On faith, belief and God


I love this quip from a favorite comedian of mine: “I have a lot of beliefs.  And I don’t live by any of them!” 

It’s different to have beliefs than to live by them.  And that difference speaks to a little problem we have.  Here it is: I am not sure we all believe in the God we say we believe in. Or that we pray to.  Or that we call upon and complain to when things get rough. Or the God we thank when things go well.  I’m not sure we all believe that. 

You’re all here.  The room is swelled.  You come to shul to be touched.  To grow.  To be in a spiritual place.  And what do we throw at you?  The Mahzor.  It is a beautiful and evocative text. But it is also filled with some of the loftiest images of God we have.  God as King.  God as Father.  God as Judge.  God as Shepherd who literally writes us in for life, or death. 

Is that the best Judaism has for you? Is that the extent of the God that can operate in your lives?

If you wonder a bit when you read those images, you’re in good company.

I’ll tell you a story from the Chasidic tradition.  A group of Chasidim know that their rabbi likes to daven in private.  Something intimate, something exquisite. They know they should let him be. But they can’t contain their curiosity.  They need to hear this prayer!  So they sneak in to a room just outside his chamber.  He’s just finishing up his morning prayers. He has gotten to a section called the Ikkarim, the 13 principles of faith that Maimonides wrote.  They each start with the words, Ani Ma’amin. I believe.  They are customarily said at the end of morning services.  The Chasidim are listening through the wall.  They overhear him crying, singing, daveningAni Ma’amin.  Ani ma’amin.  I believe!  I believe!  But they couldn’t hear the rest of the words.  So they lean in further.  Because it is so important to hear every word of their rebbe. “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleymah…I believe with perfect faith.  Hal’vai Hal’vai Hal’vai.”  Do you know what Hal’vai means?  It is one of those great untranslatable Hebrew words.  Something like, “Oh would it be true.”  “I lashed out in a moment of anger.  Halvai I can hold back the next time my child pushes my buttons.  Hal’vai.”  Hal’vai is a prayer in and of itself.  Put that back into the story.  You have this Chasidic rebbe.  He is considered a paragon of perfect faith by his Chasidim.  They want to hear every word, every syllable of what he believes.  And yet everything he believes, he believes Hal’vai!  Would that he believed with a perfect faith that god gave the Torah at Sinai.  Hal’vaiAni ma’amin be’eumah shleymah…I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiah… Hal’vai

I was unpacking this story with a dear friend of mine, Rabbi David Ingber.  We draw out two lessons from it, amongst many.

The first lesson: Even great men, and women, people you’d consider as religious role models…if we’re honest and true, there is always a recognition that belief and faith are aspirations.  I believe is a “yearning” statement. It’s a “yearning for.” It’s not the pronunciation of a perfect credo.  This rebbe—whatever he believed, he wanted to believe a little more.  In this model, you need to think of faith not as a thing that you have.  “Do I have faith?  Yes I have faith.”  No!  Faith is something you do, that you work on. Jews don’t have faith. Jews should be “faithing,” at all times.  We may ascribe to others that they have it all figured out. We may think they pray because they have faith. When in reality, they may not. They pray in order to try to achieve faith and most of the time they, and we, fail. The liturgy invites us, but believing the words is not a prerequisite to saying them. Often we add a Hal’vai.

The second thing that comes out of the story is that it is both hopeful and sad.  Why is it sad?  Why did the rebbe have to pray this prayer in private?  Why did he have to hide his doubts, instead of modeling them, actively, openly, bravely to his Chasidim?  And the hopeful part?  That is that his struggle for faith is faith.  His hoping to believe is a form of belief.  And it is exceedingly Jewish. Having doubts is a good thing in our tradition.  We shouldn’t have to keep them in the closet.  Our theology could be and should be out in the open.  And it should be all grown up.

That’s what I want to talk about today.  I want to open up for you a grownup theology.  What does that mean?  I’ll give you a slogan from someone I studied with this summer at the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Dani Segal.  He is the rabbi in the town of Alon in Israel.  Whenever he meets with new couples on the way to preparing them for the chuppah, he says that in their new home above their beds, there shouldn’t be a ketubah. It shouldn’t be a picture of them from their engagement. There should be a sign that works a little bit better when stated in Hebrew, a sign that says “Zehirut, Kan Bonim.”  “Careful. Work in progress.”

Grownup theology is a theology under construction. Whether you believe with a full heart in the God of the Mahzor, or you question it.  A grownup theology is a permission to be in process.  I am going to share with you some of the theologies that speak to me, that have redeemed me from pure doubt and a sense of meaninglessness.  Perhaps one or more of them will resonate with you.  But as your rabbi and as your friend, the takeaway is not the particulars of what you believe.  There are any number of images and theories of God that can work, for you, for me.  What I care about is that you are in process, and that what you believe leads you to a Godly life.  That’s the most important thing.

I want to share with you another story about a boy who comes to a rabbi.  He is forlorn and embarrassed.  He goes to the rabbi’s office and confesses,  “I don’t believe in God.”  He expects he will be corrected or reprimanded. Or even shunned and publicly embarrassed. But he can’t lie to his rabbi.  “I don’t believe in God.”  The Rabbi says, “…tell me about this God.”  And the boy says, “…which God?  I told you…I don’t believe in God.”  The Rabbi says, “—Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.”   The boy goes on to describe the God on the throne, the God who punishes and rewards every act.  The God of third-grade religious school.  The Rabbi says, “—you know what?  I don’t believe in that God either.  Now we can talk.”

In the story, the Rabbi echoes this little kid’s apostasy.  Or supposed apostasy. And then learning can begin.  So I share with you some versions of my grownup theology, which remains a work in progress. I share it with you not with certainty, because I don’t have it.  But with earnestness, and with options, and a sense that God can be reclaimed and can matter.  Not just in a foxhole, when you’re in crisis. Not just in a throw-away English phrase when you “thank God” after the last out of a baseball game. But as you construct and try to live through a Jewish life that matters.

These theologies, that are from some of the brightest Jewish minds of our times, are amalgamations of centuries of thought and development of the idea of the Jewish God. 

We’ll start by speaking of a man named Rabbi Art Green, who is a Kabbalist, philosopher, and a theologian.  He directs the non-denominational rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College.  He is a wonderful, ideological thinker for all of us to get to know.  Here is his theology, Rabbi Green’s sense of God, which he hears not as a rejection of traditional Jewish thinking, but rather he hears this idea screaming out from our sacred texts.  Believing in God means believing in a world where the other obligates me.  The fact that you live, and that you are also from God, and of God— that fact puts a claim on me. I cannot ignore you.  Or if I do, I am also ignoring God.  Part of it based on Chasidic notions that emerge from the Talmud and Kabbala. Here is Arthur Green in his own words.  As you hear them, ask yourself, “Can I believe this? And if I did, what would it mean in how I lived my life? My Jewish life?” 

“Listen to one of the great Jewish sages, the Chasidic master Sefat Emet of Gerer, who let this secret truth out of the bag in a letter he wrote to his children and grandchildren:  It is entirely clear to me that the meaning of the Shema, that God is One, is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!).  But rather there is a deeper truth.  There is no other being than God.  Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God himself.”

Does that sound too modern, too 21st century, too foofy, too liberal?  Too universal?  Not specific enough?  This is the Chasidic Rebbe of Ger, giving these words as an inheritance to his children and grandchildren!

Back to Rabbi Green.  He re-reads the Shema, that prayer we are so sure we know.  Hear O Israel Lord is God Lord is one?  No.  That’s not what it means, or at least it’s not the only thing that it means.  Rather, it means this: Listen, Yisrael (from the Hebrew meaning to struggle), all you who struggle, who wrestle with life’s meaning.  Being is our God.  Being is all unified, it’s all one. 

To Rabbi Green, and the Gerer Rebbe, God means that all is one.  God means your understanding that the person sitting next to you, in that nice suit, or the ones across town with different colored faces, and the ones who are hungry and the ones that are lonely, and who are fleeing Syria, are extensions of us, because we are all God.  To Green, that knowledge, that truth, that awareness is God and Godliness.  And acting from that awareness is living with God.  God is obliterating the inconvenient differences between us and them.  And worshipping the Jewish God is doing all of that, in a tallis, holding a siddur, blessing your children and eating flatbread in April.  Can you believe that?  Can you live that?

Here is another grownup theology. It comes from Los Angeles, from Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l of Valley Beth Shalom, a titan of Judaism who died this past year.  Before I share his ideas, a bit of context. As a congregational rabbi, you deal with suffering all the time because you deal with the congregation’s suffering.  You have to stop and consider what you actually believe in, before you rush in.  Because evil and pain and suffering will ruin most theologies, and they ruin many of the prayers we say today.  Imagine a mother or a father who, God-forbid, lost a child.  They come to the rabbi and say, “I can’t come to shul.  I can’t be there for yontef.”  Why?  “Because I can’t sit through one more unetaneh tokef.  Who will live?  Who will die?  Was my child not inscribed last year?  Why not?”  What do I say?  Come to shul anyway?  It will feel good, despite the words?  Reinterpret the words?  There has to be more to offer.  Rabbi Schulweis felt this deeply and intimately. He was born in 1925 and came of age during the Shoah.  He could not live in a world in which God allows children to die. He rejected the idea of a personal God, because it left him, and his congregation, too vulnerable to the question of why all this evil exists, and happens to good people. So he came up with something different. Something possibly radical to our ears, but perhaps not so radical within the kaleidoscope of Jewish God-concepts.

I’ll illustrate with a story.  When Rabbi Schulweis died, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the current senior rabbi at VBS, went into the Day School to talk to kids about his death.  And about his life.  And he did it in a Schulweisian way.  So he asks the kids, “What is a noun?”  They responded aptly: It is a person, a place or a thing.  “Most of us think of God as a noun,” he continued.  “A somebody.  In a someplace. There to look out for us, and take care of us.”  And they all nodded their heads.  Then he asked, “What is a verb?”  Something you do!  And then he pulled a Schulweis turn.  “Suppose the word God is not a noun. But a verb.  What if God is stuff that we do?  What if God is the stuff that we do that is really important?  If that were true, what stuff would you have to be doing to be doing God?”  Hands shot up as if they were theology students.  “Feeding the hungry!  Respecting one’s parents!  Praying!”  Why? “Because it makes people feel better.  And it makes life meaningful.  And it connects you with your people and community.”  Exactly.  To Rabbi Schulweis, that was God.  The beauty is that this approach is universal enough to encompass the wide variety of Jews, people, and believers, but also specific enough to require mitzvah, and doing God as Jews. Not because God, the being, commands it per se. But because mitzvot is how Jews God, as a verb.

Rabbi Schulweis also showed that this conception of a God also has the greatest stickiness and the greatest chance of gaining adherents.  Rabbi Feinstein told me that once Rabbi Schulweis was interviewed by Krista Tippett for the “On Being” program.  He described a class where he wrote two columns on the blackboard.  On column A, a list like this: God is merciful. God is just. God feeds the hungry. God cares for the sick.  And he asked for a show of hands, “Who believes this list?”  Very few hands went up. 

