What I Learn from Elie Wiesel about Donald Trump

Donald Trump never really attracted my attention until recent months. But I have paid close attention to Elie Wiesel for almost half a century.

It is 47 years since I first saw and heard Elie Wiesel in 1968. He was then a 40 year-old activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

I had just finished my undergraduate thesis on The Jews of the Soviet Union Since the End of World War II. Wiesel’s book, The Jews of Silence was a primary source of my research.

Fifteen years later in Baltimore, I gave the invocation at an event where I again heard Wiesel speak. I treasure the fact that he complimented me on my presentation, and he said something that evening that I have remembered ever since.

“It says in Pirke Avot (3:1) “Keep in mind three things: from whence you came, to where you are going, and before whom we must eventually render account. “And which of these,” Wiesel asked, “is the most important for us Jews? From whence we came! Every Jew should always know that he or she came from Sinai. And before we came from Sinai we came from slavery and oppression.”

From that day to this he has endeavored to teach that the most important lesson we learn from Sinai is that “We must not remain indifferent to the suffering of others.   The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.”

Even in the face of danger Jews face in Israel and in many places around the world, we must not be indifferent to the suffering of others.

Our Muslim cousins are suffering, and we must do what we can to relieve their pain.

Yes there are radical elements in the Muslim world. We see their terrorism, and we hear their barbaric rhetoric.

But they do not represent vast majority of Muslim in the world who want the same things we want for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren.

They want a world where people live in peace and harmony. They want a world where people have houses that protect them from the heat, the cold the wind and the rain. They want good food for their children and all children to eat.

Yes, they want all of those things, and yet Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President of the United States plays upon the fears and prejudices that we Jews know all too well. He takes the wretched example of a few radicals and makes proclamations that discriminate against, persecute and impugn all Muslims around the world. His method is not new.

  • In the thirties Father Charles Coughlin took to the airwaves with a rabidly anti-Semitic message. Finally the Catholic Church officially silenced him.
  • When I was a young boy Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign ruined the lives of many an innocent person. Finally Congress censured him.
  • Today Donald Trump; is fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred. It is time for people of good will to repudiate Donald Trump.

Let us consign him—like Coughlin and McCarthy—to the page of history reserved for demagogues whose rantings make us recoil.

As Elie Wiesel taught, the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.

In the face of evil–and I believe in the face of the specific evil that Donald Trump represents–the Torah commands all people of good will, “You shall not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:3)

 

 

Mit der Vergangenheit konfrontiert

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Miketz  (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17)

 Ich halte Stefanie Steinbergs “Joseph Brüder verneigen sich vor ihm” für ein Meisterstück.FullSizeRender copy Stolz hatte ich es 25 Jahre lang in meinem Büro hängen. Nun hängt es bei uns zuhause. Stefanie ist meine Schwiegermutter. Und wer die Essays auf meiner Homepage liest, weiß, dass sie mit 94 Jahren immer noch eine aktive Künstlerin ist.

Sie ist außerdem die Hauptperson einer ausgezeichneten Ausstellung, entwickelt und betreut von Pastorin Ursula Sieg, Bad Segeberg, Deutschland. Die Ausstellung befasst sich mit Stefanie’s Leben und ihren Weg von Breslau , wo sie geboren ist, nach San Francisco, wo sie heute lebt.

Im Tora-Abschnitt dieser Woche steigt Joseph aus dem Kerker auf zum zweit mächtigsten Mann in ganz Ägypten. Während einer Hungersnot kommen viele zu Joseph, um Nahrungsmittel zu kaufen. Seine Brüder sind auch darunter. Sie erkennen Joseph nicht, aber er erkennt sie. Er hat auf sie gewartet. Und nun, Jahre nachdem sie ihn in die Grube geworfen und als Sklaven verkauft hatten, verbeugen sie sich vor ihm.

Als Stefanie Steinberg hörte, dass Vickie und ich planten, 2014 für zehn Wochen in Deutschland zu arbeiten, sagte sie: Warum wollt ihr dort hin?

