Facing God, and the challenge of individual conscience

Is there really a need to write a book in favor of conscience?

Who opposes conscience?

As Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis demonstrates with his characteristic eloquence, erudition and verve in his new book, “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, $19.99), we all do — and we need to think about it again.

French Catholic activist Charles PĆ©guy wrote that everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. The inspiration of faith gets solidified into systems, laws, hierarchies, ideologies. People of faith struggle to create laws that embody the best of the original inspiration. What began in a moment of revelation becomes embodied in a code, and by that code we live.

Living by that code is fine, so long as your moral compass points to the same direction as the code. Individual conscience can disrupt the system, however. And we cannot sustain a legal system if people feel free to disregard it.

What if the legal system, however, is not the product of human beings but God’s law? In religious traditions, there should be no room for individual conscience, because God’s word overrides our poor powers to figure out what is right. Who are you to know better than the commanding voice of Sinai?

Except that, as Schulweis points out, the Jewish tradition has indeed made room for individual conscience. In the Bible, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom. Moses resists God’s expressed will to destroy the Jewish people. The rabbis repeatedly test the assumption that the biblical law is fixed and inviolate.

Schulweis offers startling instances of rabbinic protests against God in the name of conscience. The Talmud goes so far as to nullify laws the rabbis cannot accommodate within the scope of their understanding of God’s will.

In cases such as stoning a rebellious son or destroying a city tainted with idolatry, the rabbis simply conclude that such a son or city “never was and never will be.” In certain rare cases when the Torah speaks in a way that contradicts what the rabbis believe God would want, they subvert, circumvent or simply cancel the pronouncement.

This is not to say that the rabbis never take positions that violate conscience — theirs or ours. Conscience is a tricky thing; sometimes it leads us in different directions. But while it may not be triumphant, it also will not be stilled. We see the tradition struggle with issues such as agunot (women who cannot obtain a divorce), even when conscience is not permitted to simply override law.

For Schulweis, a theological liberal, conscience will point in one direction. My guess is that for some of his readers, there will be other conclusions of conscience.

Schulweis is aware that not everyone’s conscience will yield identical results. His point is not that conscience always points in one direction but that it should not — indeed cannot — be silenced. From his tour of the Jewish tradition and some isolated incidents that throw further light on the subject (such as the principled stand of Henry David Thoreau against the U.S. government), “Conscience” brings us to the premier modern example — the Shoah.

Schulweis has become famous for his innovations and causes, perhaps none more so than his prescient early recognition that to acknowledge and honor Holocaust rescuers did not diminish the horrors of the Shoah. Rather, such recognition teaches us that even in the most terrible circumstances, human beings can rise to goodness.

Schulweis writes that no single variable seems to explain rescuers; some of them were even anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, in an age when the legal system, social pressure and deep prejudice all pushed for people to persecute Jews, or at most be indifferent to their fate, several special individuals risked themselves, and at times their families, to rescue Jews, and often it was not a solitary individual but a group: “Human goodness in Nazi-occupied lands called for a conspiracy of men, women and children of conscience.”

The globe is still marked by events that call for courageous individuals who must break out of the thrall of cruel but conventional ideas. How many in Rwanda or Darfur had the courage to behave as the remarkable rescuers whose stories are told in this book? Would we?

Schulweis’ book is short and powerful. It is a challenge to all of us who find that authority and conformity are powerful forces shaping our thoughts and constraining our actions. In recounting a Talmudic story about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, Schulweis quotes the rabbinic admonition: “Palga barakia lo yehavei” — Heaven does not grant halves. Perhaps that is why heaven has granted our rabbi a whole heart filled with wisdom.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Somebody had to make a start

Right or Righteous?

Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right — even smugly so — while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good — and plentiful — company.

In this week’s portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would “belong” to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan’s portion of the family estate. Onan “spills his seed,” rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan’s life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a “black widow,” and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the “prostitute” who has Judah’s proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son.” Not only is Tamar’s life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah’s credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar’s position. He can’t make everything right; he can’t give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, “I’m wrong and you’re right” is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then — and perhaps, therefore — he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e’ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right — in the narrow sense of “correct” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph’s heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it’s because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, “better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another” (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that’s not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces “she is more right than I,” they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

The ‘Triumph’ of Time

"Actress Leni Riefenstahl, friend and favorite of Adolph Hitler, convinced a denazification court for the second time today that her career during the Third Reich was artistic rather than political."

