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April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

Caravaggio And Evil

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

      Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was well acquainted with evil. His short violent life careened wildly between prestigious painting commissions from the most powerful men in Rome and drunken street brawls with the lowest of the low. Such behavior led to frequent encounters with the police, lawsuits, duels and finally murder. Exposed early in life to both the deep piety of his small hometown of Caravaggio and the violent tumultuous city life of nearby Milan, his view of life was a kind of brash cosmopolitanism laced with the passionate fervor of the Counter Reformation.

 

         Within a few years of his arrival in Rome, his starkly realistic depictions of contemporary scenes dramatically set in high contrasts of light and dark gained him immediate fame. As he matured, an uneasy synthesis of opposites emerged in some paintings, exhibiting a pictorial paradox that points the way to what one could call a modern sensibility of doubt, unease and disquiet. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in two paintings created only six years apart and yet separated by one event that would cut his life tragically short. Judith and Holofernes (1599) and David with the Head of Goliath (1606) speak to us across the centuries about the unexpected consequences of eradicating evil from our midst. Additionally, the dialogue between the two paintings addresses the multifaceted nature of evil itself.

 

         Judith is a Jewish book, originally written in Hebrew but only familiar to many now, in Greek versions that date from the Second Temple period. The narrative relates how Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, intent on ruling the entire world, sends his general Holofernes to conquer Israel. Holofernes besieges the strategic town of Bethulia that blocks his advance on Jerusalem.

 

 


Judith and Holofernes (1599), oil on canvas (56″ X 76″) by Caravaggio


Palazzo Barberini, Rome

 

 

         Once water and food run out the town leaders were desperate, ready to open the gates to the murderous hordes. The beautiful and virtuous widow, Judith steps forward with a plan. After convincing the elders to allow her to approach the enemy camp, she prays to G-d for success in overcoming the general Holofernes, just as G-d had granted success to her ancestor Simon when he avenged the rape of Dinah.

 

         As she enters the camp, her beauty beguiles all who see her and she is immediately ushered into a lavish banquet with Holofernes. He is impressed with her beauty, wit and piety (she insists on eating only the kosher food she brought for herself). In anticipation of seducing her, he consumes much wine and retires in a drunken stupor. She enters his bedchamber alone, takes his sword and prays again; “Strengthen me this day, O G-d of Israel! Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck and cut off his head” (Judith 13:6-9). Her maidservant enters and collects his head. Once out of the camp, the decapitated head is displayed for all to see and the invading army flees in terror. Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jewish People have been saved by the courage of Judith.

 

         The Book of Judith is not found in the Jewish canon (possibly because of the prominent use of a sword by a woman, a violation of the prohibition seen in Deuteronomy 22:5 that prohibits “kli gever, man’s equipment” for women). Nonetheless, it is seen in numerous Jewish contexts. The story is illustrated in the Rothschild Miscellany (1450-80) and The Prague Haggadah, printed in 1526, shows Judith posed with her sword and the head of Holofernes on the page illuminating the verse “Pour out your wrath upon the nations” She stands opposite Samson who similarly defended the Jewish people from the attacks of their enemies.

 

         This motif appears atop numerous 18th century menorahs (her connection with Judah Maccabee is obvious), especially on the beautiful silver Boller Menorah (1706-1732) found in the Jewish Museum. The story is extensively illustrated in Christian art as a motif of “virtue overcoming evil.” The artists include; Donatello, Mantegna, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Correggio, and notably Michelangelo’s pairing of Judith and Holofernes opposite David and Goliath on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

 

 


“Pour out your wrath on the Nations”, (1526) Prague Haggadah


Jewish Theological Seminary of America

 

 

        Caravaggio’s depiction is startling for both its violence and complexity. In this one painting the artist presents three points of view concerning of the eradication of evil: the victim, the old hag and the young heroine. The handsome Holofernes, suddenly awakened, is shocked in his own death. In mid-scream, he grasps the bed sheets that were agents in his own destruction, a river of blood spurting from his neck separated from his head. Anxiously observing the assassination, the old maidservant eagerly awaits the prize. She represents a mature woman well acquainted with male barbarism, lust and violence. In her angry eyes this is an act of judgment, if not vengeance. It is she who will fittingly receive his severed head.

 

         Judith’s ambiguity is disarming. The strength of her arms holding his hair and slicing with the sword signify exactly how determined and sure she is. Yet she pulls back, her brow furrowed in consternation. She is recoiled by the reality of a life coming to an end. Her youth, grace and beauty all bespeak the feminine role to give life, and to fulfill and create. Nonetheless, to save her people, she must deny her essence; she must annihilate him and destroy the threat of his army. Bravely, she grasps his head as she would a piece of meat to slice for dinner.

 

         Unlike most religious paintings of the Counter Reformation, this Caravaggio is not triumphant and self-assured. It recognizes that even when one must decide to confront evil and obliterate it, the act of violence necessarily affects us. With Judith, after this heroic act she is no longer simply the young lovely widow. Thrust into history, her youthful innocence is tarnished.