Then he pointed to Column B, which had phrases like this: “Extending mercy is Godly.” Yes! “Doing justice is Godly.” Yes! “Feeding the hungry is Godly.”  “Curing the sick is Godly.” Hands shot up!  Rabbi Schulweis did not invent this.  Maimonides, the Rambam from the 12th Century, popularized it.  Whatever we try to say about God is not true, because it limits that which should be limitless.  But what we do in order to be, to live, Godly?  That list is endless.  And people really believe it!

Can you believe in this God?  The God of the gentle touch of friends who came to comfort a mourner?  Can you worship a God of a loving husband who touches his wife when she is in pain?  Whether or not you believe it…can you do it?

Here is the third theology. And, remember, this is three of hundreds, thousands of workable adult theologies. This one is for me the most wondrous.  It comes from Micha Goodman, who is one of the leading writers, thinkers, and builders of Jewish life today in Israel.  I have had the great blessing of learning with at the Hartman Institute.  This theology has two parts.  The first is a paradox.  The second is a paradigm.

First, the paradox.  And I promise to go into this more deeply in a class I will be teaching this fall on faith, belief and God.  Here it is.  If you really believe in God, religion makes no sense.  And if you really believe in religion, then God makes no sense.  Or, at least, God is a very small thing.  Confused?  Think about it.   If God were real and great, and transcendent, other, beyond, Creator of the Universe, and a commander of humanity—would that God care whether I shake my lulav forward first rather than back?  The greater your conception of God is, the sillier the trappings of religion look.  And the reverse is true.  If you really believed in religion, in the specifics of religious practice as themselves having celestial import…if God cares about all that, how great could God be?  In that construct, haven’t we really replaced God with ritual? Are we not worshipping ultimately small things, rather than a great God?

The more I think about this paradox, the more true it is for me. But it is a confounding truth. Because what do you do with it once you enter into it?

Here is the paradigm.  Micha teaches it through the prophet Jeremiah, who taught that the question of religion is not God’s presence, but rather the people’s presence.  God is not shokhen, dwelling in the mishkan, because we did something.  God is mashkin, making us dwell, because of what we aspire to be.  Religion is not that you will appease God because you prayed.  Religion is that you might change yourself if you pray.  Religion is not that God will be beckoned.  You can’t beckon God.  With a sacrifice?  Or a prayer?  But you can summon yourself. 

Here is Micha’s theology.  When religion, and belief or worship in God does not cultivate spirituality, but rather shuts it down, you’re worshipping the wrong God.  When religion closes your heart rather than opens it, it is the wrong God.  For Micha, salvation does not come from above.  It comes from below.  Don’t listen to the demagogues saying that God is here, therefore you are protected.  What guarantees our protection is not the quality of our rituals, but of our sense of what is just.  Justice replaces rituals as having ultimate import.  Through rituals, Jewish rituals, you may connect with God and Judaism.  I do it too.  But it is not your bond with God that will guard you.  God is not going to come and be present because you prayed. But you might be present!  And you might be a bit more just.  And more alert to the world around you. 

Our childhood theology (which I learned also) is that God is powerful.  And so our relationship with a powerful God will save us.  Serve God and be saved.  Micha says “no.”  It is your relationship with the powerless, not the powerful, that guards you. The orphan. The widow. The stranger.  The lonely. 

You want a theology? Live your life in such a way that everyone who comes into contact with you is a bit less lonely because you were present.  That’s God. Don’t think up.  Think down. Think across.  Think differently. And act on it.

Hopefully some of these ideas normalized the doubts you may be harboring about what to do with God in religion.  Maybe it opened up some pathways, both for belief and action.  I want very much for these ideas to continue throughout the year.  And I want to share with you where I stand, now, as I synthesize these and other theologies. 

To accomplish both goals, consider this.  I am going to share with you now my theology. In about a hundred words. It is what I believe, or reckon with, today.  But it is fluid, and if I wrote this in a few months, it would be different.  In fact, this is an evolved version of something I wrote this past year in response to a prompt from a colleague. It is a current snapshot of my God-struggling, of my attempt to bridge Jewishness and grand religion that matters with a God who is not made small in the process.  After the holidays, I am going to open up a digital portal for all of you to share your theologies. I’m going to ask you what you believe, in one hundred words.  It will be a living portal, on which we can read one another’s beliefs, and perhaps even comment on them, and learn from the discourse.  You may share that you resonate with one or more of the theologies I shared today.  Or you may be fulfilled and enriched by some of the theologies I challenged today, and that is fine too.  If you come to shul to appease God, and to summon, God bless you.  That is Jewish, too.  And to quote Rabbi Donniel Hartman, sometimes we have to believe in the thing that gets us through the day. 

I will teach a three-part series on believing, starting in November.  And I hope that for those of you here today, and who participate in some way moving forward, we can put our heads and minds together to revisit God, to recapture God, to do God even if we struggle with what we believe in about God.  To be comfortable identifying the God we don’t believe in, to admit it, and to orient ourselves, with purpose and dignity, towards a life of God we do believe we are called to live.

Here is my theology in one hundred words.  I believe in a God.  In God.  More than I believe that God commands, I believe that God has a commanding voice.  It is heard through our texts, our nation's narrative, and through all of humanity's shared consciousness.  The voice commands us universally, to care for earth and her inhabitants.  All of them.  And the voice commands us particularly, to care for Torah and build a Jewish life worthy of existence.  There are rewards for living aspiring to Godliness.  And there are deficits to eschewing such a life. They come not from the heavens, or from earthly courts, but rather from an internal calibration.  From the gap between what one experienced and accomplished in life, and what one could have.  Living with mitzvot, attuned to Godliness, is not slavishness.  It is loving devotion.  We fail at it almost as much as we succeed.  We stay committed because the bond is that dear.  I believe in God.  And I believe that God was at Sinai. But more importantly, I know that we were at Sinai.  And we listened. 

As those one hundred words sit with you, and you think about your own vision, remember, I am still in process, as are you.  If you entered my mind as I prayed, you’d see a swirling storm constantly shifting with pristine images that seem to work and make sense, but only for a minute.  They are fleeting.  If you came to me in the middle of my prayers, whatever you think you saw, the little secret is that inside I am whispering, or even shouting, Hal’vai. If it could only be so.  Aspiring.  We could be Hal’vai Jews together.  Hal’vai that we were Hal’vai Jews together.    Because above us all hovers a slogan.  Zehirut, Kan Bonim.  It is a reminder to myself and to all of you.  Careful.  Belief is a work in progress.

An enduring miracle


This coming Shabbat, together with Jewish communities around the world, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah. Most of us are quite familiar with the story of Chanukah and the miracle that our tradition recalls.

We learned as children that when the Maccabees rededicated our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they found enough oil to light the menorah for only a single day. God’s miracle, we learned, was that the oil that should have lasted but one day lasted, rather, for eight days.

The rabbinic sages, explaining the ritual lighting of Chanukah, recounted in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat the miracle noted above. We might wonder whether this miracle actually occurred. And, if it did not occur, we might question whether we should continue to observe the ritual lighting associated with this nonevent.

In order to understand the original and continued significance of the lighting of Chanukah’s flames, we might explore the manner in which we light the chanukiyah — Chanukah’s eight-branched menorah. We can thereby gain a deeper and enduring appreciation of the lighting, one that chronicles a miracle we live today as much as it commemorates a miracle of long ago.

The Talmud instructs us to observe Chanukah’s ritual lighting in accordance with the sage Hillel’s practice. We are to kindle one additional flame for each successive day of the holiday. On the first day, we kindle one flame; on the second, two flames; etc. According to the sage Shammai’s dissenting opinion, we ought eliminate one flame for each successive day of the holiday; on the first day, eight flames; on the second day, seven flames; etc.

At first glance, Shammai’s approach seems compelling: In recounting the miracle of the single jar of oil that lasted eight days, we should acknowledge that, despite our rational conclusion to the contrary, there was in actuality enough oil on the first day of Chanukah to last eight days, on the second day to last seven, and so on. In other words, Shammai suggested that the proper way to recount the miracle is to recall what once occurred from the perspective of one who knows how the story ends.

Still, the Talmud rules in accordance with Hillel. I believe Hillel’s view prevailed because it reflected a belief that the ritual lighting of Chanukah is more than commemorative; it exists very much in the present tense, experientially. Standing outside the miracle, remembering it historically as Shammai did, the focus is simply on how much oil remained each day. However, when we use the ritual to relive the miracle in our present, when we experience each day of it anew, we are not certain that our oil will last yet another moment. We cannot be sure that the lights we revisit from our ancient Jewish past, or even those we strive to preserve and nourish today, will endure. Will the Jewish flame of our era burn forth unto our children and our children’s children? Are we any less at risk of losing our light than the menorah in the Temple was so very long ago? Might it have been the case for the rabbis long ago that the “miracle” of Chanukah was a metaphor for our people’s unlikely but persistent survival and flourishing, against all odds? Is it possible that the miracle that we celebrate in our own era, when kindling our own flames of Chanukah, is the ever-constant miracle of our presence in this world, altogether, as Jews?

The flames of Chanukah, as Hillel had us kindle them by adding one more flame each day, express our enduring faith that our flame of today will grow ever stronger, in our own generation and beyond. The flames we kindle on Chanukah represent our commitment to the work we must do to enhance and clarify the light of our people and the beauty and depth of Jewish meaning and purpose. Ultimately, from within the annual and ongoing miracle of Chanukah, we might even come to recognize that we, ourselves, are the flames; we are the enduring miracle of Chanukah, if we make it so.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit http://www.nertamid.com.

Yes, I can


Now that the election season is over, I want to share a personal revelation that I think can help bring Obama voters and McCain voters closer together. But first, a
little background.

I’ve always loved a good conversation, especially with people whose views are different from mine. But this year, I have been vacillating between McCain and Obama, and without taking a clear stand, I found it hard to have any decent debates. I haven’t met too many other vacillators.

I have, however, met plenty of hysterical partisans.

My McCain buddies have sent me countless e-mails warning me that an Obama victory might jeopardize the survival of Israel and endanger America, and my Obama buddies have been certain that the future of the Western world hangs on their man’s victory.

If I tried to mention at a McCain table how an Obama victory would re-brand America globally, or how his ability to look at different sides of an issue might be a good thing for the country, or how there are advisers around him like Dennis Ross who could hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, I would invariably get an alarmed response demonizing the man. Conversation over.

If I expressed concern at an Obama table about his lack of experience, or his relationships with unsavory characters, or his politically convenient flip-flops on major issues, or if I brought up McCain’s experience and independent nature, I would invariably get an indictment of McCain’s war-like ways, or a demonizing of Sarah Palin. Conversation over.

People didn’t just pick sides. They dug their heels into thick mud and barely moved. Unless you were surrounded by like-minded people where you could just pile on, you either had very short conversations or screaming matches.

