Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, on last week’s Torah portion:

How moving it is…that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

I’m thinking of these words in particular this morning as I hear the news of the death Miep Gies – an ordinary woman who defied the Nazis in the name of simple humanity.

In his dvar, Sacks’ discusses the age-old debate: were Shifra and Puah “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews?”  His answer – it doesn’t matter:

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity, and they refused to do so.”

This is perhaps Gies’ most important legacy to us today. Like her Biblical forebears she reminds us that basic human decency is a universal form of resistance – and still the most powerful.


You Are But Strangers: Jewish Theology and the Land of Israel

The land of Israel is ours because God gave it to us.

This particular Jewish claim is bandied about so much that I imagine it would some as a surprise to many that it is, in fact, a misrepresentation of the Torah and its teachings.

I would go farther and say this: this view is actually a betrayal of Jewish tradition – and has only become widely popular since the rise of political Zionism.

Let’s take a closer look at the texts in question:

Jewish fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists are fond of pointing out that God promised the land of Israel to Abraham in the book of Genesis:

On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Genesis 15:18)

Biblical scholars and commentators note that the covenant God makes with Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) appears as a promisory covenant. In this early point in the narrative, the land indeed seems to be assigned to the people Israel with “no strings attached.”

Later in Exodus, however, once Israel has left Egypt and has become a nation at Sinai, God clarifies the terms of this covenant. It is spelled out in decidedly conditional language: if Israel follows God’s commandments, then they will indeed be able to live on the land that has been assigned to them by God. In other words, Israel now learns that their future on the land will be radically dependent on how they behave on the land.

As I see it, this is the fatal mistake made by those who claim that the land must ipso facto “belong” to the Jewish people. They focus exclusively on the Abrahamic promise, but neglect the critical next step: God’s conditional covenant with the Israelite nation.

In so doing, they pervert the Torah’s meaning – and do great damage to the central Jewish understanding of our relationship to the land. The land is not given to us unconditionally – we will only be able to live on the land if we prove ourselves worthy of it.

Interestingly, the Torah actually points out that previous inhabitants of the land had failed in this regard. Following a long litany of laws in Leviticus, we read:

Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)

In similarly colorful language, Israel is told that they might well meet the same fate if they do not keep God’s laws when they live on the land:

So let not the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (18:28)

In another important verse from Leviticus, God makes it clear to whom the land ultimately belongs. In the discussion of the Jubilee year (in which landholdings revert back to their original owners) we read:

…the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)

Notably, the Hebrew word for “stranger,” (“ger”) literally means “resident alien.” This word appears over and over throughout the Torah – particularly in admonitions to Israel not to mistreat the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is sobering indeed to learn that even after the Israelites enter Israel, they will still be, in effect, resident aliens on the land.

In the end, although many Jewish fundamentalists often treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease” with very explicit conditions. In Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant:

If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching…the Lord will scatter you among all the people from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest… (Deuteronomy 28:58-65)

For the prophets and later the rabbis, the conditional covenant was central in understanding Israel’s collective tragedy: “mipnei chataeinu” – “because of our sins” we were exiled from the land. This in fact remained the normative Jewish understanding of our centuries-long sojourn in the diaspora until the advent of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel.

Though today we live in a radically different context than Ancient Israel, this question remains powerfully relevant: now that we have returned again to this land, how will we prove ourselves worthy of it?

Whatever our answer, this much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. The Torah teaches us still: if we insist that the land “belongs” to us and us alone, we will only endanger our collective future upon it.


Underground Genesis

R__Crumb_-_Abraham_and_Isaac

OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.