 

         David and Goliath, painted six years later, elevates his examination of evil to an intensely personal level. In May 1606, Caravaggio was involved in a brawl that escalated into a swordfight in which Ranuccio Tomassoni was killed. Caravaggio fled Rome and eventually reached Naples, where he spent a year. Early in this period he allegedly painted this work to be sent to the papal court in a plea to annul his sentence, as a kind of pictorial confession of his remorse.

 

 


David with the Head of Goliath (1606), oil on canvas (48″ X 39″) by Caravaggio


Galleria Borghese, Rome

 

 

         In this work, David is but a young lad forced to confront the wicked Goliath who taunts him, saying; “Am I a dog that you come after me with sticks? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. come to me, so I may offer your flesh to the fowl of the heavens and to the beast of the field!” He was determined to further disgrace Israel and so David was forced to defend his people and their honor, and indeed he triumphed. Goliath was slain by a well-aimed slingshot. David decapitated him and thereby terrified the Philistine army into a chaotic defeat (Samuel I 17:41-54).

 

         But again Caravaggio’s David is no poster boy hero. With sad eyes and furrowed brow, he sorrowfully gazes at the head of the stricken Goliath, practically asking him, why did you force me to slay youwhy did you challenge G-d’s people? The sharp angle of the sword parallels David’s outstretched arm holding Goliath’s expressive head, creating the graphic metaphor that David could not have truly contemplated the personality of Goliath without first killing him. The meaning of this gesture deepens once we become aware that the face of Goliath is a self-portrait of the 35-year-old Caravaggio, weary, worn and defeated.

 

         The enormous empathy one feels for both David and Goliath allows us to see Caravaggio pondering his own image, mourning how the evil that seems so deeply ingrained must be eradicated.

 

         The parallels between the two paintings are startling. Each involve decapitation, each slayer grasps the hair of the victim, each utilizes the sword and arms as parallel agents of destruction, each involves a hesitant executioner, each knocks the evil protagonist out with either wine or a stone, and finally, each painting gives us insight into the emotions of the “victim.” Indeed, in each painting one might say that the protagonist is also trapped in the role of victim.

 

         But there are important differences. Judith is young and innocent of death, forced to eradicate an animal force that would consume her before destroying her people. Caravaggio’s David is different. For him, the conflict seems more of a personal struggle within the artist himself, a failure to control that which corrodes and slays the soul. Judith had to kill an illicit passion whereas David put to the sword his own hubris. These paintings contrast the evil within and the evil without.

 

         There are some who say that the painting of David and Goliath foretells Caravaggio’s own demise. In the four years left of his life Caravaggio continuously implored his influential friends to obtain a papal pardon from the death sentence he incurred. He fled to the island of Malta and then Sicily and finally, goes back to Naples. In each location he painted a handful of portraits and many masterpieces of religious art. His output was strong and confident, yet he felt he had to plead his case in person and remove the shadow that hung over his life. A pardon seemed imminent, and so he set out to return to Rome. He never made it. He died mysteriously, perhaps of malaria, perhaps murdered. His body was never found; at 39, the evil of violence finally consumed him.

 

         But he left a brilliant record in these two paintings of his confrontation with the evil that still stalks our world and still haunts our souls.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

The Arch of Titus: Am Yisroel Chai

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

         I walked slowly away from the Coliseum in Rome. Completed in 80 C.E. by the Emperor Titus it was used for almost 500 years for countless gladiatorial games and bloody spectacles. Some speculate that it was initially financed from the booty taken from the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. A murderous monument to Roman civilization, indeed.

 

         Turning my back on its horrors, I entered the Via Sacra, the well-worn street that leads to the Roman Forum and its triumphal entry, the Arch of Titus. The infamous arch towers over the ruins of the Forum and echoes the larger Arch of Septimius Severus at the opposite end. As I approached the 50-foot high monument on a late Friday afternoon in July it was swarming with tourists gawking, snapping pictures and resting in its shade, preparing for their next adventure. Few seemed to grasp the gravity of this site.

 

         The Arch of Titus was built in 81 C.E. by the Emperor Domitian, the brother of Titus, to commemorate the victory over the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It marks the utter military defeat of the Jews in the face of paganism and what easily could be seen as the beginning of the creation of the Christian world. More importantly, it memorializes the severance between Jews and G-d that lasts to this day. The Diaspora from our Land and our Avodah still gnaws at the Jewish soul.

 

 


Arch of Titus, view from Roman Forum

 

 

         On the inside of the arch looking toward the Forum are two surviving marble reliefs that face one another. On the right, Titus is seen triumphantly entering Rome while the left parades the spoils from the Temple. The silver trumpets, the Show Bread Table and finally, the Golden Menorah, are clearly displayed. I sat down and covered my eyes in sorrow at our punishment. Seeing the Arch of Titus and its relief sculptures I was a direct witness to G-d’s wrath.

 

         Trying to contain my grief, I realized that this ancient work of art needed to be seen in its historical context, just like all works of art. My immediate personal reaction was only the first step to uncovering its larger meaning. What struck me immediately was the extremely prominent place that the Arch of Titus occupied. For hundreds of years as Romans approached the Forum, the heart of their far flung Empire’s administrative, social and religious life, they would see the Latin inscription that crowns the arch just as we see it today: “The Senate and The People of Rome [dedicate this to] The Divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, [son of] Divine Vespasian.”