So I came up with a secret plan. I shut my mouth. Instead of telling people how I felt about the candidates, I channeled the big “O.”

Not the big O of Obama, but the big O of Observer. I became an observer and a listener. I soaked it up. I asked questions. I observed how people argued, what set them off and how people on both sides acted in similar ways. I learned that when emotions run so high and opinions are so intense, you learn a lot just by observing and studying the show.

And study I did. I read important writers on both sides. I read National Review and the Nation. I read the key blogs. I would go from the passion of Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh on the Obama side to the passion of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on the McCain side. Somewhere in the middle, I would hear the moderating voice of David Brooks.

Because I have many friends whom I respect who are strongly anti-Obama, I tried to muster some animosity towards the man — but I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I remember how my mother cried on a November day in 1963 when she heard on the radio that President John Kennedy had died. I was a little kid, having dinner with my family in Morocco, and all I remember thinking was: Why would my mother cry for someone who lives so far away?

No matter how many alarming blog posts I read against Obama, I simply couldn’t ignore the few billion people around the world who might soon look up in admiration to our African American president in the White House — just like my mother looked up to Kennedy from her house in Morocco.

And no matter how many brilliant and valid critiques I would hear against Senator McCain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the decent and heroic American that David Foster Wallace wrote about so lyrically when he covered McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” for Rolling Stone magazine in the 2000 election.

Back and forth I went, seeing the power and weaknesses of both sides. Instead of engaging in exhausting debates, I channeled my passion away from ideology and toward understanding.

And by the time the winner was announced, I had received an unintended blessing from my dispassionate journey. A personal revelation, if you will.

It struck me that no matter who runs the White House — even after a historic victory that my grandchildren will talk about — they still won’t be able to help me with the most important things in my life: How I raise and educate my kids, how I deal with my friends and community, how ethically I lead my life, how I give back to the world, how I grow spiritually, how I stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, how I live an eco-friendly life — in short, how I help my country by taking personal responsibility for my own little world.

Those things are not so much “Yes, We Can,” but more “Yes, I Can.”

In fact, I have a wish that our eloquent new president will have the audacity to tell the nation that, for most of us, 99 percent of our happiness is in our own hands. While we await universal health care, we should take better care of our bodies and our health and save the country billions. While we await a better education system, we should read to our kids every night and teach them the values that will make them productive citizens. While we await government action to fight global warming, we should go green in our own lives. While we await a fix to the economic meltdown, we should learn to budget and spend within our means, and, for those of us who can afford to help, have the kindness to help those who have fallen through the cracks of our debt-ridden safety net.

The truth is, despite the headiness of this historic moment, neither President Obama nor President McCain could do for us what we need to do for ourselves and for our country. If our new president can inspire us to understand this truth, he will bring about the real change we need.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world


Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Faith and Season


In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Somali Muslim immigrants, who make up the majority of airport cab drivers, are refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol.In the gripping, must-see documentary “Jesus Camp,” 9-year-old children are whipped into a glassy-eyed religious fervor against abortion and secular society.
 
In the run-up to the November elections, evangelical Christian pastors are using their pulpits to exhort believers to turn out in force against Democrats, in the name of Jesus.
 
Meanwhile, the pope — who himself is not exactly at the vanguard of critical thinking — has been furiously apologizing for comments he made during a speech on religious understanding that many Muslims took to be blasphemous.
 
For people who think that religion is not the cure but the cause of human misery, this month has provided plenty of proof.
 
It is easy to read the headlines and conclude that if religion would just go away, all would be well. But humans are hard-wired for belief. If it is suppressed, as in communist China, faith comes roaring back once the lid is off. If religion falls out of favor, as it did in the secular, God-Is-Dead 1960s, the pendulum eventually swings back until we end up with a president discussing, rather hopefully, the possibility of a Third Great Awakening of Christian fervor, as George W. Bush did with a group of journalists last month.
 
And say you really could sweep away religion. What then? The secular dogmas that have replaced it — Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism, among the more recent examples — have wreaked even worse havoc on humanity.
 
The problem, it seems to me, isn’t religion, but belief itself. There are, after all, two types of people: those who think about everything they believe, and those who believe everything they think. If there is a human curse to be broken, it is the curse of dogma.
 
How to wrest people from the grip of their dogmatic beliefs is the problem of our century. It is religious dogma that seems to drive the president of Iran toward a nuclear confrontation with the West. He will sacrifice his nation’s economy, and maybe Iran itself, to the idea of bringing about the incarnation of the Mahdi.
 
Scary as hell, yes. But just as scary is the huge swath of Americans, the kind who have made best-sellers of the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, who believe we are overdue for a confrontation between civilizations that will hasten the Second Coming. Those of us who find some comfort and some answers in religion can only wonder: How can you make moderate belief? How can you inject dogma with reason? There is no single answer, but I do have one small proposal: Sukkot.The holiday of Sukkot is coming up this week, and if you’ve never celebrated it, make this the first year you do.
 
To my mind, Sukkot comes each year to rescue us from the severity of faith. The High Holidays are so … high. They are meant to be demanding and claustrophobic, as we fast and self-assess and go back and forth in our heads over where we’ve erred and how we can repair our souls.
 
Then comes Sukkot.
 
On Sukkot, we construct temporary booths — the Hebrew word for huts is sukkot — and sit and eat and drink and pass as much time as possible in them. The huts must have impermanent walls and roofs of leaves and branches that allow the rain to enter. The idea is to remind us of the time the Children of Israel wandered homeless in the desert, protected only by God.
 
The effect is to get us out of our heads and into our bodies, into nature. That is why, bar none, it’s my favorite Jewish holiday, the one I would take with me on a desert isle (where I’d probably have to construct a bamboo hut, anyway).On Sukkot we read from the book of Ecclesiastes, the most existential of prophets. He looks at the darkness of the world and the brevity of our small lives, and comes up with this conclusion: “It is good, yea, it is beautiful, to eat and drink and to experience goodness with all his toil that he toils under the sun.”
 
In short, you might as well enjoy it while you’re here. It’s true that Sukkot, like any other religious ritual, can be hijacked by extremism or the baser instincts. There’s usually a scandal in Borough Park around unscrupulous sale of holiday items. To this day I’m still unclear why the etrog, a simple citrus fruit used as part of the Sukkot ritual, should cost several hundred times more than a lemon from Gelson’s. But if you build a sukkah, or sit in a friend’s, you will find that such concerns ultimately provoke laughter, not anger.
 
Sitting under the stars, it is hard to feel outraged, or even pessimistic. It is easier to realize that life — including our beliefs and our dogmas — is shaky, like the sukkah itself. It is easy to see our most deeply held beliefs as temporary shelters, something we erect to keep the darkness at bay, but hardly as lasting as the darkness that surrounds it, and the mysteries therein.
 
Author Sam Harris has been making the rounds lately promoting his newest screed against religion, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” In this book and his first, “The End of Faith,” Harris argues for people to abandon faith-based belief systems. Harris is a smart man, but how stupid is that? Thousands of years of evidence suggest it just won’t happen. A better idea is to encourage beliefs, rituals, practices and leaders that lessen the harsh decree of dogma. Harris doesn’t spend much time attacking Judaism, because Judaism, though it has its share of mindless extremists, has struggled to combine faith with critical thinking to together serve our souls, lift up our lives.
 
Perhaps Jews should take it upon themselves to find an empty piece of property and erect a huge, community sukkah, a place where people of all faiths, and the faithless, can sit, eat, enjoy, play music, hold classes, and talk about these issues, a shelter of moderation in a world gone extreme.
 
It’s too late to do it this year, but maybe next? The City Sukkah could be a gift of the Jews, a small attempt to show how faith can be both grand and humble.
 
Or in the words of poet Philip Appleman:
 
“…before our world goes over the brink,
Teach the believers how to think.”
 
Happy Sukkot.

Angels in America


Angels are everywhere in America these days, and a lot of them are tacky. When I was growing up you saw them once a year, adorning Christmas trees. Since then they’ve swarmed across the thin border that divides religious imagery from kitsch. Gift shops stock angel T-shirts, angel bookends, angel-print pillowcases and little angel wings to attach to your pet chihuahua.

Rarely a week goes by without an angel-themed book on the best seller list, and Hollywood has fallen into step with shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and this season’s “The Book of Daniel.”

But this week’s cover story celebrates not make-believe angels, but real live ones.

Jews and angels, it turns out, have a complicated relationship. We borrowed the notion from the Sumerians, the good folks who clued us in on the serpent, the Flood, the ark and writing. The Hebrew word for angel is malach, which means “messenger.” In Jewish lore, these messengers shape-shift between the godlike and the human, not just from era to era, but from reference to reference. In Genesis, Hagar encounters an angel, then later refers to “the Lord” who spoke to her. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but an angel of heaven intervenes to stay his hand.

In other passages, angels take the form of men, visiting Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac; then visiting Sodom to warn Lot to flee before destroying the city. In one of the most physical manifestations, an angel wrestles with Jacob, leaving him wounded. Reading the Bible, you are left with no clear notion of the Hebrew angels: Are they flesh and blood or the voice of God? Are they dreamed of or three-dimensional? The biblical notion of the angel is amorphous, open to argument, hardly the stuff of T-shirts.

In post-biblical literature, angels multiply. Scholars attribute this in part to the influence of other wisdom traditions on Jewish thought in Hellenistic times. By the Middle Ages, Jewish magic and angels were intertwined. By one estimate, the world of medieval Jewish mysticism counted as many as 496,000 angels.

“Houses and cities, winds and seasons,” writes Joshua Trachtenberg in “Jewish Magic and Superstition” (Penn, 2004), “each speck of dust underfoot … no thing in nature exists independently of its … heavenly ‘deputy.'”

Christians got angels from Jews. We meanwhile have all but sloughed off our belief in heavenly intermediaries. With the exception of smallish sects, most Jews see angels not as guardians from above, but as metaphor for the power of our souls, something akin to what that great Chasid Abraham Lincoln posited in his inauguration speech when he spoke of, “the better angels of our nature.”

This special issue of The Jewish Journal recognizes and celebrates those better angels.

Originally we were taken with the idea of the lamed vavniks, the 36. In Jewish lore, these are the 36 people who walk the earth anonymously, pure souls engaged in holy work, whose unique goodness is all that stands between humankind and God’s harsh judgment.

But — here’s the truth — we knew we wouldn’t have enough room in this issue for 36 profiles. The cruel realities of ad pages knocked 26 righteous people off the list.

Ten was the next-best number, because 10 was the number of decent people Abraham offered to find in Sodom to save the town from God’s wrath. Ten people — in this context we chose to consider families as one — going about their lives in humble goodness could indeed change the fate of a People, not to mention a wicked city.

We know that other publications produce annual year-end lists of The 10 Most Powerful or The 10 Hottest New Stars or The 10 Richest. More power to them. But we saw no point in telling people who already know they’re rich, or gorgeous, or powerful, that they are.

