Holocaust Denial and the White House

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For the first time in my memory, a key tenet of Holocaust denialism has been put forth by an official White House spokesman.  Remember please that Holocaust deniers argue that concentration camps were not killing centers, and that there is no evidence that Jews were gassed. (They argue that Jews died from disease, as in any war, and the numbers are greatly exaggerated).    As you undoubtedly now know, Sean Spicer, Press Secretary for our President, has stated that “Hitler did not use gas on his own people”.  After multiple attempts to explain his statement, he has finally apologized, but only after pressure to do so.  The fact that a key tenet of Holocaust denial has been put forth by the official spokesman for the White House should be a cause for concern for every Jewish American, indeed, any American at all.  Recently Dr Gil Kahn of Kean University spoke at my synagogue.  He is a strongly pro-Israel, right leaning politically conservative academic and writer, and an expert on anti-semitism.    He is frankly terrified that for the first time, there appears to be the malevolent presence of neo-Nazi ideology in the highest office in our land.



Where the edges meet

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When I studied geology in college, I learned that earthquakes are caused by two tectonic plates that rub together, causing unbearable friction.
In Israel, the fluid border between east and west Jerusalem is like those tectonic plates, rubbing against each other and occasionally rumbling into violence. There have been clashes in east Jerusalem in recent days, as Palestinians protest not only the murder of an Arab youth by (perhaps) Jewish extremists, but two weeks of increased pressure during the search for the murdered three Israeli boys.
Ramadan adds to the friction as heightened religious sensitivity coupled with all day fasting in the hot sun brings tempers to a boil.
Today is also Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and to his credit President Netanyahu is working hard to maintain calm.
He has taken the unprecedented step of saying publicly to Hamas that if they remain quiet (despite the dozens of rockets they have fired into Israel) the Israeli army will take no escalating action.
But the friction remains. I visited part of east Jerusalem, primarily to pray at the Western Wall (which can be accessed through the Muslim Quarter) but also to personally see what was up.
The border police had closed the popular Jaffa Gate and maintained a small entrance that allowed only a single person to enter at a time. Young Arab men were questioned and often turned away as prayer time approached. Older Arab men were welcomed through the barrier. In fairness, all of us were scrutinized as we entered, but it was clear that the younger Arab men were given more of a once over. The hope is that by barring younger men, rioting might be prevented on the Temple Mount. I had heard on the news that only older Arab men and women were to be permitted access to the Temple Mount area. To their credit, the young female border guards were polite and helpful, their male commanding officer was clearly anxious and was shouting constantly.
The Arab shouk was very quiet and many shops were shuttered. The Western Wall itself was not very crowded and while I was there soldiers were deploying to prepare security for the hour of Muslim prayer.
All in all, there was an odd feeling of emptiness and mild tension in the air.
However, Jerusalem is a city of wild contrasts. As I was leaving the Arab shouk on the way home, near the Jaffa gate, I passed a large group of Christian American tourists posing with two photogenic young Israeli female border police officers. These two young blonde Israeli women, except for their uniforms and assault rifles, would have been at home at some sorority gathering in Dallas or Atlanta, and they clearly were charming the American group. As I walked by, I glanced back, and a nice American grandmother was encouraging her clearly embarrassed teenage grandson to snuggle closer to the two young women in order to take a picture. The heavily armed girls giggled, the tourists laughed, and life goes on in Israel.

Update-Unfortunately, it appears that rioting has in fact broken out in heavily Arab areas of East Jerusalem. The Boxing Rabbi prays for the peace of Jerusalem, for all its inhabitants- and wishes to assure everyone that in fact, despite the incidents of conflict, things remain quite safe.

Women of the Wall vs People of the Pew

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Anyone who takes their Judaism seriously and follows events in Israel closely is familiar with “Women of the Wall”.  For over twenty years, an extraordinary and fearless group of women have been campaigning for the right to pray at the Kotel garbed in tallit and tefillin and reading from a Sefer Torah.  These devout women have been subjected to abuse and violence such that had it been perpetrated by gentiles-we would call it a pogrom.  But no, this abuse and violence, including spitting, the hurling of garbage, screaming, and the throwing of chairs at worshippers was perpetrated by fellow Jews.  These women, a mixture of reform, conservative and modern orthodox worshippers, as well as many who identify with no denomination, were harassed and harried by the ultra-Orthodox and in many cases even arrested by the police-all for the “sin” of praying at the holiest spot in Judaism.

