September 18, 2019

Letters to the editor: Cornel West, lashon harah and more

On Western Dogma

Todd Presner says that UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies invited Cornel West to speak at this week’s Heschel conference because of West’s “25 years of scholarly engagement with Heschel (“Why Did We Invite Cornel West?” May 1).

We object to this representation. West has many accomplishments, but being a scholar of Heschel is not one of them. Presner cites as evidence conversation between West and former Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Ismar Schorsch and one speech. In West’s books, a few nods to Heschel’s prominence as a spiritual activist seem to be the sum total of West’s presumed “25 years of scholarly engagement.”

Shocking as this misrepresentation is, we are even more saddened that rabbis and students who knew Heschel personally, or who have studied deeply his works, took second place at the conference. We are disappointed that the conference itself, supposedly on Heschel’s “life, thought and legacies,” according to Presner, gave short shrift to the first 30 years of his writings, ignored much other interfaith activism and failed even to acknowledge his masterwork, “Torah min HaShamayim (Heavenly Torah),” or “Israel: An Echo of Eternity,” written to express the centrality of Israel in Judaism and in his own thought in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Thankfully, the conference did offer a few reflections on aspects of Heschel’s profound theology.

We ask the departments and centers involved to engage in serious reflection on academic integrity — including accurate representation and appropriately addressing their subject matter. As Heschel reminded us, in addressing difficult human issues, political considerations and sensationalism must not be allowed to override the quest for wisdom. 

Tamar Frankiel, president; Judy Aronson, professor of Jewish education; Cantor Jonathan Friedmann, professor of Jewish music history; Marvin A. Sweeney, professor of Tanakh and professor of Hebrew Bible, Claremont School of Theology, Academy for Jewish Religion, California

Surely professor Cornel West is entitled to his opinions. Whether a group of Jewish organizations should extend an invitation to him is a questionable decision, to say the least.

But what West is certainly not entitled to do is distort the facts, to turn reality upside down, to blur cause and effect and to indulge in the most despicable moral relativism — a pattern by now so common among academics nurtured in cultural Marxism.

So, when West blasts the “vicious Israeli occupation” — apparently without any rebuttal — he should be schooled in the recent historical and legal evidence that shaped the modern Middle East. I would urge him to ponder this reality.

Salomon Benzimra, Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights

Give ’Em Something to Talk About

The Book of Leviticus has a number of problematic portions, but the comments by Rabbi Dov Fischer on Parashat Tazria-Metzora (“Have You Heard the Latest? Gossip Has a Dark Side,” April 24) rank among the strangest I have seen in some time. It is bad enough to repeat the strange idea that illness (e.g., leprosy) can be caused by a “spiritual evil,” but it is beyond belief that the entire article talks about the “terrible evil” of lashon harah.

Is it lashon harah to speak truth to power? Did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. commit lashon harah when he openly chastised President Lyndon Johnson for wasting lives and money in a useless war in Vietnam? Did author Eric Lichtblau commit lashon harah by writing about the efforts of U.S. administrators to shield former Nazis in order to get their assistance in spying on suspected communists?

And what about us ordinary people? Do we commit lashon harah every time we talk about our opinions of and experiences with other people in our lives?  What else are we supposed to talk about if not the other people in our lives?  

I understand that the rabbis of old had some judgments and opinions that conflict with modern thought, but I don’t understand why modern rabbis should continue to promote the idea of “unspeakably horrible punishment” for an act that, under most circumstances, is both common and even praiseworthy.

Les Amer, North Hollywood

Word on the Street

I’m writing to let you know how much I enjoy the Jewish Journal, which I read every week, cover to cover. Along with the articles, I look forward to professor Yona Sabar’s Hebrew Word of the Week. Although I don’t speak or read Hebrew, I do try to pick up as many expressions as I can here and there. The history and context professor Sabar puts around each word is just wonderful.

Lisa Gerrard, via email


An article on the film “Zemene” (“Filmmaker Documents a Chance Encounter That Changed Lives,” May 1) stated that filmmaker Melissa Donovan met the films’ subjects while working on a documentary for HBO. HBO was not behind that documentary.