The people we chose to profile inside undoubtedly know that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives. They know they are doing so not because that’s their job, not because they have to, but because in helping others, they attend to the better angels of their nature. Some people may buy ceramic angels, and others might believe that angels watch out for them, but these people are compelled to intervene to improve the lives of others — to be the angels that humans have long imagined should exist.

Consider Jennifer Chadorchi, a 20-something Beverly Hills resident who has provided thousands of homeless men and women with food and social services. Or Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen, whose Pico-Robertson home serves as a collection and distribution center for goods to needy families.

Or consider Saul Kroll, 87, a retiree who volunteers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center 35 to 40 hours per week. He’s been doing that since 1987, logging some 24,400 hours. Sometimes he takes a day off to drive his 90-year-old neighbor to the doctor to receive cancer treatments. “Don’t tell someone, ‘OK, call me if you need help,'” Kroll says. “Just go on over and help.”

Now, that’s an angel.

 

Hier, Pope Talk at Vatican


During a private audience at the Vatican, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Pope Benedict XVI this week to lead a “coalition of the good” against international terrorism and threats from Iran.

The pope did not respond directly to the plea by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founding dean, but asserted that “Christians and Jews can do much to enable coming generations to live in harmony and respect.”

He also expressed the hope that “this century will see our world emerge from the web of conflict and violence, and sow the seeds of for a future of reconciliation, justice and peace,” according to the Vatican news service.

For his part, Hier said in a phone call from Rome, “It is my belief, that the pontiff will make his mark in standing up to terrorism. I am also certain that he wants to strengthen relations with the Jewish people.”

The delegation included 40 trustees and other lay leaders of the Wiesenthal Center from across the United States, and the pope made a point to speak to each individually. He also blessed rosary beads brought by some delegates for Catholic friends back home.

 

Don’t Stress About Your Stock Portfolio


Back in the go-go years of the stock market, when it seemed that everyone was getting rich, a certain recently retired rabbi started buying shares in a handful of high-flying Internet stocks. The shares skyrocketed. The man bought more. Within no time, he became a millionaire many times over. Well, we don’t have to tell you what happened next. The bear market came, and stock selling for hundreds of dollars a share began selling for pennies.

“I had lost it all,” the rabbi said. “I went into depression. I even wondered if my life was worth living.”

Today, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of “Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs” (AMACOM, 2003), wonders mostly how he ever got so frenzied about money — both its gain, and its loss. Of course, he is not alone. Perhaps you didn’t sink your nest egg into dot-com stocks, but chances are very good that money — or lack of it — sometimes throws you off kilter.

“Money is, without question, one of the biggest causes of anxiety and stress in our society,” said Dr. Robert Jaffe, a psychotherapist in Encino. “Fortunately, there are tools we can use to conquer that anxiety.”

Start with: What does money mean to you?

“Stress, of whatever kind, comes from fear. Stress over money is no exception. To deal effectively with that stress, you must know what it is you are truly afraid of,” Jaffe said. “For some of us, money represents security, so losing it would mean a loss of security. But for others, money may symbolize happiness, freedom or power.”

Question your core beliefs.

After you’ve made the connection between say, money and security, or money and happiness, ask yourself where that notion comes from.

“Many of our beliefs about money come from our parents,” Jaffe said. “Others come from the constant bombardment of advertising which says that our lives are somehow deficient, and that only by buying ‘stuff’ will we be fulfilled. But ‘stuff’ won’t ever fulfill you.”

In fact, a number of studies show that the rich — even those who own mansions, private jets and polo ponies — are, at best, only slightly happier than the rest of us.

“And many people with a lot of money are very unhappy,” Jaffe said.

Imagine the worst-case scenario.

Money can often tap into our fear of survival. But for most of us, even a sudden loss of most of our wealth — ouch! — would not jeopardize our survival.

“Try to picture a worst-case financial scenario, and be honest with yourself,” Jaffe said. “Say, for example, you were to lose your house. Could you still rent an apartment? OK, visualize yourself in that apartment. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll have less space, but you’ll also have less cleaning and straightening, and no lawn to mow, and no trash cans to blow away.”

Pinpoint the anxiety.

Brent Kessel, president of Abacus Wealth Partners, a fee-only financial planning firm in Pacific Palisades, is also an avid yoga practitioner. To combat money stress, Kessel suggests an exercise often used by yogis: “Sit quietly and ask yourself where in the body you are feeling the stress. Is it in your shoulders? Your gut? Is it a weighty kind of pain or a stabbing pain? Is it static or moving? There’s no answer in the observation,” Kessel said. “The answer is in the observation itself.” That may sound odd, he admits, but pinpointing the anxiety can often help control it.

Set the alarm clock.

“The very worst time to make a financial decision is when you are under financial stress,” Kessel said. “You may make a bad decision, which will then inevitably lead to more stress.”

He suggests that if you are feeling anxiety-ridden about money, put off all big decision making until tomorrow. If the decision can’t wait until then, at least wait five minutes. Set an alarm clock. Use the time to roll through the exercises above.

Value yourself for what you are.

“One day, back when my portfolio was a crazy obsession, my wife asked me why I was calling my broker so often. I told her that I wanted to know what I was worth. Right there, I had a revelation,” said Blech, the former dot-com millionaire. “I repeated those words to myself: ‘to know what I was worth.’ Ridiculous! I’m a rabbi, a parent, a teacher, a mate and lots of other things. I’m worth much more than my portfolio, regardless of its size…. And that’s true for every one of us.”

Russell Wild is both a financial journalist and a fee-only investment adviser based in Allentown, Pa.

 

The Measure of a Jew


One of the signal contributions of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the many years has been its stream of publications reporting on and analyzing our community. Its annual American Jewish Yearbook has long been a staple in Jewish libraries; as David Harris wrote in his foreword to Volume 100, which appeared in the year 2000, “In the pages of the Yearbook’s 100 volumes one can trace the full trajectory of the Jewish experience over the last tumultuous century.” (From 1899 to 1908, the Yearbook was published by the Jewish Publication Society; from its 10th volume on, the American Jewish Committee took on the central responsibility.)

Now we have a new and fascinating volume, titled “Jewish Distinctiveness in America, A Statistical Portrait,” written by Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. Herewith, to conform to the limitations of space, an appetizer:

Some years ago, in a free-ranging discussion of Jewish social science research with Steven M. Cohen, the eminent sociologist of American Jewry, and Milton Himmelfarb, the senior resident intellectual and ever-engaging provocateur of the AJC itself, Himmelfarb proposed that Cohen and I were wrong in defining America’s Jews as overwhelmingly liberal.

“Look at the data,” he said. “We look liberal only on issues of personal freedom: abortion, homosexuality, free speech. But when it comes to welfare issues, we are not terribly different from other Americans. We are libertines, not liberals.”

Spoken as a true conservative, which Himmelfarb — brother of Gertrude Himmelfarb, brother-in-law of Irving Kristol, and no slouch in his own right — doubtlessly was. It was he, after all, who coined the memorable — yet often misquoted — phrase, “American Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

But the truth of the matter is that American Jewish liberalism is a very complicated thing. Himmelfarb wasn’t right in dismissing it, but neither was I in proclaiming it. (Cohen can more than adequately speak for himself.) Smith’s new volume sheds some light on the matter.

At first pass, we seem not libertine (“one who acts without moral restraint; a dissolute person”) so much as libertarian (“one who believes in freedom of action and thought”), a term that had little currency back when Himmelfarb used the other, more sneering word. On all the personal freedom issues, we are an astonishingly different breed from other Americans: Abortion for no reason other than that the woman wants no more children? Forty-two percent of Americans approve; 82 percent of Jews. Suicide if a person has an incurable disease? Fifty-nine percent of Americans agree; 84 percent of Jews. Is premarital sex always wrong? Twenty-six percent of Americans agree; 4 percent of Jews. Is homosexual sex always wrong? Fifty-nine percent of Americans approve; 18 percent of Jews. And so on.

We’re distinctive also by virtue of our overwhelming agnosticism (65 percent of Americans “know” that God exists, compared to 25 percent of Jews) as also by a range of other judgments in the arena of belief. (Thirty-nine percent of Americans approve the Supreme Court’s ruling against school prayer, compared to 84 percent of Jews; one-third of Americans believe the Bible is the exact word of God, compared to 11 percent of Jews.) And then, of course, we’re hugely different in our voting in presidential elections, 25 percent or higher more Democratic than the national average.

But when it comes to government spending, we’re quite close to the national averages on most items, and sometimes (e.g., whether government is spending too little in assistance for the poor) actually lag behind the national average. We’re very close to the national average on whether government should provide special help for blacks, on whether black-white differences are due principally to discrimination, and on affirmative action (just 15 percent of Jews as well as the rest of the nation think blacks should get preferences in hiring).

Yet we come back to attitudes usually associated with liberalism, and distinctive when compared to most others, on whether there ought to be law against black-white intermarriage, on whether blacks should push for rights. Personal freedom, again.

Others, perhaps, will be intrigued that our per-capita income is nearly twice the national average and our mean household income some 70 percent higher, and considerably higher than “liberal Protestants,” a category that includes Episcopalians; that 61 percent of us have at least a four-year college degree compared to 23 percent of the general population, and compared to 33 percent of liberal Protestants. I am as intrigued by the fact that while 40 percent of American households have a gun, only 13 percent of Jews do. Still, when it comes to capital punishment, the national average of approval is 70 percent, and ours not far behind at 64 percent.

In short, it’s complicated. “Libertarian” doesn’t fit, nor is “liberal” sufficiently exact.

But there’s another point that wants stating here: What real difference does it make whether we are distinctive by virtue of demography, politics or general social attitudes? Idle curiosity may be satisfied by marshalling such data, but there is a difference between interesting things and important things.

The important thing is that we remain devoted to Jewish purposes. Yes, some of that devotion can be measured in terms of political and social values, but a more, much more telling measure is how we act. What about our charitable giving? What about our volunteering in agencies and organizations that feed the hungry or that lobby for a more generous food stamp program? What have we done to halt the genocide in Darfur? How have we advanced and internalized Jewish culture? Smith is silent, but it is a proper answer to such questions that would speak to the kinds of distinctiveness that really matter.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

 

Facts Belie County Hate Crime Problem


 

Sometime in the early 1980s, a new type of crime was identified. It was called “hate crime.” Although the conduct which hate crime laws were

aimed at was already criminal, the new laws targeted the motivation for the crime. Helping to cement hate crime into our lexicon was the belief that the new arena of hate crime was simply an extension of the larger anti-racist struggle.

While all of this may have been undertaken with the best of intentions, the unintended consequence has been the emergence of a cottage industry committed to propagating the view that hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation is still today a prominent feature of American society.

Since the early 1980s, the American landscape has changed, with organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and others thankfully falling on hard times. These groups have been decimated by the death or incarceration of their leaders and a series of well-aimed lawsuits.