Los Angeles Examiner — April 22, 1952

Fifty years later, this past Aug. 22, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl chose the occasion of her 100th birthday to advertise the release of her new documentary film, "Impressions Under Water." What for Riefenstahl represents the achievement of her body’s fight against time, for her critics it represents yet another effort to reinvent the legacy of the artist’s tainted past.

In regard to "Underwater Impressions," Riefenstahl recently commented: "My film shows the beauty of the underwater world. I hope it will touch the viewer’s conscience, as it illustrates just what the world will lose when nothing is done to stop the destruction of our oceans. I once said that I am fascinated by the beautiful and the living. I seek harmony, and under water, I have found it."

But how can an artist, whose life ethic was marked by her commitment to the Nazi regime, pretend to lecture the world about having a conscience, and then proceed to talk about her fascination with beauty and the living, when it was through the beauty of her visuals that Frau Riefenstahl immortalized the inhuman cult of the Third Reich?

Riefenstahl has always had a talent for showcasing beauty. At first, beauty was embodied in her dancing, which took her all over European stages, including performances for the prestigious Max Reinhard’s theater company.

Beauty followed her entrance in the world of mountain-climbing films, where she acted under the direction of Dr. Arnold Fanck. The mountain films were a mix of the Alps’ imposing beauty with that of Riefenstahl’s characters, exemplified in "The Blue Light" (1932), the actress’ directorial debut that centered on the story of a naïve girl named Junta (played by Riefenstahl) and her obsession for the blue light of Mount Cristallo.

Then, Riefenstahl chose a new career path, one that would place her talent at the service of politics — a career financed by the Führer’s admiration and interest in propagating the ideal of the Nazi state. The most notorious, "Triumph of the Will," a documentary film about Nuremberg’s 1934 Nazi rally, organized from Sept. 5-20, showed Riefenstahl’s capacity for beauty, earning her Germany’s Festival of the Nation Award and France’s Diplome du Grand Prix.

Ironically, in 1939, France created — through Philippe Erlanger, a member of the Association Française d’Action Artistique — the Cannes Film Festival in response to a decision by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Venice Film Festival to award "The Olympiad" (1938), a Riefenstahl documentary about the German Olympic Games, the year’s best film award.

In November that same year, Riefenstahl arrived in Los Angeles with the intention of finding a distributor for "The Olympiad." The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, headed by screenwriters Donald Odgen Stewart and Dorothy Parker, organized a strong campaign to boycott the efforts of an artist whose ties with the Nazi regime were more than enough to discredit her talent for beauty.

At the same time, the outrage over Kristallnacht infuriated the exiled Jewish community that found in Riefenstahl a representative of the Third Reich in America. On Nov. 29, 1939, an advertisement was published in Daily Variety, which said:

"Today, Leni Riefenstahl, head of the Nazi film industry, has arrived in Hollywood. There is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl. In this moment when hundreds of thousands of our brethren await certain death, close your doors to all Nazi agents.

"Let the world know there is no room in Hollywood for a Nazi agent. Sign the petition for an economic embargo against Germany."

When Riefenstahl departed Los Angeles, she said, " I hope next time it will be different when I come, yes?" And yes was the answer given to her in August 1997 by the Cinecom Society of Cinephiles in the form of a tribute ceremony organized in the secrecy of Glendale’s Red Lion Hotel. Kevin John Charbeneau, Cinecom’ s president, described the event as a tribute to "a dancer, a choreographer, an actress, a cinematographer and a director."

But not everybody shared Charbeneau’s view. In 1975, when Riefenstahl produced a pictorial book on Africa’s Nuba tribe, two major efforts were made in an effort to thwart her comeback. Susan Sontag wrote an essay, "Fascinating Fascism," that analyzed what the film critic considered the undertones of the Nazi ideology embodied in Riefenstahl’s "The Last of the Nuba."

In the essay, Sontag wrote, "In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture — where success in fighting is the ‘main’ aspiration of a man’s life — Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films."

The second major attack on her came from the investigative work of World War II B-17 pilot Glenn B. Infield’s "Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess," a well-documented book about Riefenstahl’s close ties with the Third Reich. The chapter, "The War Years," records the tragedies that befell artists such as Joachim Gottschalk and Kurt Gerron, whose decisions not to follow the Nazis caused their downfalls.

