dissatisfied:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Jonah’s complaint can be understood in two ways. First, he was distressed that God had forgiven the people. They were, after all, wicked. They deserved to be punished. Why then did a mere change of heart release them from the punishment that was their due?

Second, he had been made to look a fool. He had told them that in 40 days the city would be destroyed. It was not. God’s mercy made nonsense of his prediction.

Jonah is wrong to be displeased: that much is clear. God says, in the rhetorical question with which the book concludes: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Should I not be merciful? Should I not forgive?

But what then becomes of the criterion Moses lays down for distinguishing between a true and false prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”? Jonah had proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. It wasn’t; yet the proclamation was true. He really did speak the word of God. How can this be so?

The answer is given in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster. The people had drifted from their religious vocation, and the result would be defeat and exile. It was a difficult and demoralizing message for people to hear. A false prophet arose, Hananiah son of Azzur, preaching the opposite. Babylon, Israel’s enemy, would soon be defeated. Within two years the crisis would be over. Jeremiah knew that it was not so, and that Hananiah was telling the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. He addressed the assembled people:

He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster, and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”

Jeremiah makes a fundamental distinction between good news and bad. It is easy to prophesy disaster. If the prophecy comes true, then you have spoken the truth. If it does not, then you can say: God relented and forgave. A negative prophecy cannot be refuted – but a positive one can. If the good foreseen comes to pass, then the prophecy is true. If it does not, then you cannot say, “God changed His mind” because God does not retract from a promise He has made of good, or peace, or return.

It is therefore only when the prophet offers a positive vision that he can be tested. That is why Jonah was wrong to believe he had failed when his negative prophecy – the destruction of Nineveh – failed to come true. This is how Maimonides puts it:

“As to calamities predicted by a prophet, if, for example, he foretells the death of a certain individual or declares that in particular year there will be famine or war and so forth, the non-fulfillment of his forecast does not disprove his prophetic character. We are not to say, ‘See, he spoke and his prediction has not come to pass.’ For God is long-suffering and abounding in kindness and repents of evil. It may also be that those who were threatened repented and were therefore forgiven, as happened to the men of Nineveh. Possibly too, the execution of the sentence is only deferred, as in the case of Hezekiah.

“But if the prophet, in the name of God, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked … Hence we learn that only when he predicts good fortune can the prophet be tested (Yesodei ha-Torah 10:4).

Fundamental conclusions follow from this. A prophet is not an oracle: a prophecy is not a prediction. Precisely because Judaism believes in free will, the human future can never be unfailingly predicted. People are capable of change. God forgives. As we say in our prayers on the High Holy Days: “Prayer, penitence, and charity avert the evil decree.”

There is no decree that cannot be revoked. A prophet does not foretell. He warns. A prophet does not speak to predict future catastrophe but rather to avert it. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true it has failed.

The second consequence is no less far-reaching. The real test of prophecy is not bad news but good. Calamity, catastrophe, disaster prove nothing. Anyone can foretell these things without risking his reputation or authority. It is only by the realization of a positive vision that prophecy is put to the test.

So it was with Israel’s prophets. They were realists, not optimists. They warned of the dangers that lay ahead. But they were also, without exception, agents of hope. They could see beyond the catastrophe to the consolation. That is the test of a true prophet.

The Holocaust as an Expression of Kindness? Seriously?

Monday, August 5th, 2013

One of the things that never fails to upset me is when people of stature start trying to explain the Holocaust. There are some rabbinic figures who have tried to do so, both past and present. It seems like there is a new addition to those ranks in the person of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a venerated Rabbinic personality of the 20th century.

I do not say this to disparage him. He is a man who garners tremendous respect from observant Jews from all walks of life. There are people who consider his Hashkafos about Judaism their guide to life. He has a wide following, perhaps greater today posthumously than when he was alive.

My introduction to Rabbi Avigdor Miller was when I read his book, Rejoice O’ Youth which was an unsuccessful attempt to refute the theory of evolution.  For many years that book angered me. But I have mellowed in that regard and now believe that he has every right to his views on that subject and to promote them in a book. Just as others do to refute it.

