A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver a lecture over at Common Ground in Deerfield. It’s an interfaith learning center founded in the early 1970s. Some of it earliest supporters were members of our congregation. We set the date for the lecture. But as we approached, we did not have a title or a topic.
The director, Jim Kenney, needed to get an email and poster created to advertise the talk. He asked me what I was prepared to talk about. I didn’t know—hadn’t really thought about it. But he needed a title right that minute. I said, no problem. I’ve got a title that always works: “Judaism: At the Crossroads.”
Three years ago it was the Women of the Wall and the horrific violence shown to them by the Ultra-Orthodox. A year ago it was the War in Gaza. A few years before that, it was the Arab spring and accompanying convulsions in the Middle East. Sometimes I think a quip attributed to Milton Himmelfarb is extraordinarily true—“The entire population of the world’s Jews would be considered a small error in the Chinese census. Yet, great things constantly happen around us.”
I have been reading the Harry Potter books alongside my seven-year-old daughter. By far the most intriguing character is Voldemort, otherwise known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
When I first hear that description, I thought of the ways Jews reference God. When referring to God outside of prayer, many traditional Jews say “Hashem” which means “the name.” It is a way of calling upon God without saying God's name.
God's name is too mysterious and powerful for human beings to say. In other words, God is the one who must not be named.
Yet, following the tragedies unfolding in Europe and refusal of many in our political leadership and culture to confront it, I think a new understanding is necessary. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism–more specifically, the hatred of Jews and others driven by radical terrorists claiming the banner of Islam–has become the global force so many refuse to name.
I just finished writing a book on Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. One of the parts I struggled most with is Pharaoh's violence and God’s hardening of his heart.
Recall the setting: It is Exodus chapter nine, and Moses and Aaron have urged Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Thus far, Pharaoh has refused, and God has responded by inflicting five plagues on Egypt.
The Egyptian people are miserable. They want Pharaoh to just let the people go. Even Pharaoh’s top advisors are urging him to relent and tell Moses the Israelites can leave.
Yet, we then read “But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them.” (Exodus 9:12)
What is the Bible Trying to Tell Us?
It feels like a bad dream. Last week, while hundreds of Jews prayed in two synagogues In Paris, rioters surrounded the buildings and trapped them inside.
It took the arrival of battalions of French police to secure a safe exit. The story triggered my heart and mind. See, while I have never experienced overt antisemitism, I have studied it.
My focus in college was modern European history. One of its defining moments was the so-called “Dreyfus Affair,” in which the highly-decorated Jewish French Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason.
The accusation was accompanied by riots in Paris in which thousands yelled “Death to the Jews.”
This week and next, 40 high school students from Israel and the Palestinian territories are gathering in Chicago for serious dialogue. I will be addressing the group this Friday evening. Here is the gist of my remarks.
As you gather here this evening, your homeland is engulfed in war. Your families live in fear. A rocket or bomb could fall at any time.
Yet here you are—talking with one another, building a community of true diversity. You are addressing, unpacking and learning about the differences that really matter.
You are having the kind of dialogue Martin Buber envisioned when he wrote his classic book I and Thou: conversation driven by a willingness to be changed, to shift points of views, to open up to the truths of another.
Does It Matter?
Can it work? Can we listen to each other? Does what we are doing here matter to what is happening over there? Absolutely.
I remember my first visit to Israel in 1994. The Oslo Accords had just been signed. Hope reigned. My group was greeted warmly in the Arab market in Jerusalem.
The opposite feelings prevail today. We witness bombings, indiscriminate hatred, vitriol. Dozens of my friends who are there now share words of sadness and despair.
Can we find any basis for hope?
Last year I attended the Irish Fest in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The music and ambience make it one of most unforgettable days of the year.
Listening to a concert, I struck up a conversation with someone standing next to me. I told him I was a rabbi, and once we got past the usual incredulity and discussion of why I don’t have a beard, he turned serious.
“I’m Irish,” he said, “And I love Irish music. I’m here celebrating being Irish. But I don’t plan to move to Ireland. I don’t talk about it all the time. Why do Jews care so much about Israel? It’s all I hear—Israel, Israel, Israel.”
As a parent I have to teach my children they do not always get their way. It’s not only important. It’s hard.
Our culture reinforces the idea that with enough money or looks or connections, we can get anything we want. Life experience proves otherwise.
None of us get our way all the time. We have to accept the views of others and learn to live and work with them constructively.
The leaders of the American Jewish community need a reminder of this lesson. A recent incident proves why.
What Happened on Wednesday?
The most charming character in Disney’s hit movie Frozen is the snowman Olaf. He is goofy and wise at the same time. His wisdom is a gift for each of us.
Olaf is a snowman who dreams of summer. For him it is perfect in every way. It is the time , as he sings, when he can tan, play with the followers, and roll around in the sand.
The joke is, of course, is that as a snowman, he can only live in the cold. He is wishing for the one thing thing he can’t have. He is idealizing the one experience he can never experience.
Life is not a Fairy Tale