But other factors have come into play. The nation’s attitudes on race have changed, making racism and other forms of bigotry socially unacceptable, except among the least educated and the most isolated. Wearing pointy hats and sheets and sneaking around burning crosses on folk’s lawns or spray-painting swastikas on synagogues lost almost all of the mystique or attraction that it may have once held.

The killing of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard or the occasional vandalism of synagogues have been and are met with nearly universal revulsion and contempt.

In our own backyard, Los Angeles is widely viewed as the most diverse part of the nation’s growing demographic complexity. Even here, hate crime is a rare thing. Yet, some officials continually portray the area’s human relations as a hotbed of hostility and hate.

That brings us to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. “Combatting” hate crime is the bread and butter of this taxpayer-funded agency, which enjoys an annual budget of approximately $2 million. Most of its budget is spent in one way or another on the issue of hate crime.

Each year, it produces an annual report on the number of hate crimes committed in Los Angeles County. The commission’s latest report tells us that in 2003, there were 692 crimes motivated by hate. (Interestingly, annoying phone calls, disturbing the peace and reckless driving were included in the commission’s report as hate crimes.) This is a 14 percent decrease from the previous year’s tally. The highest number of hate crimes ever recorded by the agency was 1,031 in 2001.

Many questions can be raised about how the agency gathers its statistics and the accuracy of its count, but one thing is clear — the size of the hate crime problem in the county is not large. By comparison, as of this past Christmas, the LAPD documented more than 41,000 violent crimes and another 118,000 property crimes. In 2003, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recorded more than 90,000 violent crimes, which included forcible rape, homicide, aggravated assault and arson among others.

There were another 113,000 other crimes, such as sexual offenses, narcotics, forgery, vandalism and others that were committed in the county. In the context of this crime picture, hate crime is but a tiny fraction of the whole.

Noting the small numbers of hate crimes in Los Angeles should in no way be seen as diminishing the actual harm hate crime inflicts on its victims. But the aberrational nature of hate crime in a county of more than 10 million people begs the question of whether this narrowly defined arena of criminal activity really needs the near full-time attention of an entire department of local government — especially at a time when every tax dollar is feeling the squeeze.

The proper role of government in this realm is a matter for debate, but until that’s settled, isn’t there a more productive or creative way to conduct work aimed at influencing human relations and the spending of public dollars?

Since 2000, the county commission has annually divided more than $800,000 among seven community-based partner organizations. The funds are directed at hate crime-related activities and, recently, the green light was given from county supervisors to once again give funds to the seven groups — splitting nearly $70,000 among them over the next six months.

The money will pay for workshops on “media advocacy” and “technical assistance” for staff from the groups, among other things. This comes on the heels of severe budgetary problems confronting all levels of county government. Exactly what taxpayers get in return is unclear.

The vast majority of Americans already understand that hate crime lies beyond the borders of appropriate behavior (reflected in the low hate crime statistics), so messages aimed at these audiences is just a bit like preaching to the converted. On the other hand, anti-hate messages directed at the dwindling numbers of committed racists, homophobes and anti-Semites falls largely on deaf ears.

Once a hate crime occurs, it becomes the matter of law enforcement to find the facts, arrest the suspects and charge them for their acts. It is then up to prosecutors to do their job — which is to bring criminals to justice.

However, hyperbole in the realm of hate crime may be symptomatic of a larger problem. As racial or ethnic animus has declined over the years, the groups specializing in anti-hate and anti-racist causes have struggled to maintain their relevancy and to justify their budgets. For human relations agencies and related activists, this has meant making the most of hate crime data — minimal though it may be.

If documented in a rigorous manner, crimes thought to be motivated by hate arguably might be useful as a barometer of sorts to assess the state of race and human relations. Getting in the way of this is the fact that many groups report hate “incidents” that are extremely difficult to verify, let alone quantify.

Additionally, the political agendas of various advocacy groups place a great deal of pressure on law enforcement to identify crimes as “hate related,” even when the facts do not substantiate this designation. Even when annual data show that the numbers of hate crimes are low, advocacy groups, academics and, sometimes, the media spin the information in ways that portray the nation or the city as endangered by an epidemic of hate. When asked about the low numbers of hate crimes, advocates and activists will argue that they are simply “underreported.”

The prevailing view of hate crime encourages people to think of themselves as members of identity groups and also requires that they think of themselves as beleaguered and victimized, generating a sense of resentment. This means greater balkanization, not the unification of interests across the lines of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation — something essential for the best possible human relations in a city like Los Angeles.

Joe R. Hicks is the former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission and currently vice president of Community Advocates. David Lehrer helped draft some of California’s early hate crime statutes, was the former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and is the president of Community Advocates.

 

Why Bush: Kerry Could Harm Israel


Debates are a chance for the candidates to speak without scripts and show what they truly believe. And in the first presidential debate, Sen. John

Kerry (D-Mass.) made a revealing comment. While making a point about the war in Iraq, Kerry said that as president, he would make sure America could pass a “global test” before defending its interests.

Kerry’s threshold for action is being able to “prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

Subjecting foreign policy and national security decisions to Kerry’s “global test” would have a critical effect not just on America’s ability to defend itself, it would dramatically affect the security of one of our most loyal allies, Israel.

A troubling proportion of the global community considers Israel a racist, illegitimate state. Some of the leading diplomats of the European community, who publicly tolerate Israel’s existence, in their parlors and their cafes dismiss Israel with scatological terminology.

When international bodies have the opportunity, they ban the presence of Israelis wherever possible — Israeli athletes, Israeli academics, Israeli scientists, Israeli businessmen and Israeli diplomats can all attest to this.

And this is the community to which Kerry would kowtow on matters of national security and foreign policy?

Kerry predictably has sent his Jewish political allies to vouchsafe for his pro-Israel bona fides. They say his fealty to Israel is nonnegotiable.

But does Kerry have the ability to tell the European community, as President Bush has done repeatedly, that anti-Zionism is a modern and savage form of the ancient evil of anti-Semitism?

Does Kerry have the gumption to personally confront soft allies over anti-Israel, anti-Semitic epithets, as President Bush did to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed? Would Kerry tell his secretary of state, as President Bush did, to abruptly leave an international conference that had become a public lynching of Israel?

Does Kerry have the willingness to tell Arab states that American support for Israel is not a bargaining chip as we seek to win their cooperation in Iraq?

President Bush faced that very same quandary in spring 2002, when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. Arab nations blamed Israel’s actions for their inability to join the coalition then forming to confront Saddam Hussein.

But President Bush didn’t budge. The United States has vetoed eight anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Security Council. With that support, Israel effectively destroyed many of the terrorist cells that had plotted slaughters in buses, cafes and Passover seders in Israel.

By comparison, Kerry, his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), and their foreign policy advisers have shown that they would rather focus on detente and diplomacy than on protecting their friends. But we know from experience that sometimes saying “no deal” to one’s enemies is more effective than saying “I’ll compromise.”

President Bush understands this, and John Kerry does not.

Jews who are Democrats may not yet grasp this, but clearly, Israel’s enemies do. The Jerusalem Post reported last month that the Palestinians likely will wait until after the election to present a U.N. resolution calling for sanctions over Israel’s West Bank security barrier “in the hope that if John Kerry wins, the U.S. may not cast a veto.”

A telling point: The world knows what it’s getting with Bush. But it has different expectations for Kerry.

Fundamentally, John Kerry’s foreign policy instinct is to negotiate, to deal and to bargain away strengths. Thus Kerry’s 1980s fantasy that unilateral disarmament would defeat the Soviets; the opposite was true. Thus his mistaken belief that the Sandinistas represented the democratic will of the Nicaraguan people; the Nicaraguan people demonstrated the exact opposite.

Thus Kerry’s 1990s fantasy that Yasser Arafat was a “model statesman”; he was a master terrorist. Thus his theory that the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 wasn’t worth fighting and the second Gulf War wasn’t worth funding. Wrong again on both counts.

Ask Israelis whether they believe the removal of Saddam was a mistake — or that this war, as both Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean say, was “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

But Kerry is most egregiously wrong when he says American foreign policy must meet a “global test.” America’s support for Israel should never be contingent on a permission slip from France, Germany or the United Nations.

Any president who subjects America’s alliance with Israel to a “global test” knows exactly what he will get: total failure.

Norm Coleman is a Republican senator from Minnesota.

Choosing to be Jewish


Jews-by-choice are one of our community’s greatest gifts. They represent an ever-growing population that continues to invigorate and enrich the Jewish people. By the year 2020, sociology professor Egon Mayer predicts Jews-by-choice will number 10 percent of the Jewish community living in the United States.

Our forefather Abraham — the first person to enter the religion of Israel — was a Jew-by-choice. Not knowing the legacy he would leave behind, he willfully changed his physical and spiritual environment in order to become Jewish. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, highlights Abraham’s conversion — along with his wife Sarah’s, who is also a Jew-by-choice.

While methods of conversion to Judaism have changed from the time of the Bible until today, one procedural requirement can be found within most of our movements. A non-Jew wishing to become Jewish must sit before a beit din, or rabbinic court, comprised of three rabbis. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, most Jews are born Jewish. And unlike those wanting to become Jewish today, native-born Jews have never sat before a rabbinic tribunal wanting to convert. Having had the privilege of serving on many such panels, allow me to share some of the questions posed to one wishing to join the Jewish people.

Typically, the first question asked is the most basic, but arguably, the most important: Why do you want to be Jewish? The question does not ask how do you keep a kosher kitchen, or what percent of your income do you give to tzedakah? For certain, those are important issues. But underlying one’s Jewish identity is the question: Why? Is it Jewish thought, or culture that animates your love for Judaism; perhaps it revolves around community and Jewish values, or it is an expression of your love for God?

Whatever the reason, this week’s Torah portion points out that Abraham and Sarah’s “conversions” were completed once the Hebrew letter hey was added to their names (Genesis 17:1-2, 15). According to rabbinic interpretation, hey is a letter that implicates God. It expresses human allegiance and devotion to our Creator. Once God became central to their lives, Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai) were ready to fulfill their divine mission as Jewish exemplars to the world.

Those seated before a rabbinic court are also asked to share their views on God. More specifically they are asked: In what way does your belief in God affect your behavior? After all, if one’s belief in God does not positively influence one’s actions, then belief is purely theoretical, or worse, irrelevant. Rabbi Heschel was correct: “If God is not of supreme importance, God is of no importance!”

As the rabbinic proceeding continues, more questions are posed. For example: If you invite people into your home, what would indicate to them that they have entered a Jewish household? Are their mezuzot hanging on the doors, Jewish books on your shelves, an atmosphere of love and peace felt in the house? Given the poor affiliation rate among Jews, the following question is raised: Do you promise to establish a Jewish home and to participate actively in the life of the synagogue and of the Jewish community? With popular trends opposing circumcision of babies, this question is asked: If you should be blessed with children, do you promise to rear them in the Jewish faith, and to have all male children brought into the covenant of Abraham through the rite of brit milah? This week’s reading mentions that Abraham was 99 years old when he underwent circumcision.