I recall also being upset at something I once read about him where he strongly disparaged Modern Orthodoxy. I will be Dan L’Kaf Zechus that he was not disparaging observant Jews that are modern but meticulous in their observance and respect the Mesorah. He was probably referring to those I like to call MO-Lites. Jews who are not so meticulous about their religious observances and are more assimilated into the culture than they are into their Judaism. Or those Modern Orthodox Jews that are on the extreme left and try to innovate practices that depart from the Mesorah.  Like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat.

According to an article in Mishpacha Magazine, his son, Rav Shmuel Miller, has published a book posthumously written by his father  that in my view is unconscionable. The thesis of the book is that the Holocaust was actually a Chesed… a kindness from God in the way of a wake-up call! It is called  ‘A Divine Madness’ – Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Defense of HaShem in the Matter of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller did not want to publish this work during his lifetime. He felt that so soon after the Holocaust it would upset survivors. His son has decided that enough time has passed and published it. Rabbi Avigdor Miller is certainly entitled to his views. But I am entitled to totally reject them.

He is not the first one to put forward the theory that the Holocaust happened because Jews were abandoning the Torah and observance in droves in the period prior to the Holocaust. But what is so upsetting about this particular thesis is that he considers the Holocaust a kindness. I understand his point. Which he tries to illustrate using an example once cited by the Chofetz Chaim as follows.

If someone is in the coldest region on Earth like the North Pole and falls asleep, he will freeze to death in short order. If someone is there next to him, he will try to wake him up from his slumber. If calling out to him, won’t work, he will shake him. If that doesn’t work he will smack him. If that doesn’t work, he will take a stick and hit him. An onlooker might see this as being cruel and not understand that he is trying to wake him up in order to save his life. In other words what looks like a cruelty to another human being – is actually a kindness meant to save his life.

This is such a bad analogy that it boggles my mind that it was even attempted let alone published in a book.

There are 6 million individual stories of savage slaughter that happened in the Holocaust. And that is just about Jews that were systematically killed. There could be as many as another six million stories about horrors experienced by survivors.

Just to cite 2 personal examples.

My father escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding in 3 different bunkers with other families until his city was liberated by the Russians.

When the first bunker was discovered, the escape route planned in such an eventuality via the town sewer system enabled an escape by my father and my 3 older brothers (who were in their early teens at the time). But my father’s first wife (my brothers’ mother) never made it. She was captured while trying to escape. The next bunker was a makeshift one in the forest. That too was discovered, but my oldest brother got caught while my father and his two younger sons escaped. My father heard his oldest son screaming as he was being carried off by the Gestapo.

My wife’s uncle was an Ish Tam – a Gerrer Chasid; kind and sincere; simple  and pure in his devotion to God. He had not an ounce of evil in his bones. He had a beautiful family – a wife and children – prior to the Holocaust. They were all slaughtered by the Nazis except for him. He was captured by the infamous Josef Menegle for purposes of medical experiments. That left him without family and sterile after the war… never able to rebuild his family. Although he did remarry and made Aliyah.  He was a truly good man who never questioned God.

You can multiply these two stories by the number of victims and survivors. How many stories like this and far worse have we all heard?!

If this is God’s Chesed, I’d like to know what it’s like when He gets angry! How dare anyone say that God decided to torture innocent people in order to wake us up? Rabbi Miller does not make understanding the Holocaust any easier. He makes it even more difficult to understand, in my view.

Many great rabbinic figures were slaughtered by the Nazis. It is said that the great people of any given generation are punished because they did not protest the increasing rejection of Mitzvah observance of their time. Even if that’s true, how can such inhumanity to the average Jew – innocent people who are not Gedolim – be explained?

How can anyone say that being tortured by the likes of Mengele is the same as being hit with a stick at the North Pole?! How can anyone say that forcing Jews to dig mass graves for themselves and then being shot into them is the same as being hit with a stick?! How can anyone one say that the millions of Jews marching into the ‘showers’ at Auschwitz and Buchenwald is the same as being hit with a stick. Such analogies are an insult to not only the six million who died, but to all the survivors and their children, of which I am one!

Wake up call?! How exactly did all the torture endured by survivors wake up all those who lost their faith after the Holocaust?