 

 


Coliseum, Rome

 

 

         The proud acknowledgement by the Roman people and Senate of Titus’s achievement in subduing the stiff-necked Jews is especially impressive when we consider how many other worthy foes the Romans had conquered. Before subduing the Jews, the Romans had conquered Macedonia, Greece, Carthage, Spain, Central and Southern Italy, Sicily, Gaul, Germany and Britain. And yet, it was this conquest that first greeted the Roman elite. As an expression of this, the arch is adorned with multiple figures of the Roman goddess Victory, proclaiming triumph. On the façade facing the Coliseum and the façade facing the Forum two spandrels (triangular shapes above the archway) boast two giant winged beings bearing trophies of celebration.

 

         The elaborately decorated soffit (underside) of the arch shows a central panel depicting the Apotheosis of Titus, his image carried aloft to heaven by an eagle. It was common in this era for the Roman Senate to deify their emperors once they died (hence ‘Divine Titus’). This visually crowns the two relief panels on the inside of the arch. In both relief panels the figures are moving in the same direction, toward the Roman Forum, dramatically reenacting the triumphal procession that actually occurred when Titus returned from defeating Jerusalem and Masada in the year 72 C.E.

 

 


Arch of Titus, detail

 

 

         Facing the Forum, the right side shows Titus standing in a quadriga (4-horse chariot) that is led by the goddess Roma. Just behind him, a winged Victory crowns the general with a laurel wreath while alongside the chariot he is accompanied by a youth, representing the Roman people and an old man representing the venerable Senate. The four horses impatiently stride forward, their passion in sharp contrast to the calm dignity of the marching soldiers and lictors carrying ceremonial fascia of royal office. The conquering Titus seems impenetrable and undefeatable. In fact, Titus died at the age of 40, a mere 11 years after he defiled the holy Temple. The Gemara in Gittin 56b famously relates how G-d tortured Titus with a tiny gnat that knocked around in his brain for seven painful years until he died. Not surprisingly, no trace of his real future is to be found in the proud marble depiction of triumph.

 

         Opposite the triumphant Titus is the relief of the spoils taken from the Temple. The men carrying the Golden Menorah have hoisted it up on long poles. They have pillows on their shoulders and laurel wreaths on their heads as they stride forward. There seems to be 12 men carrying the Menorah and another eight carrying the Show Bread Table. In front of the Table two silver trumpets are also carried. It is notable that many more individuals are shown in this procession than in the triumphal entry of Titus. We see behind the figures, four placards held aloft that proclaim the victories, conquered cities and peoples of Titus.

 

 



Menorah, Show Bread Table; Marble Relief


 

 

         This procession is much more animated than the staid Titus opposite, and it marches purposefully to enter into a carved arch at the extreme right. This depiction of the Porta Triumphalis uncovers the deeply religious nature of the triumphal procession. The passage through the Porta Triumphalis was meant to purify the returning soldiers of the bloodguilt incurred in battle. Additionally, the presence of the victorious general passing through this gate was thought to bring a blessing upon the Roman capital itself. The victory march would then make a ritual procession to a series of sacrifices and dedications of the spoils. The entire ceremony would culminate in the Roman Forum at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maxiums, offering additional spoils, sacrificing “white oxen to Jupiter, laying a laurel branch and wreaths in the lap of the god’s statue.” The triumphant general and the Senate would then share in a sacred feast. What we are seeing in this relief is not just a victory parade; it is an aspect of pagan worship using the sacred objects from the holy Temple.

 

         The tragic aspect of the Arch of Titus did not cease with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the end of the fifth century. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ghettoized the Roman Jews and forced them to swear an “oath of submission to the Pope” under the still standing Arch of Titus. This arch carries the full weight of G-d’s anger at His people and the cruelty of His agents.

 

         And yet, as I looked around the arch on that July afternoon, I realized that this sordid history was not the whole story. The Arch of Titus, now presiding over what is left of the Roman Forum, is a complete and utter ruin. Uncovered and restored in the 19th century out of archeological curiosity and, more recently touted to foster tourism, for 1,500 years both the arch and the Roman Forum were abandoned; the Forum at best put to use as a cow pasture and quarry, the arch incorporated as part of medieval fortifications.

 

 


Triumph of Titus; Marble Relief

 

 

         The Jews meanwhile had set about reconstituting themselves, forging an authentic Jewish life without a Temple, somehow surviving without its degree of holiness. We were wildly successful as we codified the Mishnah and Gemara, codes of Law built upon generations of pious practice and rebuilding of countless communities. Our journey since Titus has been arduous to be sure, filled with tragedy as well as triumph, but we cannot deny that we live in a blessed generation – yeshivas filled to overflowing, Jewish communities blossoming around the world and our nation repossessing our Land. As we look at the Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus we can rise above the sorrow that we feel and know that this same image adorns the seal of the sovereign and proud State of Israel.

