Bishop Mussinghoff: An Extraordinary Friend of the Jews

Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and I at the reception held at the Rathaus in Aachen following the special mass celebrating the bishop's 75th birthday.
Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and I at the reception held at the Rathaus in Aachen following the special mass celebrating the bishop’s 75th birthday.

What a privilege it was to witness the mass to celebrate the 75th birthday of the Bishop of Aachen, Heinrich Mussinghoff, whom Vickie and I met three years ago in Jerusalem.

As we entered the cathedral, a reporter with a microphone asked if I would like to wish the bishop a happy birthday. In my greeting I stated why I as an American rabbi was eager to honor Bishop Mussinghoff:

He has been an extraordinary friend of the Jews.

Three years ago, a controversy erupted when a proposed law to ban the practice of infant circumcision in Germany gained significant traction. As Chairman of the Conference of German Bishops, Bishop Mussinghoff eloquently protested that the bill impinged on the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims. He was a major reason for its defeat.

Subsequently, Pope Benedict proposed to reintroduce language in the traditional Good Friday ritual calling for the conversion of the Jews. In response, Bishop Mussinghoff took the extraordinary step of publicly questioning the Pope’s decision.

There are not that many Jews in Aachen, so the bishop gained no political capital for his courageous acts. They stem from his firm belief in the legitimacy of the Jewish faith.

Vickie and I will never forget the extraordinary courtesy the bishop showed us. We were his guests at the Bishop’s Academy Conference Center for four days. He arranged special tours for us—of the old city of Aachen and of the Charlemagne Cathedral and its treasures–with two expert guides.

On the night before the mass, which was the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the historic church document that formally absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, the bishop arranged for me to lecture at the academy about my book, which was recently published in German.

For the Thursday afternoon mass, the eighth-century Cathedral overflowed with worshippers. There was a full orchestra and two magnificent and very large choirs. Bishops from all over Germany, and the Cardinal of Cologne joined in the celebration of the mass.

At the reception following the celebration, there was a separate table with kosher food. As I approached it, a determined young nun stopped me and said, that the kosher food was reserved for our Jewish guests.

“That would be us,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, ”Are you Rabbi Fuchs? It seems that you and your wife are the only Jewish guests still here. The Rabbi of Aachen left right after the formal part of the reception.”

There was enough kosher food to feed a small Bar Mitzvah party, and so the guardian nun agreed to my suggestion that the non-Jewish guests be welcome to partake of it in addition to the other food being served.

As we left the reception we picked up a newspaper hot off the press. It’s headline proclaimed (in German), “A Bishop for All People!” I could not agree more.

Ist es jemals erlaubt zu lügen? Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Vayera Genesis 18,1 – 22,24

Der Talmud lehrt (B. Yevamoth 65b), dass wir in einigen wenigen Fällen an der Wahrheit Abstriche machen können, wenn es dem Frieden dient. Zum Beispiel weist Gott Samuel an, König Saul zu erzählen, dass er nach Bethlehem geht, um ein Opfer zu bringen, obwohl er in Wirklichkeit vor hatte, David an Sauls Stelle zum König zu salben (1 Samuel 16:2).

Gott antwortete mit dieser Anweisung auf Samuels verständliche Angst, dass Saul ihn töten würde, wenn er den wahren Grund seiner Reise wüsste.

Wir wissen, dass sich in Ägypten (Exodus 1,15 ff) die hebräischen Hebammen Shifra and Puah vor dem Pharao verstellten, als er fragte, warum sie gegen seinen Befehl hebräische Jungen am Leben lassen. Sie behaupteten, dass die hebräischen Frauen wie die Tiere sind und längst geboren haben, wenn die Hebammen ihnen zur Hilfe kommen.

Der Talmud bemerkt, dass einmal Gott log, um Frieden zu bewahren zwischen einem Ehemann und der Ehefrau.