The commitment and love that both Abraham and Sarah displayed to God, the Jewish people and all humanity is inspiring. Most inspiring, however, is the fact that they were Jews-by-choice. Abraham and Sarah did not sit before a rabbinic court prior to their entering the Jewish people. If anything, they were served by a higher court, one where God presided. For the rest of us, we must struggle with the same questions posed to those wishing to enter the Jewish religion. And like Jews-by-choice who successfully defend their knowledge of Judaism, and loyalty to the Jewish people before a rabbinic court, may we prove to be equally worthy.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 10, 2000.

Michael Gottlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Viva Vashti


“Vashti’s the only one in the Purim story who should be congratulated,” my son Danny, 12, says.

You may recall that King Ahasuerus, who had been sumptuously drinking and feasting with his Shushan subjects for seven days, ordered his chamberlains to “bring Vashti the queen before the king wearing the royal crown [some sources say wearing only the crown], to show off to the people and the officials her beauty” (Megillah 1:11).

But Vashti, whose self-respect would never allow her to participate in a “Girls Gone Wild” video or a Super Bowl half-time show, refused.

Ahasuerus “therefore became very incensed and his anger burned in him” (Megillah 1:12). He consulted his legal experts who advised that “Vashti never again appear before King Ahasuerus” (Megillah 1:19). This was interpreted to mean, at best, she was banished or, at worst, beheaded.

“She died for what she believed in,” Danny adds.

And how was this courageous death rewarded? By total vilification by the talmudic rabbis, obvious adherents of the “no good deed goes unpunished” theory.

These rabbis claimed that she deserved to die, postulating that she was cruel and arrogant and, in fact, had forced Jewish maidens, while disrobed, to spin and weave for her on Shabbat. Or that because her grandfather was the notorious Nebuchadnezzar, who had destroyed the First Temple, she planned to prevent Ahasuerus from allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

Other rabbis claimed she was an exhibitionist who would have relished parading naked but was self-conscious because leprosy had broken out on her body or, in another version, because the angel Gabriel had pinned a tail on her.

And from what basis do these far-fetched explanations emanate? The hardly incendiary line “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment conveyed by the chamberlains” (Megillah 1:12).

Indeed, to appropriate a popular bumper sticker, if you’re not outraged by Vashti’s bad rap, you’re not paying attention.

Interestingly, Mordechai also takes a contrary stand in the story, refusing to bow down to Haman, who had been promoted to Ahasuerus’ chief adviser. Day after day, the king’s servants asked, “Why do you disobey the King’s command?” (Megillah 3:3). But Mordechai “did not heed them” (Megillah 3:4).

But while Vashti is condemned for standing up for her beliefs, Mordechai is praised, never mind that his act of defiance so enrages Haman that he schemes to murder not just Mordechai but every Jew in the kingdom.

“But otherwise there wouldn’t be a story,” my ever-practical husband, Larry, says.

“Maybe there shouldn’t be a story,” I answer.

Not for this holiday, which can’t decide if it’s a cartoon, a satire or another near-historical rendition of the near-annihilation of the Jews. This holiday that exhorts us to drink until we don’t know the difference between “blessed by Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman” and that applauds the murder of 75,000 innocent Persian citizens.

And, most disturbing to me, this holiday that promulgates the belief that women should be soft-spoken and obedient.

Ahasuerus and his experts aren’t upset merely by what they perceive as Vashti’s solo act of insubordination. Rather, they are concerned that all the women in the kingdom will follow Vashti’s assertive lead. And so they advise that an irrevocable decree be proclaimed in all the land that “all the wives will show respect to their husbands, great and small alike … and … every man should rule in his own home” (Megillah 1:20-22).

I understand that the story of Purim, whether fictional or not, takes place in a certain historical and sociological context.

But I also understand, more than 2,000 years later, that the anti-feminist values it espouses need to be exposed loudly, clearly and even stridently, especially when the rights of women worldwide continue to be constricted.

Purim presents us with an opportunity to increase awareness of female repression and exploitation by congratulating Vashti on her refusal to be a sex object, as my son, Danny, suggests — and by realizing that this story of excess, absurdity and superficiality, contrary to popular belief, is not in good fun. Rather, it is as vicious and insidious as any Jewish American Princess, dumb blonde or other ethnic or gender joke, and it doesn’t lend itself to defenses such as “lighten up.”

As the lone female in a house of four sons, ages 12, 14, 16 and 20, I’ve worked hard to deconstruct the story of Purim. I know I’ve succeeded when I hear Jeremy, 14, complain, “Mom, you’ve already ruined Purim for us.”

“Good,” I say, for my goal is to raise four enlightened sons who relate to females respectfully and equally. And my secondary goal is to eventually have four daughters-in-law who don’t despise me.

The Megillah tells us that more than 2,000 years ago the unexpected happened. This year, it’s time for the unexpected to happen again, the transformation of Vashti from villainess to valiant heroine.


Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and is the mother of four sons.

No Outrage Over Race Card?


Californians have reached new levels of accommodation for cultural and other differences, but some of our officials still speak unashamedly in stark racial and ethnic terms. In some cases these officials are politicians “of color,” which seems to act as a buffer against the charge that they speak in biased and bigoted terms. Why is this so? What is the standard for what’s acceptable from our elected officials in a state with the most complex population in the entire nation? Is there a double standard at play?

Illustrating this double standard is the flap that has surfaced surrounding the Gray Davis appointment of broadcast executive Norman Pattiz to the Board of Regents of the University of California. Pattiz is white (and Jewish) and wealthy. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) has opposed the appointment and argued that the prestigious board needs additional diversity. But Romero, who comes with a resume of extensive political and racial activism, didn’t stop there. She went on to claim that Pattiz’s skin color and wealth didn’t reflect the state’s diversity. The logic here seems to be that white Californians are not part of the state’s complex racial and ethnic diversity. Is “diversity” then just a proxy for “people of color?”

There is a legitimate case to be made that a position on the Board of Regents should not be a reward for wealthy contributors to a governor or his party. And to be fair, Romero did point this out in her own fashion. However, in the process, she strayed significantly across the line of acceptability and made racially offensive comments.

Why no outrage at Romero’s statements? Imagine, if you can, a white political figure making a comment that someone “of color” appointed to a state board or commission was unqualified because of his or her skin color or economic status. It would amount to political suicide.

When a motion was recently put to a vote in the Assembly to seek an apology from Gov. Davis because of an off-hand comment about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent, an African American assemblymember commented that no apology was due the Austrian immigrant because he wasn’t a member of an oppressed minority group. Following that logic, does accountability for offensive comments only apply if they are directed at someone “of color?” Somehow we don’t think this view of “social justice” is what the anti-bias struggles of an earlier period intended to bring about.

In our joint experiences as the former heads of Los Angeles-based anti-racist and anti-bias organizations (Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Anti-Defamation League) we fought to diminish the effects of racism and anti-Semitism on diverse and complex constituencies. We did not want biased and bigoted views shifted to any other group or groups in society, we wanted to eliminate backward-facing attitudes to every extent possible. In an even earlier era, civil rights figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel, didn’t want to simply advantage the nation’s ethnic and religious minorities — they wanted to free all Americans from the yoke of immoral, discriminatory and divisive racial practices and politics. What gives an astute, seasoned political veteran like Romero license to make such comments, seemingly free from fear that she would be censured by either the public or her colleagues?

Several generations of radical street and university activism, combined with the actual reality of racial practices and policies that were exclusionary from another era of California’s history, developed an incorrect belief that racism and bigotry is something that can only be practiced by white Americans, but not people of color. This view has seemingly given license to activists — and obviously some elected officials –to make comments that coarsen public debate and sharpens the already jagged edges of identity politics.

The use of the race, ethnic or religious card is not unheard of in recent California politics. The misuse of these themes dates back as least as far as the brutal 1969 Sam Yorty-Tom Bradley race for mayor of Los Angeles. Yorty never passed on the opportunity to remind voters that his opponent was not just another candidate for mayor — he was a black candidate. In recent times, we’ve had to endure numerous races that featured undertones, or in some cases blatant themes, of race, religion or ethnicity. In the late 1990s, a senatorial race between Richard Katz and Richard Richard Alarcón saw not-so-subtle claims that only a Latino could represent the San Fernando Valley district in question. The 2001 City Council race between incumbent Nick Pacheco and Antonio Villaraigosa produced political mailers that raised questions about the challenger’s ethnic authenticity. That same year, a black candidate for city council urged voters to reject the candidacy of Jan Perry (a black woman) because she is married to a white man.

Comments like these must be met with outrage, and measured against a single standard of what amounts to biased language. It’s one thing to argue that the pool of candidates needs to be enlarged for appointments to the UC Board of Regents, and entirely another to argue that success, wealth and white skin amount to some new sort of “three strikes” system in California.


Joe R. Hicks is the vice president of Community Advocates and the former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates and was the former western regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

News That’s Fit to Paw Print


In 1999, Lori Golden left a 25-year career in freelance television production when she found industry changes and “ageism” working against her. Struggling to make ends meet, Golden taught herself desktop publishing and, soon after, The Pet Press was born.

The paper’s primary goals are the promotion of animal adoption and rescue from overcrowded shelters, spaying/neutering and responsible pet care. Each issue spotlights a personality involved in some form of animal welfare work.

“Just because a person loves her dog or cat doesn’t mean she rates a cover story,” Golden said. Celebrity activists that have been featured include Betty White, Bea Arthur, Richard Pryor, Buddy Hackett, Ed Asner, James Cromwell, Shannon Elizabeth and Mary Tyler Moore with her dog, Shana Meydela.

Golden attributes her inspiration for The Pet Press to her own dog, Maxx, whom she rescued from an L.A. shelter. “She was dedicated, loving and loyal, and always by my side in good times and bad. I thought about all of the other wonderful dogs just like Maxx who were lying in animal shelters in Southern California,” she said.

I quickly discovered the phenomenal benefits of the barter system,” Golden said.

“It was a struggle, but because of a lot of chutzpah, and my father’s fantastic support and belief in me, the paper is now doing just fine.”

The free monthly paper, headquartered in Northridge, reaches more than 95,000 readers throughout greater Los Angeles and has grown from 20 pages to 40.

“The Pet Press is distributed to pet-related venues and many other places, including libraries, car washes and my favorite locations — Jewish delicatessens from Calabasas to Long Beach … and all points in between,” Golden said.

Although Golden admits she only attends services once a year for the High Holidays, in keeping true to her profession she makes The Pet Press available for the animal lovers who attend.

“Although I miss the excitement of entertainment,” she said, “I take great pride and satisfaction in knowing that my efforts are appreciated, and that I’m helping to save the lives of countless numbers of cats and dogs.”