 

         Years ago, when I first visited the Arch of Titus, I remember seeing graffiti scribbled in chalk under the relief- Am Yisroel Chai. That is how I still understand what this ancient monument means.

 

         References to Roman religion and triumphal celebrations are from “The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration in the Visual Arts” by Peter J. Holliday (California State University, Long Beach) Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

The Jewish King Of Poland

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

      Saul Wahl’s story is one of the most intriguing of all the legendary stories concerning Polish Jewry. It is said that he occupied the throne of Poland for a single day, August 18, 1587. During his brief time serving as Polish royalty, he supposedly enacted numerous laws protecting the Jewish population of Poland.        

    

      Those who study genealogy say that he was the ancestor to many illustrious Jews, including many great rabbis of the Halberstam line from Sacz, Rokeach of Belz, the Ropshitzer dynasty and the Katzenellenbogen line, among others. The secular Jewish world – including Martin Buber and Helena Rubinstein – can also trace their family roots to this interesting personage.

 

      The story of Saul Wahl begins with the visit of a troubled prince to Rome. Lithuanian Prince Nicholas Radziwill, surnamed the Black, desired to do penance for the many atrocities he had committed while a young man. Thus he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome in order to consult the pope as to how best he could have his sins forgiven. The pope advised him to dismiss all his servants and to live for a few years as a wandering beggar.

 

      Following his year of wandering, Radziwill found himself destitute in the city of Padua, Italy. His appeals for help were not heeded, and his story of being a prince was received with scorn and ridicule. He finally decided to appeal to Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. The latter received him with marked respect by treating him with much kindness. The rabbi furnished him with ample means for returning to his native country in a manner befitting his high rank.

 

      When it was time to depart, the prince asked the rabbi how he could repay him for his kindness. The rabbi gave him a picture of his son Saul (who years before had left for Poland) and asked the prince to try and find the boy in one of the many yeshivas of that country. The prince did not forget the request.

 


 

      Upon his return to Poland, the prince visited every yeshiva in the land, until finally he discovered Saul in Brest-Litovsk. He was so captivated by the brilliance and depth of Saul’s intellect that he took him to his own castle, provided for all his wants, and supplied him with all possible means for continued study. The noblemen who visited Radziwill’s court marveled at the wisdom and learning of the young Jew. As a result, the fame of Saul spread throughout Poland.

 

      When King Stefan Batory died in 1586, the Polish people divided into two factions, the Zamoyskis and the Zborowskis. There were quite a number of candidates for the throne, but the contending parties could not agree on a successor. Polish law stipulated that the throne not remain vacant for any length of time and that if the electors could not agree on a candidate, an outsider should be appointed “rex pro tempore” (temporary king).

 

      This honor was offered to Radziwill. But he refused, saying he knew a man who belonged to neither party and who, in wisdom and goodness, was far superior to any one else he knew. That man possessed only one very slight shortcoming; but if his election was unanimously approved, he (Radziwill) would identify him. Accordingly, Saul’s name was solemnly proposed, and amid great enthusiasm (and shouts of “Long live King Saul”) Wahl was elected to this high office. (The name “Wahl” was given to him from the German word wahl, meaningelection.)

 

      There is a disagreement as to the length of his reign. Some say that he ruled for only one night, while others say his rule lasted for a few days. All, however, agree that Saul succeeded in passing a number of very wise laws, among them some tending to alleviate the condition of Poland’s Jewish populace. Although this story is not supported by any historical data, it gained the belief of the people.

 

      Noted genealogist Dr. Neil Rosenstein has written an interesting book (with sources and genealogy charts) on this subject. The book, Saul Wahl: Polish King For A Night Or Lithuanian Knight For A Lifetime, is published by The Computer Center For Jewish Genealogy. The ISBN is 0-9610578-8-2.

Title: A Passover in Rome

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005

Title: A Passover in Rome
Author: Henry Welch and Rose Kryger
Publisher: Vantage Press, New York, NY

 

At Rose Kryger’s funeral, her son Meir, now a physician in Winnipeg, was surprised to learn from the rabbi’s funeral oration that his mother had some bottled up secrets and had yearned to be a writer. After the week of shiva, he discovered a spiral-bound notebook and some audio cassettes in a drawer.

A text of over 200 pages, written in Yiddish, was the only valuable heirloom that Rose Kryger bequeathed, and hers is a story of an indomitable survivor of the Second World War, and her narrow escape from persecution. Neither she nor her nuclear family ever fell in the hands of Nazis, nor were they interred in concentration camps.

This is a story of survival that simply had to be told, complete with pathos and even a bit of humor.

Henry Welch, Rose Kryger’s nephew Zvi, and the co-narrator of this book, relates the story of a Polish-Jewish couple who were hidden by their local Catholic parish priest, disguised as servants. After the war, they were so grateful to him for saving them from the Holocaust that they offered to convert and become Catholics. Their decision having been made – they were baptized and lived for years as Catholics until one day, some Jews who had survived returned and renewed their Jewish community.