My negative attitude about the Satmar Rebbe is well known here becauseof his antipathy towards the State of Israel and his disparagement of Rav Kook. But there is one thing I do agree with him about. The Holocaust cannot be explained.  And all victims of the Holocaust including survivors have earned an automatic place in the world to come – even if they did not remain religious.
I therefore object in the strongest possible terms the publication a book which espouses the view that the Holocaust was a ‘wake-up’ call. His right to publish such opinions should not trump the hurt such views have upon survivors and their children.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Infidel

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I’ve written about Ayaan Hirsi Ali a few times, having heard her speak two years running now at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem. Each time, in her elegant and dignified way, she put the other speakers to shame. There were quiet and short remarks – there is great beauty is simplicity.

Last year, as several American Jews, diplomats and scholars, debated the need for Israel to surrender more, Hirsi Ali was handed the microphone and now, more than 16 months later, her words remain imprinted on my brain, “Even if you give them Jerusalem…EVEN if you give them Jerusalem, there will be no peace.”

Many clapped for this statement and the first thing I did after blogging about her was to promise myself I would learn more. With a great many excuses, a full year past and I was back again this past June at the President’s Conference, thrilled to have another opportunity to hear her speak. The room was packed – not a vacant seat (I grabbed the last three seats and called Chaim telling him he had to come hear this session). After hearing her speak again, I fulfilled that promise by ordering two of her books – “Infidel” and “Nomad.” These contain the story of her life – up to this point, whatever she wants to tell us – but certainly in much more detail than she could provide during her short presentations.

I learned so much about Islam – about that world on the other side of my borders. To be honest, I knew a lot of it, or suspected it – but she gave depth to my knowledge and then took me way beyond. She gave reasons, deeply rooted in Islam and in the Koran. I knew the results; she taught me the cause.

So here, I have a confession – I am a mother, a wife, even a grandmother, if you can believe that…and though I have joined others in condemning it, I only realized in reading her story what female genital mutilation was. I had no idea…and a part of me wishes I still didn’t know. How these men could do this to their daughters; how they could want this in their wives – I honestly and truly don’t understand.

That is, perhaps, the curse of Western civilization – we cannot comprehend the barbarity and because we are so naive, because we cannot understand, we tend to excuse, minimize the acts. We conveniently use the words and condemn the action…but to read pages that describe the act, the pain and suffering of these young girls – then and for years after was a startling revelation, a glimpse into a world that I had never imagined.

Can a mother want to do this to her daughter, as Ayaan’s mother chose to do to hers? How? In God’s name, how? I have never knowingly caused my daughter’s pain. And when they have been in pain, I have felt that pain throughout my body.

As to Ayaan, her story is amazing…what she survived…what she made of herself is a lesson to all of us – even those of us who, by comparison, have been blessed to live with relatively few hardships. I have never known hunger; I have never been beaten. Medical care has always been available, education, food, and love.

There were several things that got to me in her story (I’ve only read Infidel so far; I’m starting Nomad tonight) on so many levels – as a woman, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a mother.

One of the first things that struck me, even as I found myself deeply involved with her personal story, were the few references to Jews. Until she was well into her 20s, I don’t think Ayaan ever met a Jew. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry when I read, “In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap sopped running,t he Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it…I had never med a Jew. (Neither had these Saudis.)” What I got from this was something I had already known – they really really hate us. They don’t even know us, but they hate us…go figure.

Another thing that bothered me, though I understood her reasoning, was her journey away from Islam. She describes a religion that demands absolute obedience; a religion that has no mechanism for change over time; and a religion that focuses on punishment and the Hereafter – all you do in this life is preparation for the Hereafter and there are seemingly thousands or more things for which you are regularly threatened to be condemned to hell. It seems almost as if it is impossible to get to this heaven, given the number of restrictions – in action and in thought – that are applied to Muslims.

Ayaan’s brilliant reasoning takes all of this into consideration and reaches a conclusion – there is no hell; there is no hereafter. The Koran was written by man, not be God…and from there – she decides there is no God. I’m simplifying it. For her, it was a journey of thousands of miles and many years. She embraced Islam, searching and searching to justify her beliefs. She found contradictions and still pushed on.