In recent months, a growing number of Israelis, fed up with the harassment of these women by the ultra-Orthodox, are calling for them to have the right to pray in peace and safety.  In addition, courts have ruled that these women constitute “no provocation” and are to be left alone to pray.  While recent rulings have gone in favor of the Women of the Wall, the issue is far from settled entirely.

Many Diaspora Jews have been enthusiastic and vocal supporters of the right of Women of the Wall to pray in peace and safety.    Countless sermons have been given by pulpit rabbis, articles written, demonstrations held and even monies collected and sent to Israel to support the continuing effort of these brave women.

All this leads me to ponder the empty seats in many synagogues on Shabbat, on holydays, and at daily minyans.  In America, where we may pray freely in the synagogue and in the manner of our choosing, we seem to be choosing to not pray on a regular basis.   Not every synagogue, and not all the time of course-at my own congregation we were packed for Erev Shavuot and even Shavuot morning saw a respectable attendance; but it is irrefutable that in general synagogue going is down across the board, in both the Reform and Conservative movements.  (and to my Orthodox brothers and sisters-don’t get smug-you have your own issues that you are only barely beginning to address).

We campaign with fervor for the right of Jews to pray as they choose in Israel, but here in America where we are granted that right, fewer of us are deciding to exercise it.  Yes, I know that in the current thinking the burden falls on us, the rabbis and cantors, to devise services that are more compelling, more spiritual, more uplifting-but is it really only up to us?    Is there no obligation on the part of the Jewish people in America, who commendably care so deeply for worship in Israel-to embrace worship here with the same seriousness?  I support Women of the Wall; it is time for us to equally support People of the Pew.

The Burden of Leadership


Many of you have probably followed the controversy regarding the rabbis of a prominent NYC synagogue that sent out a letter supporting the Palestinian bid for statehood. Yesterday, the rabbis backed away, stating that the statement that was disseminated was not the final, acceptable draft and they blamed it on a clerical error.
Two admissions:

1. I know these rabbis. They are among the finest in the country. Period. Their devotion to the Jewish people and to Israel is beyond reproach.
2. I too have had statements made in my name that were not fully correct. This can be both painful, misleading, and infuriating.

While I personally did not agree with my colleagues as to the substance of their argument, I fully support their right to speak out on this issue. I understand that some of their temple members will be upset. However, it is the burden of leadership to lead from in front, not from behind. The last thing we need is fearful, reticent rabbinic leadership. Take a stand, and yes, take the consequences. The Boxing Rabbi knows that sometimes when you move forward, you have to be willing to take a punch. As one of my wonderful mentors, the late businessman Albert “Bud” Haas of Chicago once said to me- “if ten percent of the congregation does not disagree with you-are are not standing up for anything!”

Attention Must be Paid

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This Shabbat is often designated Shabbat Ne’edarei Tzahal roughly “Sabbath for Remembrance of those Israeli soldiers who are MIA or in captivity.” Why this Shabbat? Because on it we read of the story of young Joseph. Of how his brothers threw him into a pit, sold him into slavery and then told their father that he was dead.

Jacob’s mourning for his son was particularly painful because there was no hard “evidence”-just a bloody coat and the fact of Joseph’s absence. The uncertainty increased the agony. It is to the credit of the Israeli nation that a Shabbat is set aside to remember the MIA’s of Israel and the particular agony felt by their loved ones.

As we complete a full decade of war, perhaps we as a nation can learn to emulate this example. To set aside time for recognition of the high price paid by our soldiers and their families-and the continuing agony of those who suffered the death or injury of a loved one. Is it really so much to ask of us? To take notice? Can we stop shopping for one minute and just take notice?

An important article by Rabbi Daniel Gordis Of Jerusalem on the Situation in Israel

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(I am not an unqualified supporter of Rabbi Gordis.  In the past, I think he has taken statements and ideas uttered by extreme elements of the Jewish left, and used them to “tar” the entire progressive American Jewish community.  But I think his following new article is important and well worth reading.  The title of the article is “When Balance becomes Betrayal”)-DBS

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference.

This inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity, this inability to celebrate our own origins, our own People and our own homeland, I argue in my latest book, The Promise of Israel, is dysfunctional. Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not? The same is true of nations and ethnicities. The French care about the French more than they do about others. So do the Italians. So do the Spanish. It’s only this new, re-imagined Jew who is constantly seeking to transcend origins which actually make us who we are and enable us to leave our distinct fingerprints on the world.