Als Gott Abraham verkündet, dass seine Frau Sara einen Sohn bekommen werde, lauschte Sara und sagte lachend: “Jetzt wo ich verwelkt bin, soll ich solches Vergnügen haben – mit einem so alten Mann?” (Genesis 18:12)
Da sagte Gott zu Abraham: “Warum hat Sara gelacht und gesagt: ‘Soll ich – so alt wie ich bin – wirklich ein Kind gebären? Ist für Gott irgendetwas unmöglich?” (Genesis 18: 13-14)
Die Rabbinen zeigen auf, das Gott, als er zu Abraham spricht, vorsätzlich die Information, dass Sara seine Fähigkeit ein Kind zu zeugen anzweifelt, zurückhält. Der Talmud (B. Baba Mezia 87a) kommentiert: “Friede ist sehr wertvoll. Sogar der HeiligEine variiert die Wahrheit, um ihn zu wahren.” Unsere Tradition lehrt uns, dass es manchmal, doch nicht oft, höhere Werte gibt als die absolute Wahrheit. Ja, manchmal gibt es höhere Werte, aber sehr selten.

Is It Ever OK to Lie?

(Quick Comment Va-ye-ra Genesis 18:1-22:24)

The Talmud teaches (B. Yevamoth 65b) that on rare occasions one may be less than truthful for the sake of peace. For example, God advised Samuel to tell King Saul that he was going to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice when his real purpose was to anoint David to be King in Saul’s place. (I Samuel 16:2) God’s advice was in response to Samuel’s understandable fear that Saul would kill him if he knew the real purpose of his journey.

We Know that in Egypt Exodus 1:15 ff) the Hebrew Midwives Shifra and Puah dissembled to Pharaoh when he asked why they had, against his orders, allowed Hebrew baby boys to live. They claimed that the Hebrew women are just like animals and already give birth before the midwives can get there to help.

The Talmud notes that once even God lied in order to maintain peace between a husband and wife. When God announced to Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear a son, Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed saying: “Now that I am withered am I to have such pleasure—with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12)

God then said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (Genesis 18: 13-14)

The point the rabbis make is that when speaking to Abraham, God purposely withheld the information that Sarah had maligned his capacity to father a child. The Talmud (B. Baba Mezia 87a) comments: “Peace is a precious thing, for even the Holy One…made a variation for its sake.”

Our tradition teaches that sometimes, though not often, there are higher values than absolute truth. Yes, sometimes there are higher values, but very seldom.

Our Highest Goal

His mother walked into my office shortly before I began my internship as Rabbi at the fledgling 58-family Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland in 1973. “My son was scheduled to have his Bar Mitzvah on May 18 before my husband was transferred and we moved here,” she said with a slight air of desperation. “Can we celebrate it here on that date?”

Since the congregation had no B’nai Mitzvah scheduled, I quickly answered, “Sure.”

“You must understand,” she continued, our son has great difficulty with Hebrew and does not have a lot of self-confidence. I worry that with all the time we lost in our move that he won’t be ready.”

Don’t worry,” I replied with all of the confidence befitting a wannabe rabbi who had never prepared a Bar/t Mitzvah student in his life, “I guarantee that that when the big day comes you will be very proud!”

It took hard work to keep that promise, but at his Bar Mitzvah the young man did beautifully. He effectively taught the congregation the essential lesson of Parashat B’hukotai that if we all followed God’s commandments, we could indeed create a just, caring and compassionate society. Yes, we can create a world where, in the words of the parasha, “ואין מחרוד – None shall make us afraid (Leviticus 26:6)!”

That magical phrase appears eleven times in our TANACH, most famously in the Prophet Micah (4:4) who dreamed of the day when all of us would sit under our vines and our fig trees with none to make us afraid.

To me those words represent the highest possible hope for humanity: a world where no one will have to fear war, physical or sexual assault. We must dream and work for a world where no one will fear that he or she will go to bed hungry, lack adequate clothing or a home to protect them from winter chill and summer heat.