It is written in the Koran that you may beat your wife…and Ayaan properly asks, what kind of God would allow that? It is written that you can cheat and lie to an infidel…and what kind of God would allow that?

And while I agree with her, it is also the point where I lose my way in following her. I won’t argue whether Allah is God and God is Allah, but I will say that the God she describes is not my God. I do believe in God – but not this Allah that she describes. My God has told us to choose life, not death. My God does not allow a man to beat his wife and the value of a life – Jew or not, is important. You cannot cheat or beat a slave and even slaves have an “out” clause to their slavery such that they must be set free after a certain number of years. These are the laws given to my people, by our God, a God we refer to as merciful and just.

A man can sell himself into slavery to pay off a debt, knowing that when the debt is paid, he will be freed. I don’t want to get into a legal comparison of Jewish law versus Islamic law – I am an expert of neither.

But I do believe in the hereafter – only different from what Ayaan was taught. We are taught that God waits to the last minute of your life to forgive any transgressions; the Islam she learned involved having two “angels” over her shoulders, each writing down the good and bad you do – and the list of bad could be as simple as being alone with a man, seeing a movie, etc. If you wear pants, if you show any skin except for your face and hands, certainly not your neck, you are sinful and evil.

I don’t blame Ayaan for walking away from a culture in which a man can take several wives and beat them as he wishes; a culture in which a man can marry off his daughter to a someone she has never met; a culture in which a woman cannot move freely unless she is escorted by a man. I can only hope that had God put me in the same culture, I would have found the courage, as she did, to escape. And she didn’t just escape, she took with her a responsibility to try to help others.

I think it took tremendous courage to walk away, to flee and save herself and thousands of other Muslim women by the work she did in Holland and now does in the United States.

I just wish somehow that along her journey, she could have found a way to keep God. It seems to me that Ayaan’s logical conclusion should have been that if Islam is as flawed as she believes it to be…she should understand that their version and vision of God is flawed too. I do not believe in the God she worshiped as a child and a young woman. Flawed, vindictive, vengeful, and promoting inequality – no, these are not traits of the God that I have known.

This Allah she was raised to worship demanded absolute obedience – compare that to the story of Abraham arguing with God to save the few righteous of Sodom. We have been in a dialog with God for thousands of years – and He listens to us. It is a relationship of love, of gratitude.

In Israel, we have seen too many miracles to do anything but believe in God. Every time a missile hits…it is a miracle because moments before a car passed by, a person left the room, a class was in the library. We have seen it all and we recognize the source. I’m sure we have atheists in Israel, but even among secular Jews here, God is pretty much accepted.

The radio broadcaster will bless the memory of someone who has died; will say, “thank God,” when no one is hurt. God escorts us through our lives here and encourages us to be better, kinder, and more charitable. We are not measured by how many infidels we kill, how many women we force into modesty. This concept of honor killing finds no home in our religion or with our God.

We have seen the horrors of what man can do to man (and to woman) but to blame God for the actions of man seems unfair. There is evil in this world – we all know that. We are given the choice – to choose good and God or to choose evil and work against God.

I can’t explain why bad things happen, but I do believe even the horrible serves a purpose. What was done to Ayaan, and so many others, were terrible, almost unimaginable and yet, didn’t these actions form her into the person she is? Overall, as I read her book, I was left with the impression that she was happy with who she is and what she has done. God, yes, I believe God, gave her a task in this life – one that she accomplishes each time she spreads the knowledge of the culture in which she was raised, each time she forces us to open our eyes and see.

Would she have accomplished what she has, without the challenges along the way? I think the answer is obvious.

What I can say is that there is tremendous comfort in believing that there is a God looking out for you, guiding you, protecting you. And I wish Ayaan could have this comfort. God has a plan – perhaps the greatest evil comes when man attempts to control or redirect that plan; when man attempts to become master of that plan.

Perhaps the irony is that the religion of Islam’s greatest flaw is not that it targets infidels, but that it fails to understand what an infidel is. I would say an infidel is a man who beats his wife, mutilates his daughter, encourages his sons to commit suicide. An infidel is one who is so busy defining God for others, he forgets to understand it is not for us to define God at all.