Aber nachdem sie sah, dass Schülerinnen und Schüler ihren Lebensweg studierten, und als sie ihre Voice Messages hörte, die ihre Bewunderung ausdrückte, wurde ihr Herz weich.

Wie Joseph’s Brüder ihm, so haben Deutsche den Juden unaussprechlich Böses angetan.

In der biblischen Geschichte testete Joseph seine Brüder, bis er sicher war, dass ihre Reue echt war.

Ebenso hat Deutschland ernsthaft gezeigt, dass es als Nation den tiefen Wunsch hat um Vergebung zu bitten und Wiedergutmachung zu leisten für den Horror, den sie über unser Volk gebracht haben.

Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ändern, aber wir können eine bessere Zukunft gestalten für unsere Kinder, Enkelkinder und alle kommenden Generationen.

 

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Why We Celebrate Chanukah

Chanukah begins this evening, and the festival carries a vital message for today. 

For all my years as a rabbi I have tried to teach in every venue at my disposal—pulpit, classroom, office, anywhere I can—that the Festival of Chanukah is not really about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.

Oh, it is a wonderful legend, but it is about as central to the real meaning of Chanukah as Santa Claus is the reason Christians celebrate Christmas.

The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence.:

Long ago in Judaea (about 175 BCE), Jews enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity.

The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus IV ruled over Judea. As children we learned Antiochus was evil incarnate. He hated Jews and wanted to stamp out our religion. In reality Antiochus was content to leave the Jews of Judaea alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

The root of the Chanukah story lies in an internal struggle among Jews themselves.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. There were those who were loyal to their religion and to our Covenant with God.

But there was another group of mostly wealthy  Jews who thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

In order to accomplish their goal, these Jews stopped practicing their religion and mocked our sacred traditions. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. So instead of studying Torah, observing the Sabbath, Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

To make a very long and involved story shorter the tension between these two groups of Jews grew to the point that they started fighting with each other.

Only after violence erupted in the streets of Judaea (about 165 BCE) did Antiochus send in his troops. Only after Jews started fighting with other Jews did Antiochus outlaw all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Maccabees fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. And they won the right for Jews to practice our religion!

It was the first time in history that people fought for the cause of religious liberty.

The lesson is an important one for today: Our Judaism is in jeopardy when we neglect it.

When we take our Judaism for granted, when we fail to study and practice it, we endanger its survival.

That is the real lesson of Chanukah.

What about that,”little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days?” Our people first began to tell that story a few hundred years after the actual events of Chanukah took place. It is a lovely legend, but even our youngest children should learn the real reason we celebrate Chanukah.

What Has Become of Us?

What has become of us?

On Sunday, December 6, in her hometown of Albuquerque thousands of adoring fans turned out for a parade honoring Holly Holm.

What was Ms Holm’s feat that earned her such adulation?

In a Mixed Martial Arts championship fight she delivered a devastating knockout kick to the head of previously undefeated champion Ronda Rousey. If the kick were not enough, Ms Holm—as the rules allow—jumped on her prone opponent and landed a haymaker to her face before the referee could pull her off to stop the fight.

56,214 packed the stadium in Melbourne, Australia, where this savagery occurred. Another million watched on Pay Per View TV.

Most watched because they expected Ms Rousey to employ her vaunted weapon, the arm bar. Now I have never watched a fight to know exactly what an armbar is, but I have learned that it allows Ms Rousey to break the opponents arm or pull it from its socket unless the opponent concedes the match. Lovely!

Ms Holm earned her parade because she avoided the armbar until she could deliver the knock out kick.

I assume many if not most of the spectators—who watched the bout or the parade–have children and perhaps grandchildren who intuit the values their loved ones glorify.

They get the message—loud and clear–that respect and adulation are won though violence and hurting others.

What has become of us that we seek entertainment in the spectacle of two human beings each trying to maim the other or render her senseless?

