A Victim No More!

The Jewish day of mourning on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, called Tisha B’Av, reminds us of the terrible things that have happened to my people. Destruction of our two holy temples. The Inquisition. The Crusades. Pogroms in Eastern Europe. And, of course, the Holocaust. Also, today, as we are witnessing a terrifying rise of antisemitism, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as victims. And that’s why I will not observe Tisha B’Av any more.

The observance of a national Jewish day of mourning is dangerous. And it is wrong.

It reinforces the theme of “Jew as Victim.” And I will never see myself as a victim.  I am part of the victorious Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, who despite everything, have survived for many millennia. We have our own country. We have won nearly 25 percent of all Nobel prizes with less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population. Don’t tell me Israel should be boycotted unless you are prepared to give up your cell phone, Instant messaging, your USB flash drives and your computer’s firewall, all developed in Israel.

Do some people hate Jews? Yes.  Do some people hate Italians, Irish, Germans, African-Americans, Latinx?  Yes. Yes. Yes. Does that keep me from being proud of my people?  As we say in Kentucky, “Not no, but Hell no!”

I’m not Jewish because of the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the Inquisition. I want to stop repeating “שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל-הַגּוֹיִם” at the Seder every year, imploring God to pour out His wrath upon the nations. Let’s be Jewish for the right reasons. I remember a HIAS slogan a few years ago emphasizing that the organization began by helping immigrants because they were Jews but today it helps all immigrants because we are Jews

Having said this, I realize my point of view is unpopular.  Even my son, a rabbi, disagrees, believing that a national day of mourning is valuable for Jews.  But I prefer the way Israel observes Yom Hazikaron, a memorial day that is somber, remembering the people who died fighting for the state.  But then at sundown it immediately shifts into the joyous celebration of Yom H’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day with gala shows, family parties and a military air show over the Mediterranean. These aren’t commercial holidays like they are in America, with special sales. Instead they are meaningful commemorations, and a profound transition from darkness to light. I want my sense of Am Yisrael to focus on the light, on our achievements and our victories, not the victimization of the past.  

When I look in the mirror, I don’t want to see the poor, quaking shlemeil, the long-suffering scapegoat.  I want to see a powerful victor. Arik Sharon or Chaim Topol.  Bold and decisive. Looking forward with a bright eye and confidence that we have been here for thousands of years and we’re not going away. We are powerful and we refuse to be anyone’s victims any more.

Your thoughts?

We Have Met the Virus … and It Is Us.

We have learned a lot over the past several years, but it took a global pandemic to smack us in the face.  It showed us that we have lost something very precious.  Our sense of America.

The coronavirus wasn’t the cause, but it’s the mirror we are staring at in horror, terrified by what we have become.   Donald Trump didn’t cause this great American tragedy, but he was its poster child.

For years, even before Rodney King said, “Can’t we just get along,” it was clear we couldn’t.  We are so polarized that we haven’t had a president who was considered legitimate by the other party in half a century.  Depending on your political affiliation, our presidents were seen as unworthy movie stars, adulterers, intellect-free wayward sons, ineligible by birth and incorrigible.  The national vote-getter was trumped by the electoral college twice in the 18th century. And in the 21st century, 128 years later, it happened two more times, most recently by nearly three million votes. 

And we thought the ‘60s were bad.

I remember how bad it was. Young hated old; old feared for the young.  The popular saying was “We are the people our parents warned us against.” And we’ve done it again.

As a reporter and editor for the AP in the ‘60s, I covered race riots, anti-war demonstrations and some claimed I even started a race riot when I wrote about how the heat of the summer and the heat in the blood was going to erupt. It had to.

Now, we are seeing it again.  This time on steroids. 

The problems aren’t new and the old ones haven’t gone away; but now they’re on videotape, continuously looped on cable TV, beating into our heads the violence and the anger. But here’s the kicker:

Americans Don’t have the ability to fight it anymore.

We’d rather fight among ourselves.

A friend, Carl Bakal, wrote a book more than half a century ago titled ”The Right to Bear Arms” looking at the Second Amendment and the tradition of gun ownership in the United States. That seems quaint today after Las Vegas and Sandy Hook.  We have enshrined that “right” into laws that make it legal to carry assault weapons into saloons, even brandishing them at anti-gun protests.  And did you notice how “demonstrators” today are shouting racist and antisemitic slurs?  And did you spot something else?  How many vocal, visible “demonstrators” in Minneapolis weren’t all the understandably aggrieved African-Americans but many looked like the same white power thugs who marched in protests that the president called “good people on both sides.”

Our leaders can’t even get it together to limit assault weapons after kindergartners were massacred in Connecticut.  CONNECTICUT!