The husband and the wife grew nostalgic as they saw Jews shopping for fish on Fridays and preparing for Shabbos and attending services in the local shul. They admitted to themselves that there was something missing in their lives, so they too decided to prepare and enjoy a real Shabbos meal, with gefilte fish, chopped chicken livers, and roast goose – the works!

Then their priest came by and discovered them eating meat on a Friday, the man wearing a kippah with a wine glass in hand making Kiddush. The Shabbos candles were lit and the table was set with a big, crispy roast goose. He barged in, bewildered and confused and said: “You can’t eat goose on a Friday.”

The Jew put his fingers in a glass of water and sprinkled a few drops at the goose and said: “goose, goose – you are no more goose – you are now a fish.”

Rose apparently began her manuscript as a result of a family gathering at a Passover celebration in Rome in 1984. After the discovery of her “work in progress,” her nephew Zvi added his own story in between hers and the combination fleshes out a truly fascinating story.

There are many thousands of stories about this era, told and re-told by the survivors and their families, but few cast a happy ending as this one does, or are as spell-binding and entertaining.

Is This Something To Parade About?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2003
Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I am writing to you from Jerusalem. My family and I made aliyah 15 years ago. One of the reasons why we took this step was because we wanted our children to be raised and nurtured in the holy air of Jerusalem, in a Torah atmosphere, and above all, to share in the incredible return of our people to the land.

Much has changed during this period. Today, in our beautiful holy city, we live in constant fear. Every day, I send my children off to school with the prayer that HaShem watch them and grant them a safe return. I worry, each and every moment, for the life of my husband, who has no choice but to go to work every day by bus. With it all, however, I don’t for a single moment regret our decision to make aliyah, and I thank G-d every day for having granted us the privilege of living here – this, despite the fact that my sister was the victim of a terrorist attack which left her handicapped and with constant headaches. But she, too, will tell you that she would never consider leaving Jerusalem. Life has not been easy, but we love it here, and as much as we live with fear, we have faith that HaShem will protect us.

I am writing to you, at this time, in reference to a story which appeared in the 10/05/03 issue of The Jerusalem Post, which disturbed me no end. I am referring to the impending International Gay Festival and World Parade, with its hundred of thousands of revelers, that is scheduled to be held in Jerusalem two years hence. That such a parade could be planned for
Jerusalem is a colossal desecration of HaShem’s Holy Name, and it is outrageous that not one of our elected officials has seen fit to speak up. The newspapers reported that when questioned, the spokesperson for Mayor Lupolianski (who is our city’s first Haredi mayor) stated that “this is a police matter and not a municipal decision”. The Jerusalem police
spokeswoman also skirted the issue, saying that ” the police only provide the security permits for such events and that it is way too early to even discuss the planned parade. The last such international parade, which took place in Rome in the year 2000, saw about half a million participants, so you can imagine the Chilul HaShem that something like this could entail.
I cannot believe that such a desecration of G-d’s Name, would be even considered for our holy city. As menacing as the constant threats from the Arabs are, the possibility of a gay parade is even more frightening. Surely the mayor realizes that according to our Torah, homosexuality is one of those sinful abominations which can lead to disgorging the inhabitants from the land” (Leviticus 18). How then can he remain silent?

Whoever I have tried to discuss this subject with has told me that we residents of Jerusalem have enough on our plates right now and shouldn’t waste time worrying about things that may or may not happen two years down the road.

While this argument is not without merit, I am also a firm believer in preventive medicine. A battle waged at the 11th hour, when the event is imminent, can become very ugly and fierce. The time to act is now, before things get out of control. Since no one here seems to be alarmed, I thought that I would write to you. If you would comment on this subject, your
readers would be inspired to write to the mayor and to the various elected officials of the Municipality of Jerusalem, as well as to the elected officials of the Knesset, it might just make an impact and avert disaster.

My dear friend:

I am in full accord – there is nothing like preventive medicine, and while two years is a long
period of time - especially nowadays when there is so much volatility in the world and you never know what will happen from one moment to another - we nevertheless have an obligation to raise our voices in protest. The very possibility of such a desecration taking place in Jerusalem if left unchallenged, places a blight on all of us.

To be sure, in our 21st century liberal climate, to speak out against such an event would, in many circles be regarded as politically incorrect. Many who have raised their voices have been vilified, and accused of bigotry and archaism. Our Torah laws however, are not subject to majority consensus or that which is in vogue. “Like the doings of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, you shall not do; like the doings of the land of Canaan, wither I bring you, you
shall not do. Neither shall you walk in their statutes…” - meaning that we are not to emulate the lifestyles of the nations among whom we live. It’s one thing when such aberational behavior is celebrated in Rome, New York, or Paris, but it’s something else again when the holy city of Jerusalem becomes the setting.

Even if the entire world regards homosexuality as a viable life option, we Jews live by a different code of rules. Our standards of morality emanate from our Torah, and not from that which is in vogue. Phrases such as “meaningful relationships”, “moral relativism”, “majority consensus” or “consensual relationships between adults” cannot suspend our laws. The Word of G-d stands eternally and calls upon man to temper his passions and live in sanctity.