Yes, that is our highest goal: ואין מחריד , a world “with none to make us afraid!”

The Lowest Grade in The Class …A ZERO!

I was absent from Hebrew School the day we got back our final exams, but my friend Rich told me all about it.

“And you should have seen how red the teacher’s face was when he handed back the papers,” Rich said as he ran toward me. “He was foaming at the mouth, and said, ‘And you can tell your friend Mr. Fuchs he got the lowest grade in the class, A ZERO!’ And then he ripped up your paper and threw it in the trash.”

What great sin earned me this public excoriation from my seventh grade Hebrew teacher? On the final exam, I wrote in answer to the question: Who are the three patriarchs? “Abe, Ike and Jake.”

The B part of my punishment was an angry phone call from the teacher to my mother informing her that I need to return during summer vacation to retake the exam. She was mortified, and I can still hear her telling me about it.

I laugh when I think back on that day. Today I would be quite content if our religious school students could identify Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I would not be at all angry if they decided to use nicknames.

While I certainly think the teacher went way over the top, I came to appreciate the message he was trying to send. While we Reform Jews do not take the Torah literally, we do take it seriously. It is not OK to treat it derisively

I do not know if the Abraham of the Torah really walked the desert sands 4000 years ago. I do know that the character of Abraham the Torah presents has had a profound impact on my life.

I marvel at the courage of this Abraham in leaving everything behind to make a Covenant with God in a still ongoing effort to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.

I admire the way Abraham stood up even to God until he was clear that God was not acting unjustly in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.

And yes, I admire Abrahams’s willingness to risk the censure of many modern thinkers because he followed God’s command to Mount Moriah to teach humanity the still unlearned lesson about the abomination of human sacrifice.

No, I do not take Torah literally, but—but I hope my seventh grade teacher would be pleased that I have learned–we should treat it reverently because the lessons it teaches can help us to make this world a better place.

Abraham: More than ‘A Random Lottery Winner”

In chapter 12 of Genesis, when we meet Abram, who later in the portion becomes Abraham –God has tried three times to encourage human beings to create a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. From the time of creation, such a community has been God’s highest goal. But the societies in Eden, after Eden until the flood, and after the flood all have failed.

Even though God is frustrated and disappointed, God does not give up. In a fourth attempt, the Eternal One chooses Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants to be God’s “special agents” in the ongoing quest to make the world a better place.

Early in my career as a rabbi, a Protestant minister said of Abraham. “He was like a random lottery winner. It was just a mysterious act of God’s grace that God chose him.

From a Jewish perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. True, the Bible says nothing about Abram until he is 75, at which point God tells him, “Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I will make a covenant with you, God continues, and I expect you to “be a blessing” so that all the nations of the earth will find blessing through you and your descendants.

For Jewish tradition, the choice of Abraham is not random at all. The sages saw the Torah’s silence about Abraham years earlier as a golden opportunity to illustrate why God very intentionally chose Abraham as a covenantal partner in the quest to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.

Two classic midrashic stories illustrate the rabbinic outlook.

When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born who will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. To protect his son, Abraham’s father, Terach, hides him in a cave.

At the age of three, he wandered out of the cave and being a most precocious child asked what could hardly be considered a typical question for a three-year-old: “Who created the heavens and the earth – and me?” He looked up at the sun and, imagining that it was the creative force, he worshipped it all day. That night when the moon came out, he thought it must be stronger than the sun. So he worshipped the moon all night. When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation. So, according to this story, Abraham – at a very young age – chose God, which helps explain why God chose him (Bet ha-Midrash, chapter 2).

Another story – one of the most famous of all midrashic themes – tells that when Abraham was a boy, Terach was the proprietor a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods. One day, Terach went on a business trip and left Abraham in charge of the store. While he was cleaning up, Abraham accidentally broke one of the idols. Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.

“How did this happen?” asked Terach.