There has long been a dark web undercurrent that White Power advocates might set off a race war by creating an incident blamed on the black community.  Does Minneapolis count? And did you hear about the renewed violence in Louisville where seven people were shot and the mayor said that not a single police weapon was fired?  Or the reporter who said it sounded like an AR-15?

True, there are plenty of answers to the questions, “Why here? Why now?” 

Three months of coronavirus isolation?  One Hundred Thousand Dead and the number climbing every day. The disease has brought with it an economic catastrophe leaving 40 million new unemployment claims and bankruptcy filings by Neiman-Marcus, J.C. Penny, Hertz rental cars and thousands of small businesses. Lord and Taylor may be next.

Could this national mood be exacerbated by the need to wear masks? Or the constant battling over just about everything? With the improving weather we all desperately need to find some normality.

[One hundred years ago, emerging from the shadow of WWI and the 1918 Flu epidemic, Warren G. Harding was elected president on a campaign of “a return to normalcy,” which his opponents chuckled that he was the one who coined the word. Although “normalcy” had appeared previously, it was not the more common “normality,” although today both forms are widely accepted.]

Or could the current fever in the land be attributed to three and a half years of a president who has deliberately set out to divide the nation into those who love him and those who hate him? Is it the cumulative effect of incidents on his watch, his thousands of lies documented by legitimate fact-checkers? His attacks on the institutions Americans have always been so proud of, the free press and the FBI?

The day after his inauguration, millions of women gathered in the largest protest in United States history.  The same month, there was the “Muslim ban,” barring travelers and refugees from certain countries.

Then came:

  1. A slew of Mexican issues, his proposed border wall, and his attack on DACA, the program protecting undocumented Hispanic immigrants brought to the US as children.
  2. The immigrant crackdown that ripped weeping, terrified refugee children from their parents and locked them in cages.
  3. The import tariffs and China trade war.
  4. Brett Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court.
  5. Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords. And now, even the World Health Organization — and this, mid-pandemic.
  6. The on-again, off-again meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
  7. The lingering questions about the influence of Vladimir Putin.

And, finally, impeachment – with the “smoking gun” testimony of his own administration that he demanded that Ukraine announce the investigation of his 2020 opponent Joe Biden. The Mueller investigation found that Trump and his campaign did welcome and encourage Russian foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.  He was saved from removal from office only through the unwavering support of Republicans in The Senate who admitted privately that he was guilty but defended him publicly.  

Yes, we may have reasons for exploding now. But the real danger – and the tragedy – is we are much, much more vulnerable today. In the ‘60s there was still a sense of hope. Despite the anger, the cross-generational conflict, even a war we watched on TV, we believed in America and Americans. But today the mood is despair, disillusionment and depression. Just ask the busy psychologists.

And our crucial will to resist is growing weaker every day. That’s because of everything we see around us.  And within us. 

What Messiah?

No disrespect intended to followers of any religion that has a messiah at its core – whether Christianity or Chabad. Each is entitled to its opinion. But first, let’s get a few facts straight.

Who says there will even be a messiah? Where did the idea come from?

The only explicit biblical mention of a Messiah comes in the Book of Daniel, which scholars believe is the latest book in the canon, written about 165 BCE. So it makes sense to start by asking what was going on at that time.

Antiochus IV, the Greek king of Syria, controlled Judea and threatened to destroy the Jews’ traditional Temple worship in Jerusalem. A fierce rivalry had split the High Priesthood. For local and foreign political reasons, Antiochus imposed complete Hellenization. He plundered the Temple, banned reading the Torah, outlawed circumcision, and brought an “abomination of desolation” (probably a Greek altar) into the Temple. Scholars believe this is the crisis the Book of Daniel is addressing in Chapter 11.

No wonder the Jews cried out for someone to rescue them and restore the Davidic Dynasty in Judea: a new King David, a mashiach, or anointed one, which is what the word “messiah” means. True, some read hints of a messiah in Isaiah and elsewhere among the prophets, but to me this smacks of too easily finding what you are looking for.

Over the next decades, the Romans replaced the Greeks and the need for someone to save them became even greater. The time was ripe. And so messiahs began to appear.

There was Simon of Peraea, a former slave of Herod the Great who rebelled and was killed by the Romans in the 4th year before the Common Era. And Athronges, a shepherd turned rebel leader, a few years later. There was Menachem ben Judah, allegedly son of Judas of Galilee, who led a revolt before being slain by a rival Zealot leader. And there was Jesus of Nazareth.

Of course, no one succeeded as messiah like Jesus of Nazareth. Today a third of the world’s population, nearly 2.2 billion people, call themselves Christians. But the image of Jesus created in the Christian Bible is a far cry from what the Jews and Hebrew Scripture intended. In fact, even early Christianity found the idea of a divine Jesus difficult to understand. Was he God? Then how could he suffer and die? Was he human? How could he overcome death?