That ­an utterly universalized Judaism is almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts is bad enough. But on weeks like this, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis sleeping in bomb shelters and many millions more unspeakably frightened, it’s become clear that this universalized Judaism has rendered not only platitudinous Jews, but something worse. It bequeaths us a new Jew utterly incapable of feeling loyalty. The need for balance is so pervasive that even an expression of gut-level love for Israelis more than for their enemies is impossible. Balance has now bequeathed betrayal.

For me, the most devastating representation of this ethical and emotional confusion this week came from the pen of someone for whom I have great admiration, respect and affection. Rabbi Sharon Brous is, to my mind, one of the most intelligent and creative minds in the American Jewish community. A perpetual fixture among the Forward 50, she is almost universally recognized for her path-breaking vision of what a synagogue can be, and her combination of deep intelligence and authentic soulfulness have reached many Jews who would otherwise not be attached to the Jewish world.

Because I hold Rabbi Brous in such high esteem and consider her a friend, I was especially devastated to read her message to her community this week, which I quote in full:

It has been a devastating couple of days in Israel and Gaza.

I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives. And I happen to agree with the editors of the New York Times that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas – which poses a genuine threat to Israel – is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace. Take a breath. We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared. Over one million Israelis will sleep in bomb shelters tonight and rockets have nearly reached Tel Aviv. So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way. However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.

Let us pray that this conflict comes to an end quickly, and that we soon see a return to negotiations and a real, viable and sustainable peace.

It is, on the surface, a lovely and innocuous message. But what’s deeply troubling about it is that every single expression of sympathy for Israelis immediately coupled to a similar sentiment about the Palestinians. Absolute balance, even on a week like this, has become the supreme commandment. “Thou shall love thy neighbor who attacks thee as yourself.”

What do we have? Israelis have a right and obligation to defend themselves, but in the very next sentence, Palestinians have a right to lives of dignity. Nothing wrong with that. Israelis are scared, but so are Palestinians, and it is not our place to gloat. Fair enough. And even more balance: “the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

Unobjectionable, sort of.

For the clincher is this: “We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared.” Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community (I know that I sound like a dinosaur to her community in saying this) which side is good and which side is evil?

Of course Israel is far from perfect, and yes, much of life in Gaza is miserable. Yet why can we not actually say what we know to be true? Why cannot a leader of the American Jewish community say that the only reason that Israel and Hamas are at war is that Hamas wants to destroy Israel? Does anyone really imagine that even a return to the 1967 borders would mollify Hamas? How do I know that it would not? Because they say so. They say that they will never end the “armed resistance” until the “Zionist entity” is utterly eradicated. Why don’t we believe them? Why this paternalistic, virtually racist, “oh they couldn’t possible mean that – it must be a cultural difference in how we express ourselves”?

The “we’re all entrenched in our narratives of good and evil” worldview leaves no space for calling evil what it is. Why can we not simply say that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong? Why cannot someone as insightful and soulful as Rabbi Brous just say, without obfuscation, that whatever fault one finds with Israel, it is the Jewish State that for seventy years has sued for peace and the Arabs/Palestinians who have always refused. Does anyone bother pointing out to her community that whatever you think of Israel’s presence on the West Bank (or Judea/Samaria), that when Israel left Gaza, the Palestinians elected Hamas, and that when Mubarak fell, the Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are these obvious facts utterly unmentionable? Because hope must spring eternal?

Yes, Jewish hope must spring eternal. And in order for it to do so, in order for us to find the strength to continue, to send our children to war and to raise another generation in a place that will tragically not know peace in any of our lifetimes, we need to tell Jews what this is. This is a battle of good versus evil, the battle between those struggling to avoid civilian casualties and those who are intentionally trying to kill civilians, the battle between those who have time and again sought peace, and those who said “no” in Khartoum in 1967 and still say “no.”

As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?

But my friend left me heartbroken. If people as wise and as deeply Jewishly knowledgeable as Rabbi Brous (whom I told that this response was forthcoming) cannot come out and say that at least at this moment, we care about Israel more than we care about its enemies because we care about the future of the Jews more than almost anything else in the world, then her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.