We live in a country where mass murder occurs on a regular basis.

  • Should we be surprised when sporting events, video games, TV shows and movies desensitize our children to the horrific affects of violence?
  • Should we be surprised when we glorify women and men because they have honed the skills that enable them to harm another person better than anyone else?
  • Should we be surprised when each week millions cheer for football, a sport proven to shorten the lives and damage the brains of many who participate in it?
  • Should we be surprised when perpetrators of domestic violence are allowed back on the field to once again become heroes and role models for our children?
  • Should we be surprised that when individuals decide to act out the violence they see all around them, guns are available to anyone with the cash to buy them?

One day people will look back on the violence and mayhem that slurp up our entertainment dollars the way we look back upon the gladiators of ancient Rome today.

To her credit, Holly Holm encouraged the cheering throng in Albuquerque to donate to a local children home that helps kids who have gotten a rough start in life. Very nice!

But does it change the fact that so many kids get rough starts in life because of a culture that glorifies a sport whose raison d’etre is to see another human being injured, maimed or quite possibly killed?

What has become of us?

 

 

Confronting Their Past

FullSizeRender copy(Above,  Stefanie Steinberg’s, Joseph’s Brothers Bowing Down Before Him)

Quick Comment Parashat Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

 I consider Stefanie Steinberg’s “Joseph Brothers Bowing Before Him” a masterpiece. I hung it with pride in my office for 25 years. Now it hangs in our home.

Stefanie is my mother-in-law, and those who follow my web page essays know that at 94 she is still an active artist.

She is also the subject of a magnificent exhibition conceived and curated by Pastor Ursula Sieg of Bad Segeberg, Germany. The exhibit is about Stefanie’s life and travels from Breslau where she was born to San Francisco where she lives today.

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph rises from the dungeon to become second in command of all Egypt. During a famine many come to Joseph to buy food. His brothers are among them.

They do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. He has been waiting for them. And now years after they threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave, they bow before him

When Stefanie Steinberg heard that Vickie and I planned to work in Germany for ten weeks in 2014 she said, “Why do you want to go there?

But after she saw that students were studying her life and her journeys, and after she heard their voice messages expressing their appreciation to her, she began to soften.

Like Joseph’s brothers did to him–Germany once did unspeakable evil to the Jews.

In the biblical story Joseph tested his brothers until he knew their repentance was sincere.

Similarly Germany has sincerely shown its desire as a nation to ask forgiveness and make restitution for the horrors they inflicted on our people.

We cannot undo the past, but we can shape a better future for our children, grandchildren and all the generations to come.

 

Confronting Their Past

FullSizeRender copy

(Above) Stefanie Steinberg’s, Joseph’s Brothers Bowing Before Him

 

 Quick Comment Parashat Miketz, Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

 I consider Stefanie Steinberg’s “Joseph Brothers Bowing Before Him” a masterpiece. I hung it with pride in my office for 25 years. Now it hangs in our home.

Stefanie is my mother-in-law, and those who follow my web page essays know that at 94 she is still an active artist.

She is also the subject of a magnificent exhibition conceived and curated by Pastor Ursula Sieg of Bad Segeberg, Germany. The exhibit is about Stefanie’s life and travels from Breslau where she was born to San Francisco where she lives today.

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph rises from the dungeon to become second in command of all Egypt. During a famine many come to Joseph to buy food. His brothers are among them.

The do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. He has been waiting for them. And now years after they threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave, they bow before him

When Stefanie Steinberg heard that Vickie and I planned to work in Germany for ten weeks in 2014 she said, “Why do you want to go there?

But after she saw that students were studying her life and her journeys, and after she heard their voice messages expressing their appreciation to her, she began to soften.

Like Joseph’s brothers did to him–Germany once did unspeakable evil to the Jews.

In the biblical story Joseph tested his brothers until he knew their repentance was sincere.

Similarly Germany has sincerely shown its desire as a nation to ask forgiveness and make restitution for the horrors they inflicted on our people.