“Oh,” Abraham answered, “the broken idol was misbehaving and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.”

“Fool,” said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything?”

“If so,” Abraham, responded, “why do you worship them?” (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13, retold with variations many times)

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry, and further explains why he was God’s choice as a covenantal partner.

Four thousand years later we who claim to be Abraham’s descendants should still be hard at work – each in our own way – to make a righteous and just society on earth. When the task seems overwhelming, we should remember Rabbi Tarphon, a second-century sage who famously taught: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it!” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

A Powerful Message of Hope in These Very Dark Times

May I invite you to treat yourself to a beautiful message of hope!   This live performance—without the benefit of hi tech studio enhancers—features one of the truly great doo wop voices, Willie Winfield, fronting the Harptones. Winfield and the original Harptones first began performing in 1953.

I post this now because I am so in need of a message of hope.

The violence that rages across Israel is of great concern to all of us who want to see Israel live in peace with her Arab neighbors. Back in 1966—before the Six Day War—my Professor of International Relations at Hamilton College, the late Channing B. Richardson, who had lived and worked in the Middle East, said, “What strikes me most about the situation there is the complete absence of hope I feel for peace ANYTIME in the future.”

Never has the hope for peace—to my mind—seemed more remote than today. But I firmly believe we must hold on to that hope. Indeed it is for that very reason that Israel’s national anthem is התקוה, The Hope.

The Shrine of St. Cecilia was written in response to the devastation wreaked by World War II bombings. Winfield’s lead and (this incarnation of) The Harptones’ great backup harmonies express the message that the future WILL be better someday in a way that gives me goosebumps.

We all find our spirituality in different ways. For me certain doo wop songs with lyrics, harmony and a magnificent lead voice speak to the depths of my soul in a profound way. Perhaps this rendition will awaken hope in you as it does in me even in this time of darkness. I hope so.

“May the One who makes peace in the highest places, cause peace to reign upon us, upon all Israel and all the world!”

Shabbat Shalom!


Shabbat Shalom

It happened in Bad Segeberg …

Kruck Mal Optika, Bad Segeberg
Kuck Mal Optika, Bad Segeberg

One of the sidebars on my glasses broke yesterday, so Vickie and I walked to the Town Square of Bad Segeberg, population 17,500 give or take. In that square within 100 or so yards of one another are four optical shops.
In my best German, after looking up a few words, I explained my problem to the proprietor of the first shop. He looked at my glasses for a while and concluded he could not fix them. Then he got on the phone, talked for a few minutes in rapid fire German and wrote down the name of one of the shops down the square.He said that  they could help.

When we went there, they were very gracious, but after examining my specs, they also said they couldn’t do it. He referred us to a third shop.
We walked in, but by now relating the experience of shop one and two was beyond my German vocabulary. The guy gently says, “Perhaps English.” So I explain the whole thing, and he says I can order the part which will take a few days.
Vickie points out that we have to leave for Aachen on Monday, and is there any way it can be done before then? He asks us to  have a seat and wait so that he can look “in his little box” of odd parts. He then asks if we would like coffee. I say that would be wonderful, and the next thing I hear is the sound of fresh coffee beans being ground. When Vickie does not want coffee, he asks if she would like some water.
“That would be lovely,” she answers.
“Sparkling or still,” asks the proprietor? Vickie chose still.

Five minutes later the man comes back with my glasses repaired. “How much do I owe you,,” I ask taking out my wallet?

“No charge!”
So if you are ever in Bad Segeberg and have the need I strongly recommend “Kuck Mal Optika”

Kennst du Mechizedek? Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Lech Lecha, Genesis 12,1-17,27

Woodcut from the altar of St Petri-Dom in Schleswig, Germany of Melchizedek bringing blessings to Abram, .
Woodcut from the altar of St Petri-Dom in Schleswig, Germany of Melchizedek bringing blessings to Abram, .