Human Rights and the Road to Efratah

udhr60english2

In
 this week’s portion, Parashat Vayishlach, we read:

Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efratah – now Beit
 Lechem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar  at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Genesis 35:19-20)

Jeremiah famously expanded upon these verses to introduce the tragic, iconic 
image of Rachel weeping over the exiled children of Israel:

Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her
 children, who are gone. Thus said the Lord: restrain your voice from 
weeping, your eyes from shedding tears. For there is a reward for your labor, declares the Lord.  They shall return from the enemy’s land.
 And there is hope for your future, declares the Lord.  Your children 
shall return to their country. (Jeremiah
 31:15­)

While these words have been a comfort to the exiled Jewish people for centuries, we know all to well that we are not the only people to suffer the pain of exile. Given that Jews are now global citizens in the 21st century world, might we apply these sacred words to all who have been forcibly dislocated from their lands?  I am particularly mindful of this question this week, as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Note in particular Article 9: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”)

In honor of this important anniversary, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America has designated this Shabbat to be “Human Rights Shabbat.”  I encourage you to study and utilize their extensive new web resources to commorate this sacred milestone. This Shabbat Vayishlach, may we strengthen our resolve that we might make the vision of the Universal Declaration a reality for all who dwell on earth…


Kids Write the Darndest Midrash

Last Sunday I was talking to our kindergarders about this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and I explained that after the flood subsided Noah sent out a raven, but the raven never came back. A little later Noah sent out a dove – who knows what the dove brought back?  To which one little boy immediately replied, “the raven!”

(I’m liking that one even better than the olive branch…)


Beginning Again In God’s Image

Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your fellow as yourself'” (Leviticus 19:18), is the greatest principle of the Torah.

Ben Azzai says, “‘When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) is the greatest principle in the Torah. You should not say: Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow be dishonored along with me…”

Rabbi Tanhuma explained: “If you do so, know whom you are dishonoring – ‘He made him in the likeness of God.'” (Genesis Rabbah 24)

In this classic Midrash, Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai are doing what Talmudic rabbis do best: playing a lively game of spiritual oneupsmanship. In this case, they are debating the central value of Torah: according to Akiba it is the famous verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai counters with the insight from this week’s Torah portion: humanity was created in God’s image.

Rabbi Tanhuma’s final statement reinforces the weakness of Akiba’s claim: though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.

I am particularly struck that Akiba’s statement expresses an essentially humanist point of view, while Ben Azzai’s is an inherently theological assertion. In a sense, Ben Azzai raises the moral stakes of the equation. As the saying (often misattributed to Dostoevsky) goes: “where there is no God, all is permitted.” This drives home the radical imperative in Genesis: if all people are made in the divine image, all people are of infinite worth; all people are deserving of dignity, respect and fair treatment.

The Torah thus begins with this foundational principle, which has both interpersonal/ethical as well as global/moral implications. As we start Torah anew yet again, we return to its central question: how can we find the wherewithal to treat everyone we meet as a fellow child of God? How can we, as Americans, as Jews, as global citizens find dignity and respect for all who dwell on earth?

Postscript: One powerful way you can honor Torah’s central principle: consider attending the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7-9 in Washington DC.


“And You Will Incur Guilt…”

From this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei:

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it, else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.  (Deuteromony 24:14-15)

In what can only described as irony of Biblical proportions, we read these verses on the same week that the Iowa attorney general brought a myriad of criminal charges against the owners and managers of the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant (where almost 400 undocumented workers were arrested in an ICE raid last May):

The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.

…The complaint also charges that under-age workers were not paid for all the overtime they worked and were forced to work before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., a violation of child labor laws. Agriprocessors managers “participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected the plant,” the complaint says.

The silver lining? There is growing evidence that the Jewish world – across denominational lines – is ready to respond to the shandeh that is Agriprocessors. On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw kosher certification from the company unless Agriprocessors replaced its management and CEO. For their part, the good folks at Hekhsher Tzedek added their “Amen”:

The pressure from the Orthodox Union added to criticism of Agriprocessors from a movement led by Conservative Jews that is seeking to create an additional seal for kosher food to show it was produced according to ethical standards for wages and worker safety. The movement, Hekhsher Tzedek, praised the Orthodox Union’s “no-nonsense action,” saying it showed that the concept of ethical standards in kosher food “transcends denominational boundaries.”

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a congregant how traditional Jews could justify being so scrupulous about their production of kosher meat while being so unscrupulous in their flauting of the Torah’s clear laws against worker abuse. I’m not sure I had such a good answer, but it is gratifying that Jewish leaders are now publicly asking the same questions and demanding a response.


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