There is nothing new about our society’s endorsement of homosexuality. Such endorsements were prevalent throughout history. It was rampant among the generation which preceded the flood. It was the accepted way of life in Sodom (hence the word “sodomy”); it was rife among the Canaanite pagans as well as in many ancient civilizations including Rome and Greece, but throughout, we clung to our Torah even when we were mocked and persecuted for doing so.

In time, much of our Torah’s moral code became the guiding light of Western civilization and served as a moral compass to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus, if an individual deviated from that code, he was aware that he was in violation of G-d’s commandments and there was hope that, one day, he would summon the spiritual stamina to return.

All this altered in the 60s when laws regulating moral conduct collapsed and everything became permissible. This “new morality” was accepted by all segments of society and became so all-pervasive that people feared voicing their protests. To free themselves from feelings of guilt, they enlisted clergy to endorse that which G-d forbade. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Jerusalem represents such an attractive venue for organizers of a gay parade. But
even as no amount of blessing can render pork kosher, so too, no matter how many gay people gather in Jerusalem, Torah Laws cannot be altered. It is we who must bend our will to that of our Creator and not the reverse, and even if we regard G-d’s Laws as repressive, we must nevertheless learn to master our impulses.

We live in a chaotic, morally turbulent world – each and every one of us is in need of G-d’s compassion and forgiveness – and that is how we must relate to one another if we are to resolve this issue and invoke G-d’s mercy. But it is one thing when an individual succumbs to the weakness of his flesh and something else again when he pronounces G-d’s commandments
obsolete and publically celebrates and parades his transgressions in G-d’s holy city of Jerusalem.

May I suggest that we all unite in preparing for the real celebration - the real parade, and that is that long awaited day when we will behold the fulfillment of the prophecy: “Out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the Word of G-d from Jerusalem.” That will be a parade worthy of G-d’s Holy City and G-d’s Holy flock.

Second Guessing G-d

Wednesday, October 29th, 2003

In my last column I wrote of the anguish and sorrow that fills the hearts of our brethren in Israel nowadays, and I wrote of the all-too-real curses that are enumerated in Parashat Ki Tavo. There is one curse however, that at first glance, may be difficult to understand, but if you take a moment to think about it, you will realize how poignantly it speaks to us: “And it shall be, if you will not hearken to the voice of the L-rd your G-d to observe and perform all His commandments and all His decrees that I command you today, then all His curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:58).

The word “overtake” is puzzling, but upon closer scrutiny, we have to conclude how prophetic these words have proven to be. We have a long history of trying to second guess G-d’s word. There are always those who rationalize that the tragedies that befall us are totally unrelated to our abandonment of Torah and mitzvos. They reason that these curses are just so much superstition, and if we would just do “such and such”, then all our problems would be resolved. But throughout our long and torturous history, no matter how clever a formula was concocted, no matter how confident we were that this time, we would find a way to neutralize the irrational hatred that surrounds us, the curses always overtook us. Just consider some of the events of the last century and you will see for yourself the sad reality of this prophecy.

A Jew by the name of Karl Marx convinced his followers that hatred in the world stemmed from jealousy between the haves and the have-nots, and that it was these economic disparities that rendered the Jews scapegoats. And so, he founded communism, a system that would guarantee the perfect distribution of wealth, a system in which everyone would have an equal share. Many Jews sacrificed and died for this cause. They truly believed that communism would usher in a new era of fraternity and brotherhood. Who would have believed that this very same communism would not only fail, but would give birth to the most vile and brutal persecution of the Jewish people. “Alas, the curses shall overtake you…”

Theodore Hertzl, a secular Jew from Austro-Hungary, the founder of political Zionism, was convinced that the cause for anti-Semitism was the lack of a Jewish homeland. He was so assimilated that he even expressed willingness to accept Uganda as a substitute, but since Uganda was not to be had, he settled on Palestine. Who would have believed that 51 years after the founding of the Jewish homeland, that homeland would become the butt of hatred. “We have nothing against Jews, it is the Israelis and Zionists that we despise,” is the politically correct mantra of the new anti-Semites.” “And the curses shall overtake you…”

The Reform movement in Germany was founded on the belief that anti-Semitism was provoked by the special Jewish way of life that distinguishes Jews from Gentiles. If only Jews would shed their traditions, their mannerisms, their distinct garb, their myriad archaic commandments and enter the enlightened world – if only they would be like all other people, anti-Semitism would cease to exist. Jews gave up their faith, their Torah, and proudly swore their allegiance to “Fattersland uber alles” – “Germany, the Fatherland - above all”. Who would have believed that it would be from that very same enlightened, civilized Germany that the most satanic evil ever to be visited upon our people would emerge. “And the curses shall overtake you.”

The events that I described are not from our distant past - rather, they are of today, and we are all familiar with them, but there are still those among us who believe that they can relinquish Torah and mitzvos without consequences – that the curses that we encounter in life are totally unrelated to our lack of observance and our abandonment of the Covenant. They truly believe that all our problems would be resolved if we would just adopt “yet another formula”.