In carefully defining every aspect of how you live, Islam has succeeded in defining nothing. What the Muslim man fails to realize is that when he blows up a building, murders and terrorizes – and it is he who will go to hell, not the poor woman who was seen talking to a man, not the family sitting in the pizza store in Jerusalem. There are infidels in the world – but these are the people who forsake the love of God, for a culture of death and misery.

(It’s still an incredible book and I highly recommend it…I just wish I could tell Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she is where she is in life…by her own intelligence, her own strength, and by the grace of God…if not Allah.)

Visit A Soldier’s Mother.

How to Give

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Listen to these stories. Behind them lies an extraordinary insight into the nature of Jewish ethics:

Story 1. Rabbi Abba used to bind money in his scarf, sling it on his back, and place it at the disposal of the poor (Ketubot 67b).

Story 2. Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door socket he used to throw four coins every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who does me this kindness.” That day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door (to leave the coins) he ran out after them, but they fled from him and hid. Why did they do this? Because it was taught: One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly put his neighbor to shame (Ketubot 67b).

Story 3. When Rabbi Jonah saw a man of good family who had lost his money and was ashamed to accept charity, he would go and say to him, “I have heard that an inheritance has come your way in a city across the sea. So here is an article of some value. Sell it and use the proceeds. When you are more affluent, you will repay me.” As soon as the man took it, Rabbi Jonah would say, “It’s yours is a gift” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:1).

These stories all have to do with the mitzvah of tzedakah whose source is in this week’s parshah:

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11).

What we have here is a unique and still remarkable program for the elimination of poverty.

The first extraordinary fact about the laws of tzedakah as articulated in the Oral Tradition is the concept itself. Tzedakah does not mean “charity.” We see this immediately in the form of a law inconceivable in any other moral system: “Someone who does not wish to give tzedakah or to give less than is appropriate may be compelled to do so by a Jewish court of law” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:10). Charity is always voluntary. Tzedakah is compulsory. Therefore tzedakah does not mean charity. The nearest English equivalent is social justice.

The second is the principle evident in the three stories above. Poverty in Judaism is conceived not merely in material terms: the poor lack the means of sustenance. It is also conceived in psychological terms. Poverty humiliates. It robs people of dignity. It makes them dependent on others – thus depriving them of independence which the Torah sees as essential to self-respect.

This deep psychological insight is eloquently expressed in the third paragraph of the Grace after Meals: “Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation for ever and all time.”

As a result, Jewish law focuses not only on how much we must give but also on the manner in which we do so. Ideally the donor should not know to whom he or she is giving (story 1), nor the recipient know from whom he or she is receiving (story 2). The third story exemplifies another principle: “If a poor person does not want to accept tzedakah, we should practice a form of [benign] deception and give it to him under the guise of a loan” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:9).

Maimonides sums up the general principle thus: “Whoever gives charity to the poor with bad grace and averted eyes has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give with good grace and with joy and should sympathize with him in his plight, as it is said, ‘Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’ [Job 30:25]” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:4).

This is the logic behind two laws that are otherwise inexplicable. The first is “Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obliged to give tzedakah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:5). The law seems absurd. Why should we give money to the poor so that they may give to the poor? It makes sense only on this assumption – that giving is essential to human dignity and tzedakah is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.

The second is the famous ruling of Maimonides that “the highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is when a person assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7).

Giving someone a job or making him your partner would not normally be considered charity at all. It costs you nothing. But this further serves to show that tzedakah does not mean charity. It means giving people the means to live a dignified life, and any form of employment is more dignified, within the Jewish value system, than dependence.

We have in this ruling of Maimonides in the 12th century the principle that Muhammad Yunus rediscovered in our time, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: the idea of micro-loans enabling poor people to start small businesses. It is a very powerful idea.

In contradistinction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty or anaesthetize its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than 50 plagues.” They said, “Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, because he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses of Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”

Maimonides went to the heart of the matter when he said (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:27), “The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.” Poverty is not a noble state. You cannot reach spiritual heights if you have no food to eat or a roof for your head, if you lack access to medical attention or are beset by financial worries.

I know of no saner approach to poverty, welfare, and social justice than that of Judaism. Unsurpassed in its time, it remains the benchmark of a decent society to this day.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/how-to-give/2013/08/01/

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