For more information, visit

A Mitzvah for Ayelet


Last year on the seventh of Av, my cousin, Ayelet, was traveling on bus No. 189 from B’nei B’rak to Emanuel with her 10-month-old twin daughters, her 2-year-old son and her mother. The bus came under terrorist attack killing nine and injuring 20. Her daughter, Sara Tiferet, and mother, Zilpa, were killed. When Gal, Ayelet’s husband, rushed to the scene to find out what had happened to his loved ones, terrorists murdered him, too. While Ayelet and her son were injured, her other daughter, Galia Esther, didn’t have a scratch.

My aunt Zilpa had won a battle with cancer four years before. There is only one word to describe her: angel. Gal was a wealthy, good-looking pilot who gave tzedakah. Running on the freeway to the murder scene, he had to ask for a ride from a stranger since he sold his own car to help a friend. The sight of a 10-month-old corpse being laid into a fresh grave — well, there’s no way to eulogize someone so young.

Last year, my husband and I had the privilege of hosting a group of terror victims from Israel. While we tried to keep a cheerful spirit, we could not ignore the painful experiences each one of them carried. A young woman, Shiri Shefi, told me the heart-wrenching story of how her 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, was murdered in her arms. I cried for Shiri, for Ayelet and for all the suffering we have to endure.

I take great pride in my ability to base my belief in God beyond reason. I do not question Ayelet’s tragedy more than I question the death of little Danielle. A death is a death is a death. Every death is painful; we should ponder death and question it.

However, it is more important to question life. We tend to question the painful and take for granted the essential. I do not think God is in a need of a public defender. It is we who need a reality check.

Six months ago, Ayelet gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl. She named her Chaya Nechama (a living counsel). Ayelet was three months pregnant when her loved ones were murdered. By the time the paramedics were able to cut through the bulletproof bus, Ayelet lost a lot of blood and an eye. Just before losing consciousness, she whispered to the surgeons: “I am pregnant. Please, save my baby.”

Is Ayelet lucky? I believe she is. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see why. Ayelet lost her child, her mother, her husband and her eye. But being lucky is a matter of perception.

“We are so lucky, Vered!” Ayelet told me in a phone conversation after the attack. “We get to hold these precious gifts in our hands, to hug them and to kiss them. There are so many people trying for many years to conceive and we take it for granted.”

A year later, Ayelet’s perception cannot be mistaken for a state of “shock” or “denial.” In our weekly conversations, Ayelet always makes sure to make me laugh. If her courageous words could have been put into capsules, she could have put Prozac out of business.

Out sages tell us that the time of the redemption is analogized to labor — it is a difficult time, full of pain and frustration, but as we get closer to our redemption, the contractions are getting longer and closer together. Judging from the situation in the world, I think it is time to push. Sure, we can philosophize and ask, “Why? Why me?” — or we can do something.

In order to cheer Ayelet up, I launched a mitzvah campaign called GAZIT (an acronym for Gal, Zilpa and Sara Tiferet). Gazit were also the stones used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. I ask people to perform one of the 613 mitzvot in honor of Ayelet’s loved ones and write her about it. It can be binding tefillin, affixing a mezuzah, lighting Shabbat candles or honoring family purity (Ayelet’s favorite).

God is a socialist: He gave his mitzvot to the poor and rich, the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and nonaffiliated. I urge you to do a mitzvah and write to Ayelet about it. You will get the mitzvah of making Ayelet happy.

For more information about GAZIT, contact now.moshiach@verizon.net .

Vered Kashani is a mother of five, studies philosophy at UCLA and is married to Rabbi Shimon Kashani of the Southern California Jewish Center.

Rudolph Linked to Anti-Jewish Ideology


Eric Rudolph, the U.S. white supremacist arrested over the weekend for four bombings, including an attack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was apparently motivated by an anti-Semitic ideology known as Christian Identity.

Rudolph, 36, also wrote a paper espousing Holocaust denial while in high school.

Although it is unknown whether Rudolph considers himself a formal follower of the group, in 1984 his family spent four months at a Christian Identity camp in Missouri and the family was friendly with Christian Identity preachers.

In addition, his belief system seems to coincide with what Identity followers espouse, according to experts on U.S. hate groups. Christian Identity has its origins in Great Britain in the 1800s. During that time, an ideology known as British Israelism developed: Its followers believed that the British were descended from the ancient Israelites. But only when Christian Identity migrated to North America at the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries — where it found a home in New England, the Midwest and West — did the ideology take on anti-Semitic and racist overtones.

Adherents to Christian Identity on this continent believe that non- Jewish "white Europeans and their descendants elsewhere are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Therefore, they’re God’s chosen people," said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League.

Others, including Jews, Asians and blacks, therefore, were inferior and sinister.

There are an estimated 25,000-50,000 Christian Identity followers in North America, according to Pitcavage. Among these are members of the Aryan Nations, whose leader, Richard Butler, ran a 20-acre compound in Idaho until it was taken away from the group following a 1998 incident in which a teenager and his mother were beaten there.

Buford Furrow Jr., who is serving a life sentence in jail for killing a Filipino American postman and wounding five people at a North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in a 1999 shooting spree in Los Angeles, was a member of the Aryan Nations.

Some of the more theologically inclined Christian Identity followers believe that Jews are descended from a union between Eve and the biblical serpent that they say created Cain — and that Jews are descended from Cain, Pitcavage said. They also believe in more than one biblical creation and that blacks and Asians — whom they call "mud people" — were created during "practice" creations.

But for all Christian Identity followers, anti-Semitism "is absolutely critical. Everything about Christian Identity is that Jews are Satanic and need to be eradicated," said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group.

Rudolph was arrested Saturday in western North Carolina after a five-year search by investigators. In total, he is believed to be responsible for four bombings, in which two people were killed and 150 people injured. This week, he agreed to be transferred to Alabama to face charges in one of the attacks, a 1998 bombing at an abortion clinic in Birmingham in which an off-duty police officer was killed.

He also allegedly bombed a gay nightclub and an office building housing another abortion clinic.

But Jews came in for particular hatred, said his former sister-in-law.

"[Rudolph] hated Jews more than probably any other race," Deborah Rudolph, who is divorced from Rudolph’s brother, Joel, told ABC’s "Good Morning America."

He "felt that, you know, they’ve been run out of every country they’ve ever been in. They’ve destroyed every country they’ve ever been in. They have too much control in our country," she said.

He considered the TV "The Electronic Jew," she said in an interview a few years ago.

"You could be watching a 30-minute sitcom and the credits would roll and there’d be Jewish names and, excuse my expression, but he would say, ‘You f——- Yids.’ Any little thing and he would start," she said.

Rudolph’s formal introduction into white supremacism seems to have started in 1981, after his father died in South Florida from cancer. Rudolph’s mother was upset that laetrile, a drug sometimes used to treat cancer, was made illegal. Her anger helped transform her and her family into staunch anti- government ideologues — often a pathway into white supremacism. With the help of Tom Branham, a sawmill owner arrested in 1984 for possessing illegal explosives, Pat Rudolph moved the family to western North Carolina.

There, as a ninth-grader, he wrote the paper denying the Holocaust.

"Eric’s paper saying that the Holocaust never happened, this was Eric’s and Joel’s and the whole family’s deal," Deborah Rudolph said in the interview.

Love and Loyalty


We would always say that we were the ambassadors of love and happiness, causing people to smile as they passed by us, the chemistry almost touchable.

At that point, the fact that he was a Jew and I was an Italian Catholic didn’t seem to make much difference. We were in love and that was all that mattered.

As we traveled through our relationship and through the past two and a half years, we overcame many of the obstacles that couples face. We also embraced the issues that arose due to our interfaith relationship, knowing that it was an important and vital component, not something to put off or take lightly.

Our discussions about religion began early on and became a running dialogue. We started off slowly, trying to discuss this delicate topic without hurting any feelings, but soon realized that if the relationship were to proceed, the hard questions needed to be asked. How do you want your children to be raised? Can you accept symbols such as a Christmas tree or a menorah that reflect the other’s religion? Do you feel that you can be true to yourself and your faith if you have a partner who is of a different religion?

Having asked these questions, we knew that the answers were nowhere except within. We read, we discussed, we attended seminars about being interfaith, and we learned about each other. Through this and because of this, our love and relationship continued to grow.

David voiced to me during one of our many discussions that he felt very strongly about having his children bar or bat mitzvahed. Knowing that his father was a Holocaust survivor who has since passed away, I understood and empathized with his strong feelings about this, and I began to think. Raising Jewish children was not something I ever had to consider before, and when I met David, I initially assumed that we would do "both."

I then began to think more about David’s desires in regard to what I viewed as my greatest hopes for my future children: that they be kind, moral and believe in something larger than themselves. If these were the things that I regarded as most important, and if my spouse had such strong feelings, then getting there through Judaism rather than Christianity would be OK. Not always easy or natural for me, but OK.

You would think that any tension and unhappiness that arose regarding our interfaith relationship and its future would come from my family, since I had decided to raise my future children Jewish. However, it proved to be the opposite. My mother, although not happy with the decision, was supportive, realizing that these were my decisions to make, understanding that she would still play a significant role in her grandchildren’s lives. David’s mother, however, despite the sacrifice that I had decided to make for him, believed that it wasn’t enough and that he should still marry a Jewish woman. Her unhappiness with our growth as a couple soon became obvious and vocal. She expressed to him her belief that there must be a common base in order for a relationship to survive — and that base needs to be religion.

Slowly, the constant pressure, comments from and discussions with his immediate family began to chip away during two years of soul-searching, discussions and resolutions until David became torn and conflicted between our love and his loyalty to his family and religion. I understand that his family only wants the best for him. However, I also believe that there doesn’t need to be a choice between love and loyalty; that the two can co-exist if both people are willing to compromise in some way.

We, as a couple and as individuals, had reached a place where we both felt that we were being true to ourselves as well as to our religions. However, David’s growing inner conflict was something he could no longer resolve or even understand, and it hindered our growth. Knowing that this was something he needed to resolve within himself in order for our relationship to survive, we decided that it would be best for him to work it out alone. We decided to split up, putting our relationship and love to the ultimate test.

Being without him fills me with a tremendous sadness, as does the uncertainty of whether or not our roads will join together once again. I don’t know if the resolution of his inner conflict will reunite us or keep us apart. However, I understand that this is a journey I cannot take with him, and I can only pray that he finds the strength that I know he has within himself to find his own truth. I look at this as a time for answers, knowing that God has a plan.

If our love is as true and as strong as we believe, we will find our way through this and will be stronger for it — once again bringing smiles to other people’s faces as well as to our own.


Lia Del Sesto is a freelance graphic designer and professional vocalist from Providence, R.I. Reprinted courtesy of InterfaithFamily.com, a member of the Jewz.com Media Network.

Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’


Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.

Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?

RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."

Keys to the ‘Kingdom’


"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters — these were all the gifts of the Jews."

So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.

"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.

The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.

And bloody battles they were — by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.

To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.

The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."

Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.

Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.

"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.

The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.