While the embers of the flames of Auschwitz were still glowing, the advocates of this philosophy found yet another prescription to once and for all eradicate the scourge of anti-Semitism. They scurried to Rome and prostrated themselves before the Pope to inaugurate the dawn of a new era - “Dialogue.” The rationale behind this was quite logical. The silence of the Church and its support of the Nazis in Catholic Europe was due to a lack of communication. But now, bridges of understanding would be built. “Dialogue” would be the new antidote for the deadly virus of anti-Semitism. But then came 1967 – the Six Day War, and once again, the balloon burst. As Israel was threatened by annihilation, her leaders appealed to the world community and to the Church, but the nations remained silent as did Rome. The proponents of dialogue tried to call in their cards, but their investment had failed. Rome not only remained indifferent to the plight of the fledgling Jewish state, but lent its sympathy and support to those who were bent upon her destruction.

Recently, the age-old blood libels have re-surfaced in contemporary garb. A prince of the Church, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Meridiaga, who is the Archbishop of Honduras and who, according to Boston Globe reporter James Carrol, is one of a small number of likely candidates to succeed Pope John Paul II, reportedly stated that the accusations of sexual abuse in the Church are a Jewish fabrication!

You might wonder how he arrived at such a brilliant conclusion, but then again, how did his predecessors throughout the centuries conclude that Jews slaughtered Christians children and used their blood to make wine and matzoh for Passover? Nothing changes – just the names and the places. Still, you may insist that we are living in the 21st century. People cannot just make outlandish irrational accusations built upon a pack of lies. But obviously, they can, and there are myriad people out there willing to embrace them and declare them to be truth. The Archbishop propounds that the Jews were seeking revenge on the Church for its pro-Palestinian/anti Israel stance and most importantly, also wanted to divert attention from the atrocities that they are perpetrating against the Palestinians, so they fabricated this story, and proof of its Jewish origin is that The Boston Globe, owned by the Jewish Sulzberger New York Times family, was the first to break the story. Therefore, it stands to reason that this is a Jewish conspiracy.

Now, it’s one thing for the Cardinal to make such preposterous and virulent accusations, but it is something else again for Rome to remain silent and not call the Cardinal to task. Once again, despite years of dialogue, despite good-will gestures and kow-towing to Rome, the curses have overtaken us.

Let us now consider the tragedies that are befalling us in Eretz Yisrael – the constant barrage of terrorist attacks that result in almost daily carnage. Why do the Arabs hate us so? Why are they bent upon killing us? Why are they obsessed with shedding Jewish blood? Why do they wish to see us dead? Why do they want to eradicate the Jewish State? Once again, our secularists, who deny G-d’s Hand in our history have convinced themselves and others that there are valid reasons for all this hatred, reasons that can be overcome: The Arabs suffer from poverty, they live under abysmal conditions, they lack educational and job opportunities, the Palestinians have become refugees, and they need their own state. Who, if not we, should empathize with that? Let’s give them what they need, let’s give them the land, let’s give them financial aid, let’s give them the arms to create their own police force.

It was this thinking that prompted Israeli leadership to legitimize Arafat and put white gloves on his bloody hands. It was with this thinking that Israel convinced Washington to no longer regard Arafat as persona non-grata, but to accord him all the honor of a diplomat. It was this Israeli thinking that enabled Arafat to win the Nobel Peace prize, and it was this thinking that prompted Israel to sign the Oslo Accords. Oslo would herald a new dawn in Jewish-Arab relations. Israel and her neighbors would enjoy open borders and together build a model state.

Israel gave up chunks of her G-d given land, supplied Arafat and his cohorts with funds and weapons, and taught them how to prepare for the establishment of their own state.

Who would have believed that that Oslo pact would open the doors to the most brutal and bloody period in the history of the young State, that the arms that Israel gave would be turned against her own sons and daughters? And today, 10 years down the road, we are further from peace than ever before. Not only are our borders not open, but now we have to build “fences” to protect ourselves from the killers who live next door. What will it take to awaken those who are still asleep, those who after thousands of years of history still cling to the illusion that we Jews can be like all other nations - that the laws that apply to them can apply to us as well?

What will it take to make our assimilated brethren understand that our destiny, our very breath is ordained by Hashem, that we are Mamlechet Kohanim, a priestly kingdom, Goy Kadosh, a holy nation, destined to be a light unto the world, and because of that, there is only one formula, one road map for us and that’s the road map that was charted at Sinai. All else is doomed to fail, for otherwise, “the curses will overtake us.”

May Hashem grant that this year of 5764 will usher in a new era of teshuva ? return to G-d and His Torah, for that is our only power, our only means of survival, our only antidote to the curses. “If only My people would heed Me, if Israel would walk in My ways, in an instant I would subdue their foes and against their tormentors turn My hand” (Psalm 81).

May I take this opportunity to wish all our readers and K’lal Yisrael a gemar chasima tova.