Jean Renoir’s "La Grande Illusion" (1937), Charles Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" (1940), Manolo Alonso’s "I Am Hitler" (1942), George Pal’s "Tulips Shall Grow" (1942) and Alain Resnais’ "Night and Fog" (1955) are, what philosopher Albert Camus defined as the work of artists who, by definition, cannot put themselves at the service of those who make history, but at the service of those who suffer it.

No matter what Riefenstahl does in her remaining days, it will be impossible for the "artist" to erase the actions of the past. If her desire is that of being accepted, she should start by humbly disappearing from public life in respect for those that suffered the horror of the political machine that she helped promote and immortalize.

On the eve of the 68th anniversary of the making of "Triumph of the Will," it would be ideal, and necessary, for the sake of society and its future to reevaluate the roles of our often-overprotected "artists.’

The Israeli Supreme Court’s Conscience

The conscience of the Jewish state has spoken through the recent landmark ruling of Israel's Supreme Court. It has taken an important step toward removing the pariah stigma from tens of thousands of Jews who converted to Judaism by the rabbinic authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, but ignored by the Jewish state.

With this new ruling, Israel's Interior Ministry is to register Israelis converted under Reform or Conservative auspices as Jews. That earned identification, previously denied them, will henceforth be inscribed on their national identification card. Jews in limbo have returned to their chosen home.

Imagine the joy of Russian Jews who made aliyah, fought in the wars to defend the State of Israel — some of whom were slain in battle and refused burial in Jewish cemeteries because they were not regarded as Jews — and who now will no longer suffer from such humiliating disenfranchisement.

What fulfillment of dreams does this ruling promise for themselves and their children? The ruling, of course, is a first step. Regrettably, these converts can be married only by Orthodox rabbis who alone are authorized to perform marriages legally recognized by the state and who alone have in their power the decision as to who is a Jew. The evolution of a democratic, pluralistic Jewish state requires time, vigilance, courage and unflagging effort.

The decision of Israel's High Court of Justice has regrettably met with predictable partisan denominational responses. Orthodox leaders regard the Supreme Court decision as a secular transgression of Orthodox halachic jurisdiction; non-Orthodox leaders understand the ruling as strengthening religious pluralism and as an act of Jewish unification.

In my view, the ruling embodies the moral and legal tradition of Judaism that — no less than 36 times throughout the Torah — mandates us to love the stranger, to know the heart of the stranger and, following many ethical imperatives, reminds us that we too were strangers.

Moreover, the rabbis of the tradition induced in the thrice daily “Amidah,” the 13th petition of which appeals to God to let His tender mercies be stirred for the gairei ha-tzedek (faithful proselyte). The Supreme Court's ruling expresses a transdenominational judgment that offers a healing balm to the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian denominational politics.

In these parlous times, when the enemies from without seek to tear us apart, this momentous ruling points the way to peace from within. When the rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) speculated as to the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the second Temple, they did not point to the external factors of the superior military might of the Romans. Nor did they point to the lack of the study of Torah and ritual practices by Jews. The second Temple fell, they maintained, because of groundless hatred; because of internal factionalism that stemmed from disrespect for the judgments and perspectives of others. How then does one rectify the sins of groundless hatred which is still within us? Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, answered, “The sin of groundless hatred can be overcome only with the mitzvah of causeless love.”

The Supreme Court's ruling should be greeted by all segments of world Jewry — secular and religious, left and right — as a therapeutic gesture toward the healing of our divided people. Through embracing the stranger in our midst, we may overcome the estrangement between us.

The Supreme Court ruling has deep traditional roots. Obadiah the proselyte once asked Talmudist and philosopher Moses Maimonides whether he could halachically pray, “Our God and God of our fathers.” Since Obadiah was a Jew-by-choice, he was informed by other rabbinic authorities that he was prohibited from reciting such a prayer. Maimonides ruled as follows: “By all means you are to pray 'Our God and God of our fathers.' If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your ancestry is from Him by whose word the world was created.”

The Supreme Court decision continues the spiritual and halachic tradition of Jewish moral sensibility. The Supreme Court's decision augurs the dawn of a harmonious state.