I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of Jerusalem on the Gaza War-

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(Note- I consider myself a talmid, a student of Rabbi David Hartman.  His son, Donniel, is a brilliant and articulate scholar in his own right.  Here is his latest article on the situation in Gaza.  Like all his writings, it is truly worth reading-DBS).

The foundational obligation and responsibility of every nation is to protect its people. When it comes to Israel, this obligation has a particular twist of a profoundly secular nature. Rising out of 2,000 years of powerlessness, and 2,000 years of belief that salvation of Israel is in God’s hands, the modern State of Israel chose to live by the credo that God helps those who help themselves.
Instead of waiting for God to repeat the Exodus story and again redeem God’s people with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” with the rebirth of Israel, the Jewish people have chosen to wait no more. We recognize that we don’t live in a redeemed world, in a world where God ensures that everything will work out, that everything will find its right place. It is a world in which the just do not necessarily prosper, nor do the wicked by definition fail.
If we are to achieve, it will only be the result of our efforts on our own behalf, and even then with no guarantee of success. To be a Zionist is to embrace this reality, not as a curse but as a responsibility, if not a gift. To be part of shaping one’s own destiny and defining one’s peoples’ history in the midst of the uncertainty of an unredeemed world is the privilege which Israel has bestowed upon modern Jewish life.
It is critical that we remember the above as we assess our actions and responsibilities in Operation Pillar of Defense. First, we simply have to do what we have to do. What any nation not merely has the right to, but the obligation to do. Our citizens cannot be terrorized, nor our soldiers attacked, without attempts on our part to prevent them and stop them from occurring in the future.
While the world is filled with Monday morning quarterbacks, questioning the efficacy of every move with the benefit of hindsight, the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari and the destruction of the long-range missile capacity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad was at the very least a plausible attempt by Israel to fulfill its obligations and responsibilities as a sovereign nation.
Living in a non-redeemed world, in a world where the just do not necessarily prosper nor the wicked by definition fail, obligates us to act to protect ourselves and better our future. However, precisely because the world is not redeemed, actions which are just, actions which are necessary, and even acts which are prudent, are not guaranteed to succeed. In a non-redeemed world we must remember that not every problem has a solution, and doing the right thing will not necessarily lead to a positive result.
I dream of an Arab peace partner who will want to join with me in working to make our region truly bloom. As a Zionist I recognize that my dreams will only come true to the extent that I fulfill my responsibilities and pursue every possibility for peace to reign. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however, are not peace partners and when promulgating an approach to Islam which makes Jewish presence and independence in Israel an affront to Allah, they create a nightmare.
In their world, Jewish civilian casualties are a legitimate military goal, while Muslim civilian casualties a public relations success. In their world, success is not measured primarily by their ability to better the life of their people, but by their ability to endure suffering on the altar of a distorted version of Allah’s will.
As painful as this reality is, the responsibility of one who has chosen to recognize that one’s world is not redeemed is to see this reality for what it is. It will not be changed by the saving hand of God, nor will it be resolved by a military operation, whether limited or extensive. We must avoid the Messianic temptation of believing that our military is God and that because our cause is just, we will by definition prevail.
The dream of seeing Hamas and Islamic Jihad waving a white flag, or the population of Gaza repudiating their leadership and tactics is precisely that – a dream. It is not a reality, and certainly not one which will be ushered in through military action. A substitute will be found for every terrorist leader who is killed, and every missile which is destroyed will inevitably be replaced.
For some, the above will be depressing. The danger in this perception is that depression is all too often a fertile ground for Messianic fantasies, for belief that because it ought to be so, it is in our hands to make it so. Messianic fantasies lead to irrational demands of our politicians and military leaders. In such an environment, one is tempted to reach beyond one’s grasp, and ineffective, not to speak of dangerous policies and operations inevitably ensue.
With the rebirth of Israel, the Jewish people have embraced reality and our responsibility to do our best within it. We have relinquished the need for salvation as a standard of success and have chosen instead the beauty, complexity, and responsibility of living in a non-redeemed world. One of the “advantages” of the Middle East is that it always brings one back to the incompleteness of reality. This is our world, and our task is to create pockets of decency, sanity, safety, prosperity, and yes, even holiness within it. It is normal to want more. However, if you need more, you undermine Israel and the Jewish people’s ability to continue on our journey.
In our world, you can do the right thing, the necessary thing, the prudent thing, and still not achieve the desired outcome. In our world, there is a simple truth: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (The Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21).