An Opportunity Lost In Silence

Wednesday, June 13th, 2001
Special Note: I am interrupting the sequence of my columns regarding Kollel wives to comment on the events that have unfolded during the past few days. There is a saying in Yiddish, ‘Z’er feel mohl es is shver tzu redden, ober es iz noch shverer tzu schveigen’ – ‘Very often it is difficult to speak, but it is even more difficult to remain silent.? Such is the sense of outrage that I and every decent human being must feel in face of the shameful silence of the Pope during his recent visit to Syria. Our people are being killed, our innocent little children are barbarically murdered. Even as I write this column, two young boys have been slain, their heads crushed by stones, and the Pope visits Syria, a hotbed of this type of terrorism, and not only does he refrain from speaking out, but he remains silent while Bashir al Assad vilifies our people and calls for further violence.

Almost 30 years ago, at Hineni’s first t’shuva gathering at Madison Square Garden, I spoke out against the ominous silence of the Princes of the Church during the Holocaust. A letter arrived soon afterward from a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York assailing my remarks and demanding that I apologize. In response, I wrote an in-depth documentation (later published as a booklet entitled ‘The Church and the Jew’ by our Hineni organization) of the vicious anti-Semitic stance of the Church throughout our long and painful history. Rabbi Sholom Klass, zt”l, courageously published that article and printed thousands upon thousands of additional copies for distribution to the general public. But that was more than a quarter of a century ago, and since then, we have been assured that changes have occurred in Church Doctrine. Pope John Paul II was reputed to be different. Indeed, he made gestures of apology to the Jewish people for the centuries of oppression, forced baptism, and slaughter that the Church has inflicted upon us.

But this past week in Syria, in one fell swoop, he disabused us of all such illusions. The ‘new’ policy enacted by Rome remains the same as it has ever been. Unfortunately, that which I so carefully documented 30 years ago is as valid today as it was then. Alas, nothing has changed.

Not too long ago, it was Hillary who fell into the Arab trap. It was she who sat by in silence while Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning the drinking water of innocent Palestinian children. We were enraged, but Hillary is a politician, and what Suha said cannot compare in evil to the venom that spewed forth from Assad – but most importantly, the silence of the Pope, a man of G-d, from whom we have the right to expect more.

Some people might argue that the Pope was a guest in a foreign land and couldn’t very well have objected to the hateful diatribe of his host. Such arguments don’t hold water. If, in face if evil man must speak out, who, if not the Pope should do so’

Thousands of years ago, Pharaoh had three principal advisors – Bilaam, Jethro, and Job. When the ‘Jewish problem’ came up for discussion, Bilaam recommended the murder of all Jewish male infants. Jethro (the future father-in-law of Moses) protested and had to run for his life. Job, upon witnessing all this, concluded that it would be futile for him to speak out and remained silent. And it was for this silence that he was later condemned.

It’s natural for people who experience pain, even from a minor injury, to cry ‘Ouch!’ Such a reaction is an involuntary reflex. The one who is hurting does not calculate, ‘What’s the point of my crying ‘Ouch” It won’t help anyway.’ His reaction is automatic, beyond his control. If he remains silent, if he does not cry out, we can assume that he did not feel the pain with any degree of intensity. Job remained silent when Jewish blood was shed, and the Pope remained silent when the Jewish people were so viciously attacked by Assad. Obviously, he did not feel any outrage, nor was he pained by these heinous calumnies that were once again flung at us.

When I was a little girl growing up in Hungary, I remember how on Sundays and Christian holidays, our good neighbors would shout odious epithets at us, calling us ‘Christ killers.’ It was this climate that made it possible for Hitler’s henchmen go about their gory task.  No on protested, no one cried out,, and today, 53 years after the Holocaust, after myriad interfaith dialogues and visits to Rome by Jewish leaders, we are back where we started from. Syrian President Bashir Assad called upon ‘all good Christians and Moslems to unite against the Jews – the enemies of G-d – who betrayed and tortured Jesus,’ and the Pope listens to it all and remains silent.

To be sure, this silence does not impact upon us. We have survived silence before. In face of every blood bath – inquisitions expulsions, gas chambers, crematorium – we survived, but this silence is tragic for all those who place their trust in the leader of the Church. He let them down…

As I write this article, it is Parashat Emor, and I have always maintained that the parsha illuminates the events of the day. It is in this parsha that we study about ‘Kiddush Hashem: ‘ bringing honor, glory and sanctification to the Name of G-d. What an awesome concept. G-d invites us puny mortals to sanctify His Holy Name through our words, through our deeds, through proclaiming G-d’s eternal truth. By championing the cause of justice, compassion, and loving kindness, G-d’s Holy Name can be sanctified.’

How differently events could have unfolded had the Pope borrowed a page from our Torah and raised his voice on behalf of truth and justice… He could have said, ‘Mr. President, I, as the Prince of the Church of Rome, cannot sit by silently while you vilify the Jewish people who endowed humanity with the Word of G-d. I cannot be a party to these lies that gave rise to 2000 years of persecution, suffering and martyrdom. I cannot allow this moment to pass. The world is waiting for us to usher in a new dawn for humanity.’ But the Pope remained silent, and an opportunity was lost.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/rebbetzins-viewpointrebbetzin-jungreis/an-opportunity-lost-in-silence/2001/06/13/

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