An einem heißen Frühlingstag vor 45 Jahren rangen 10 andere Rabbiner-Studenten und ich erschrocken um Luft, nachdem wir die Aufgabe für die Abschlussprüfung als Bachelor des biblischen Hebräisch gelesen hatten. Warum? Unser geliebter Bibelprofessor verlangt von uns Kapitel 14 zu übersetzten, der komplizierte Text im ganzen Buch Genesis.

In diesem Abschnitt führt Abram (jetzt noch nicht Abraham) Krieg, um seinen Neffen Lot zu retten, der in einem Wüstenkrieg gefangen genommen worden war. Nachdem Abrams Sieg berichtet wurde, lesen wir: “Und Melchizedek, König von Salem, brachte Wein und Brot hinaus. Er war ein Priester des El Elyon (des Höchsten Gott) und er segnete ihn und sagte: ‘El Elyon, dem Himmel und Erde gehören, segne Abram. Und gesegnet sei El Elyon, der dir deine Feinde ausgeliefert hat.’” (Genesis 14, 18-20)

Nach dem Kommentar Zohar’s (Kabbalistischer Midrasch) zu Genesis 14 segnete Melchizedek Abram mit den Buchstaben ה , was seinen Namen von Abram zu Abraham änderte und aus ihm einen “Vater der Völker” machte.

Salem ist natürlich das alte Jerusalem und El Elyon war wahrscheinlich der höchste heidnische Gott der Gegend. Aber El Elyon wird zu einem der Namen, den Juden für den einen wahren Gott benutzen. Tatsächlich nennen wir Gott El Elyon in der ersten Danksagung des Amida-Gebetes in unserer Liturgie.

Was steckt für mich drin in dieser Geschichte? Melchizedek ist der Prototyp des Nicht-Juden, der die Werte des Bundes Gerechtigkeit und Rechtschaffenheit (Melchizedek’s Name bedeutet “König der Rechtschaffenheit”) praktiziert, die Abraham repräsentiert. Wir haben sehr viel gemeinsam mit Menschen wie ihm und wir sollten jede Gelegenheit nutzen, uns mit ihnen zu verbinden und mit ihnen zusammenzuarbeiten, um die Welt besser zu machen.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Have You Met Melchizedek? (Quick Comment, Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27)

Woodcut from the altar of St Petri-Dom in Schleswig, Germany of Melchizedek bringing blessings to Abram, .
Scene carved in wood from the altar of St Petri-Dom in Schleswig, Germany of Melchizedek bringing blessings to Abram.

On a hot spring day in Los Angeles 45 years ago, ten other rabbinical students and I gasped with horror when we opened our final exams for our Bachelor of Hebrew Letters degree in Bible. Why? Our beloved Professor of Bible, Samson H. Levey, z’l, was requiring us us to translate chapter 14, the most complex Hebrew passage in Genesis.

In this passage Abram (not yet Abraham) does battle to save his nephew Lot who has been captured in a desert war. After Abram’s victory, we read, “And Melchizedek, King of Salem, brought forth bread and wine. He was a priest of El Elyon (God Most High). And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth. And blessed be El Elyon, who has delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him a tenth of all.’” (Genesis 14:18-20)

According to the Zohar’s (Kabbalistic Midrash) comment on Genesis 14, Mechizedek blessed Abram with the letter ה that changed his name from Abram to Abraham and made him a ”father of nations.”

Of course Salem is ancient Jerusalem, and El Elyon, scholars say, was likely the chief pagan deity of that area. But El Elyon becomes one of the names Jews use for the one true God. In fact we call God, El Elyon, in the first benediction of the Amida prayer in our liturgy.

What’s in this story for me? Melchizedek is the prototype of the non-Jew who practices the Covenantal values of Justice and righteousness (Melchizedek means, “King of righteousness”) that Abraham represents. We have much in common with people like this, and we should seize every opportunity to join hands and hearts with them in efforts to make our world a better place.