Menorah Lights Our Way


For three years, I lived in an apartment in Jerusalem next to a bus stop. The rhythm of my life quickly adapted to the bus schedule. Just by looking out my bedroom window, I knew exactly when to leave the house in order to catch the bus.

When I returned to California, I assumed my life’s association with buses would end. But this was not to be. I live in a neighborhood where buses abound. But the associations couldn’t be more different.

In Israel, a bus represented a possible tomb. Each passenger a could-be suicide bomber. Taking the bus becomes a statement of defiance in the face of unrelenting terrorism and the constant threat of death.

I had friends who stopped taking the bus in favor of taxis. Or if they saw someone who looked suspicious board the bus, they jumped off and waited for the next to come along. Here, boarding a bus means getting to where you need to go.

While the buses are different, so is the experience of Chanukah. Growing up, my family always lit a single menorah in an interior room of the house. In Israel, I learned the menorah is supposed to be placed near a window looking out onto the street to publicize the holiday, and each member of the household should light his own.

I quickly grew to love this enhanced way of honoring events that happened some 2,000 years ago.

We all know the story of Chanukah. The Syrian-Greeks occupied the land of Israel and commandeered our Holy Temple. They outlawed many of our religious practices and defiled the Temple. Then a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled, drove the Syrian-Greeks out and reclaimed the Temple. Topping off the victory, a flask of oil meant to last just one day, miraculously burned for eight.

But the battle of Syrian-Greek versus Jew ran much deeper than a mere physical occupation of our land. It was the battle of two great forces — spirituality versus physicality.

Syrian-Greek culture placed beauty and intellect above spirituality and religion. It honored and revered all that the physical world represented. In their aspiration for aesthetic idealism, however, they denied the transcendence of the human spirit and rejected any notion of metaphysical reality. Thus it should not surprise us that they fought so desperately to uproot Torah, the spiritual compass for morality and spirituality.

Judaism teaches that the potential for human greatness is achieved not through the ascendancy of the physical, but by subjugation of the physical to the spiritual. We strive to break through the bounds of physical limitation and aspire for a higher reality, one that lies beyond materialism, beyond superficiality.

The Syrian-Greeks enjoyed a high measure of success in "converting" Jews who succumbed to the attractions of secular life. These Jews, known as Hellenists, thrived in the cultural ambivalence offered by the Syrian-Greeks to such an extent, that Jewish tradition was on the verge of disintegration.

The Jewish people had survived attempts by the Babylonians and the Persians to destroy them physically and spiritually, but never before had a movement from within sought to redefine the beliefs and practices that had shaped the Jewish national character since the time of Abraham.

Ultimately, the Macabbees routed the enemy, the Temple was rededicated, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and the Hellenists were discredited. And just who were these victorious Macabbees? None other than the Cohanim, or the priests, of the nation.

On Chanukah, therefore, we celebrate the victory of traditional Jewish culture over both the external forces that strove to overturn it, and the forces within that wished to dilute it.

Today we find ourselves in much the same shoes, but in an even more complicated mixture. Ideological sects lay claim to spiritual authenticity, separatist movements labor to set themselves apart and multiculturists demand a coming together. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes prod us to wonder if we may not be better off abandoning our culture and religion.

Had the ancient Syrian-Greeks not sensed their beliefs were threatened by Jewish monotheism, they would not have fought so desperately to crush Judaism. Had the Hellenist Jews felt more secure in the traditions of their ancestors, they would never have contemplated compromising their heritage by pursuing secular culture with such fervor.

The one who knows what he believes and why is both immune to the attraction of foreign culture and tolerant of sincere alien belief. He will be neither bullied nor seduced by the philosophies of others, because he is secure in his own. He will be able to live in harmony with others and work together for the common welfare without sacrificing his ideals or compromising his values.

For more than 2,000 years, the lights of Chanukah have burned as a symbol of spiritual wisdom. And it is the menorah that represents the way the soul finds its expression in this world. No matter how much darkness surrounds us, we still light the menorah, because we know who we are and who we can be.

This year, proudly place your menorah in a spot where the outside world can gaze in and see your spiritual light illuminate the darkness. Because sometimes a bus ride isn’t just a bus ride.

Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.

The Feiler Phenomenon


Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow & Co, $23.95).

Like the stock market, belief in the Bible as a record of past events goes up and down. Such belief is now skidding toward a low point. While the sobriety and detachment of professional scholarship may numb us into forgetting that anything crucial is at stake in Scripture’s historical accuracy, let’s not forget.

A current publishing sensation, Bruce Feiler’s book "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" was promoted on the cover of Time magazine and has since been hovering among the top 10 national bestsellers. Feiler presents the first Hebrew patriarch as a product mainly of imagination. In this, he’s far from alone.

In a ceremony held Oct. 30 in New York, the National Jewish Book Council bestowed its annual National Jewish Book Awards, an indicator of what American Jews value. In the nonfiction category, the winner was a commentary on the Pentateuch that seeks to cast doubt on the Jewish people’s long-cherished understanding of their origins. Issued by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing 1.5 million Jews, "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life") (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) states flatly that there is an "almost total absence of archaeological evidence" that key biblical personalities like Abraham and Moses ever lived.

In "The Bible Unearthed" (Free Press, 2001), celebrated among other places on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue that one finds "no evidence whatsoever" that personalities from Abraham to Joshua ever existed. Their work formed the basis of a cover story in Harper’s, savagely attacking the idea of the Bible as history.

This idea is heard even from liberal-minded clergy. A prominent Los Angeles rabbi, David Wolpe chose Passover as the moment to inform his 2,200 congregants there is no evidence that the Exodus from Egypt happened as the Bible reports.

But Feiler is the celebrity Bible-explicator of the moment.

Admittedly I’m not disinterested. My own biography of Abraham, arguing that the patriarch was a historical person as depicted in Jewish tradition, will be published by Doubleday in April. Feiler beat me to the punch, though he started in on his Abraham book just over a year ago, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when I had already been researching for two years.

His book is short, light on concrete details drawn from tradition or modern scholarship. He’s a journalist, after all, a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, and a promoter. His Web site includes a downloadable "Materials Packet" for organizing your own Abraham Salon, a book discussion group. The packet includes recipes for baklava and Triple Chocolate Fudge Brownies ("one [chocolate] for each Abrahamic faith?").

In presenting Jewish tradition on Abraham, he draws on no primary sources. There are no footnotes, no bibliography, just a three-page chapter at the end, "Readings," indicating that what he knows about the Talmud and Midrash he got from predigested stuff like Louis Ginzberg’s "Legends of the Jews" (Johns Hopkins University, 1998).

His Abraham is a legend, a useful fiction. Feiler argues that the patriarch can be a vehicle for reconciling Jews, Muslims and Christians, if only we will all embrace a new ecumenical Abraham — the patriarch as a "perpetual stream of Abrahamic ideals [that] has existed just under the surface of the world for as long as humans have told themselves stories. And every generation — at moments of joy and crisis — tapped into the same source. Each generation chose an Abraham for itself."

As Feiler puts it, Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions give us no fewer than 240 different Abrahams. So we can and should make up our own, the 241st.

Feiler doesn’t positively deny that Abraham was a historical person — the patriarch may have been "an actual figure or a composite" who "emerged from the world of Semitic tribes on the upper arm of the Fertile Crescent." But he doesn’t let the question detain him. For Feiler, it’s just not that important.

I would like to suggest that no question is more important.

Feiler’s approach to the issue of biblical historicity resonates with book-readers, with modern culture. That’s why his last book, "Walking the Bible" (William Morrow & Co., 2001), retracing the purported steps of the Israelites from Genesis to Deuteronomy, was likewise a huge seller, purchased by a quarter million people. There too he was comfortable assigning Abraham to the status of a mere "composite."

Such skepticism has a long pedigree. Setting the tone for biblical criticism from the 1870s onward, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen asserted that nothing can be said of a historical nature about the patriarchs.

In the 20th century, a mostly American movement of academics, led by William Foxwell Albright, argued back that there is indeed archaeological evidence for regarding the Bible as historically truthful. However in the 1970s a skeptical assault on the Albright school had already begun to gather strength, with works by Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters, leading to the rise of today’s dominant attitude.

The biblical events under debate include the destruction of Jericho by Joshua’s armies and the flourishing of David and Solomon’s kingdom. Little attention is paid to the work of independent scholar David Rohl, who provocatively addresses just these questions of historical confirmation, looking afresh at the dating of the reigns of the pharaohs as they correspond to what was going on simultaneously in the land of Canaan. With Rohl’s revised chronology, the collapsed walls of Jericho and the ruins of Solomon’s kingdom are found just where and when they are supposed to be.

But there are more fundamental grounds for entertaining the possibility that Abraham & Co. were real people.

The Bible is a very assertive book. As the literary critic Erich Auerbach argued, "One can perfectly well entertain historical doubts on the subject of the Trojan War or Odysseus’ wandering, and still, when reading Homer, feel precisely the effects he sought to produce; but without believing Abraham’s sacrifice [of his son Isaac], it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go even further. The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims."

The Bible offers an either-or choice: accept the truth of the narrative and the doctrine expressed in it, however understood, or reject both. We don’t have to accept the "tyranny" of the biblical choice. But if we reject it, then we reject the Bible as a source of authoritative teaching. To put it differently, if we reject Abraham, we are rejecting the Bible — and then a question asked poignantly by the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel comes tugging at our sleeve: "It may seem easy to play with the idea that the Bible is a book like many other books," a "fairy tale." But "consider what such denial implies. If Moses and Isaiah have failed to find out what the will of God is, who will? If God is not found in the Bible, where should we seek Him?

"The question about the Bible is the question about the world. It is an ultimate question. If God had nothing to do with the prophets, then He has nothing to do with mankind."

If God had nothing to do with a historical Abraham, then He is not to be found in the Bible. In that case, we are on our own. While we are free to posit some non-biblical deity, there is little to say about such a being. He left no record of having communicated anything about himself.

A world in which the man called Abraham never walked, in which the first patriarch was not a person of flesh and blood but an airily defined "composite," is a world without God. If this seems too simplistic a formulation, I invite you to offer your own scenario in which God is preserved but the Abraham of tradition is not.

In the Mishneh Torah, his great summation of Jewish belief completed in Egypt in 1178, Maimonides offers a narrative of the patriarch’s youthful career, presenting data found not in the Bible but in the Jewish sources that Bruce Feiler regards as legendary. Three thousand years before the sage wrote, the Near East and all of the world had been utterly lost in paganism and ignorance. Then "…there was born the pillar of the world, namely our father Abraham."

Maimonides intends this not as pious exaggeration, but as a statement of fact. Abraham , who was born and died, is the pillar of the world because without him the roof that protects us from the vacuum of the universe, a void of absurdity and meaninglessness, must collapse. In that case, everything we want to believe about God would be rendered nonsensical, sentimental, deeply foolish. Before allowing the pillar to be kicked out, we should think longer and harder than Bruce Feiler has done.