We cannot undo the past, but resolve we can shape a better future for our children, grandchildren and all the generations to come.

 

Jacob and Joseph: Parallel Stories with an Important Message for All of Us.

The stories of Jacob and Joseph, which comprise the last half of the Book of Genesis, parallel each other in many important ways.

Both boys did nasty things to their brother (s) when they were young. Both had to leave home and had life changing experiences in a foreign land, Jacob in Haran and Joseph in Egypt.

Both Jacob and Joseph paid for their actions. Just as they mistreated their siblings, so others mistreated them.

Both Jacob and Joseph learned from their experiences and succeeded in overcoming the hardships they endured.

That is what makes them such important role models for us.

The great strength of the Hebrew Bible is that all of its heroes—and I consider both Jacob and Joseph to be heroes—are fallible human beings with very human failings. Because of that we can identify them and find inspiration for our lives in their stories.

If people who do the awful things that Jacob and Joseph both did to their brothers can learn from the hardships they endure and grow into productive adults who do important things to uphold God’s Covenant with us, so can we.

At the end of Genesis both stories come together. The conflicts in Genesis resolve themselves and the book ends, as it were, with everyone living “happily ever after.”

But the happy ending of Genesis is only a temporary. As Exodus begins our people find themselves enslaved and persecuted.

This paradigm illustrated by the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus has persisted through all Jewish history. We have lived in country after country where we were welcome and successful in society. Then the economy changed, and we became objects of suspicion and blame, persecution and expulsion or worse.

Jews have lived in North America for well over 200 years in comfort and relative security. But history demands that we ask: Will this tranquility endure?

My answer is I hope so. I believe that it will, but history’s pattern makes clear that we cannot allow ourselves to take-for-granted that our comfort in this land will be everlasting.

Because he was concerned for the long-term future of our people, Jacob needed God’s assurance before leaving the Promised Land for Egypt. Jacob’s concern is one of the key reasons he made Joseph swear to bury him in Israel. And yes, that is one of the key reasons that the survival and security of Israel is so important to Jews today.

I pray and trust it will never happen. BUT If—God forbid—our comfort level in this “land of the free and home of the brave” dissolves, may there always be a proud independent Jewish State of Israel to welcome us at any time we should need her.

 

(I hope you find the outline below of the parallels between the stories of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis instructive.)

 

I.   Jacob: Three Torah Portions

A. As a Youth

1.    Punk Kid

2.    Conflict with Brothers

3.    Sent Away

 

B.  Adventures Far Away

1.   Tricked and Deceived

2.   Succeeds despite Obstacles

 

C. Reconciles with Brother

 

 

II.    Joseph: Four Torah Portions

A. As a Youth

1.   Punk Kid

2.   Conflict with Brothers

3.   Sent Away

 

B.  Adventures Far Away

1.   Tricked and Deceived

2.   Succeeds Despite Obstacles

 

C.   Reconciles with Brothers

 

 

 

                 D. Jacob’s Life in Egypt

1.   Tying Both Stories Together

2.   “Happily Ever After”

3.   Stage Set for Slavery in Egypt

 

 


 

Discussing Psalms with Christian and Muslim Students at The University of Hamburg

With students in Psalms lecture at University of Hamburg, November 2015

IMG_2053.jpgOne of my most gratifying opportunities during our recent trip to Germany was the invitation of Professor Gordon Mitchel to lecture on Psalms to his class of Christian and Muslim students studying to be religious educators at the University of Hamburg.

Psalms are the Jewish people’s first prayer book. In it are prayers for every occasion, and they figure prominently in Jewish liturgy to this day.

It was a blessing for me to study Psalms with both Professor Arnold J. Band at Hebrew Union College in Los Angels and Professor Walter Harrelson, of blessed memory, at Vanderbilt Divinity School. In addition, I study Psalms almost every day.

I began my talk by singing the Hebrew words of Psalm 133. ”Behold how good it is for all of us (as brothers and sister) to be together in unity!” Then I slowly pronounced the words, and we all sang it together.