In the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era, a priest in Alexandria named Arius taught that God the Father and Jesus, the Son of God, did not eternally exist together, that Jesus is subordinate to God. This controversy, called Arianism, roiled the Christian world, including even members of Rome’s imperial family. But in the end, the Council that produced the Nicene Creed condemned Arianism. And though Arian’s credo limped on for decades, by the end of the 4th century The Trinity had become the official church doctrine.

The Talmud, which was written over the first several centuries of the Common Era, provides several thoughts about the coming of the Messiah, but it is clear these sages all believe he would be human. Tractate Sanhedrin offers a clear, extended discussion of messianic times – when he will come, and so forth. But he is consistently called “Ben David,” the son of David, and there is never a hint that he would be supernatural.

Maimonides, who lived many centuries after the rabbis of the Talmud, speaks about the Messiah in a distinctly radical way. His 13 Principles of Faith, generally considered the closest thing Judaism has to dogma, says “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he tarries, I will continue to wait.” A statement so profound it has entered the liturgy. But what did he mean?

He says explicitly “In the days of the Messiah there will still be rich and poor, strong and weak … The great benefits which will occur in those days include our release from oppression by other kingdoms…a widespread increase of wisdom…and the end of the wars.”

But, he says, “the Messiah will die and his son and his grandson will reign in his stead.” Clearly this points to a human hero – with a human life span.

As a friend once said to me, the Jewish people have not fared well with messianic cults. False messiahs have abounded in our history.

There was Moses of Crete, in the fifth century CE, who persuaded the Jews of Crete to return to Israel by emulating Moses and walking into the sea. Needless to say, the results were disastrous.

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Shabbtai Tzvi,  a 17th century Ottoman Jew drew many followers when he claimed to be the Messiah, but under pressure he converted to Islam. So much for him.

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About 100 years later, Jacob Frank claimed to be the reincarnation of King David and preached a synthesis of Christianity and Judaism. Jews and Christians alike accused him of heresy and his movement gradually petered out.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is messsiah_inpixio.pngAs recently as 2010, Goel Ratzon, a handsome, bespectacled Israeli with shoulder-length white hair and neatly trimmed beard claimed supernatural messianic powers. He and his 32 “wives” and 89 children – all with names that were variants of his own – were living in Tel Aviv when he was arrested for enslavement, rape and sexual abuse. The Israeli government had to provide care for the abused women and children and among other expenses was half a million Israeli shekels (nearly $150,000) to remove tattoos bearing his likeness from the women’s bodies.

And, of course, there is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

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Without question, he was one of the most important Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Born in Russia into a prestigious Chassidic family, he learned Torah and Kabbala, but also studied at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris. When he came to the U.S. in 1941 he followed his father-in-law as leader of the Chabad dynasty. He greatly expanded the influence of this relatively small movement by extraordinary outreach, with “Mitzvah Mobiles” popping up everywhere and Chabad Houses on college campuses and in such far-flung places as Kathmandu in Nepal, Kinshasa in the Congo and the Berkshires in Massachusetts. But what makes him controversial is the claim he never made – at least not publicly: The claim to be The Messiah.

Messianism is at the center of the Lubavitcher philosophy. The kaddish they recite calls for God “to establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Messiah,” a phrase jarring to the ear of Ashkenazi Jews familiar with the standard language of the prayer. Photos of the Rebbe declaring him Melech HaMoshiach, the Messiah King, appear today in New York and Israel, sparking a major controversy among his followers. Many revere R. Schneerson, but still bristle at the thought that he is the Messiah; others defend and even promote the contention just as vehemently. (The Chabad emissaries throughout the world wisely and very tactfully avoid the controversy.)

The “pro-Moshiach” faction seems to disregard Maimonides’ statement that even if a king arises from the House of David and does everything right, even if he is assumed to be the Messiah, unless he succeeds completely, or if he dies, “it is obvious that he is not the Messiah.”

Where do I stand? I’ll go with Maimonides on this one.

But even more to the point, I refuse to share Maimonides’ principle of faith that absolute faith in the coming of the Messiah is essential to be a believing, practicing, Jew.   I think the concept of the messiah was created by people who needed a big brother, not unlike Yehudah Loew’s Golem in 16th century Prague, a supernatural creature created by a human being to fight our battles, and bail us out of our troubles.

What does this say about God? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion.

The people who first spoke of the messiah at a time of extreme subjugation were seeking a leader, a human being anointed like King David, to overcome the brutal Greek and Roman overlords who trashed their religion.

They weren’t seeking a new god. That would be heresy. They wanted a new King David.

Finally, I’m drawn to a comment from Yohanan ben Zakkai, the man who saved Judaism after the Romans destroyed the Temple. He said if you happen to be standing with a sapling in your hand and someone says, “The Messiah has arrived!” keep planting the tree; then you can go welcome the Messiah.