After we sang, I credited the Psalms for enabling me to stand before them that day as a Jew.

Why? By all logic our people should have disappeared when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

Before that time our primary form of religious expression was animal sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. In those days a hereditary priestly class controlled not only Jewish religious life, but political and economic life as well.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple animal sacrifice and the power of the priesthood also came to an end. Logically, at that point our people should have exited the pages of history like Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and other ancient peoples.

But we did not because the Pharisees and their heirs, the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash, managed to “re-form” (and I used that word purposely) Jewish life based on (as Rabbi Shimon Ha-Tzaddik expressed it in Pirke Avot 1:2) “the study of Torah, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion.”

With the destruction of The Temple, the already venerable Psalms moved from the periphery to the center of our people’s religious life.

For the remainder of my talk I focused on four main points that Psalms express beautifully and effectively:

  1. Our responsibility as creatures created in the Divine Image to use our talents to create a society marked by justice and righteousness on: (Psalms 1, 8 and 15)
  2. The overriding emphasis on using our amazing power to communicate for positive and not negative purposes (Psalms, 19, 34, 51,141)
  3. The need to cherish our time on earth and use it well, for we never know when it will end (Psalm 90)
  4. The ability of the Psalms to offer comfort in times of difficulty (Psalm 23)

It was a great thrill for me as Jew to share these universal ideas, to which all of the students could relate, from a particularly Jewish perspective. I appreciate the expressions of gratitude students shared with me.

At the end of the session, Professor Mitchell asked if we might have another round of Psalm 133. It is the only time in my memory that anyone has asked me to sing a second time.

 

 

Der Grube entstiegen

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Va-yeshev, Genesis 37,1- 40,23

Josephs Brüder hassten ihn und bei passender Gelegenheit “warfen sie ihn in eine Grube … ohne Wasser.” (Genesis 37:24) Im Kommentar dazu bemerkt Rashi (1040-1104): “In der Gruber war kein Wasser, aber Schlangen und Skorpione.”

Die Kommentatoren der Bibel streiten, ob Josephs Brüder ihn wieder rauszogen und einer vorbeikommenden Karawane verkauften, oder ob eine durchziehende Karawane ihn rausholte und einer anderen verkaufte. Wie auch immer, Joseph ging einer unsicheren Zukunft entgegen.

Ich glaube zu verstehen, wie Joseph sich fühlte.

Am 29. November 2012 wusste ich nicht, ob ich den nächsten Tag erleben würde, und wenn ja, wie die Zukunft aussieht. Im Cleveland Klinikum öffneten Dr. Lars Svensson und sein Team meinen Brustkorb, um meine künstliche Aorta zu ersetzen, die nicht mehr richtig funktionierte. Gleichzeitig behoben sie ein lebensgefährliches Aneurysma der aufsteigenden Aorta.

Zu dieser Zeit hing eine dicke Wolke über meiner physischen und beruflichen Zukunft.

Das Bild des der Grube entkommenden und eine sinnvolle und erfolgreiche Zukunft erobernden Joseph spricht in diese Situation. Obwohl er als Sklave verkauft wurde, arbeitete er hart, nutzte sich bietende Gelegenheiten und triumphierte über die Schwierigkeiten, mit denen ihn das Leben konfrontierte.

Wie Joseph bin ich der Grube entstiegen und zu physischer Stärke und beruflichem Erfolg gekommen. Wie Joseph brauchte auch ich Menschen, die mich aus der Grube zogen.

Ich bewahre und erweise Dank denen – aller Lebensabschnitten und Stationen -, die mir Ermutigungen und Zeichen der Freundschaft zukommen ließen. Ich sitze nicht wie Joseph an der Seite Pharaos, aber ich fühle mich sehr gesegnet. Ich hab die Grube hinter mir gelassen und schaue erwartungsvoll auf alles, was die Zukunft bringen mag.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg