Orthodox Jews Often Mistreat Women Because They Mis-interpret Jewish Tradition

Ever since I wrote my rabbinical thesis on The Expansion of Women’s Rights during the Period of the Mishnah, I have been aware of the extraordinary lengths the rabbis went to enhance the status of women in Jewish law. The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract provided economic security for the woman — unprecedented in human history — when the marriage ended through divorce or the husband’s death. It is hard to find a more significant advancement in women’s rights in legal history.

The Sages de facto eliminated the biblical procedure of Sotah ( the trial by ordeal for a suspected adulteress described in Number 5:11 ff) and the binding of a widow to her brother in-law by levirate marriage against her will (Deuteronomy 25:1-10).   Although only the man can divorce the woman – not the other way around – in traditional Jewish law, the rabbis instituted important procedures whereby if the man did not live up to the provisions of the Ketubah by, for example, changing jobs without her consent, or moving without her agreement from a big city to a small town or vice versa, she could take him to court and force him to divorce her and pay the face value of the contract.

The laws they promulgated and the biblical interpretations they offered make our Tannaitic Sages heroes in the advancement in women’s status. But the attempts to redress society’s inherent misogyny do not have to wait for the rabbis. The Bible itself repeatedly exalts the status of women and demonstrates her superiority to her male counterpart.

Over and over again it is the biblical woman who gets and the man who is clueless. Eve has been maligned for generations for the so called fall of man, but really she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was she not her husband who perceived that life in Eden-–while idyllic–was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was she who saw (Genesis 3:6) ונחמד העץ להשכיל the tree of knowledge was desirable as a source of wisdom; she took of its fruit and ate.

Other examples abound. Rebecca is a prime mover; Isaac is passive. Judah evolves from the man who sold his brother to the man who would not leave his other brother behind because of the tutelage of his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hannah is savvy and aware, but her husband Elkanah and Eli the high priest of Israel just don’t get it. Vashti, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Yael…the list of female heroes goes on and on.

Moses is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, but he only becomes our liberator, lawgiver and leader because of the intervention of no fewer than six women: Shifrah, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah. Through their stories and commentaries the rabbis of the Midrash add luster to their roles. There are the wonderful midwives, whose actions rebut across the millennium, the cowardly Nazi war criminals who tried to excuse themselves by saying “I had no choice. I was just following orders.” Shifrah and Puah received orders too, from their boss, their king, the most powerful man in the world who was worshipped as a god. “When you help the Hebrew women give birth and you see it is a boy, kill it.” (Exodus 1:16) Shifrah and Puah teach us all that we must never just follow orders. We must interpose our conscience and our human ability to determine what is right and what is wrong before we follow any orders.

Moses’ mother Yocheved refuses to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s vile decree that every Hebrew baby boy be drowned in the Nile, and Miriam, his sister, watches and with perfect timing runs up to Pharaoh’s daughter when she finds the baby and offers to provide a nursemaid for him.

The rabbis of the Midrash enhance Miriam’s role. A Talmudic tale (B.Sotah 12A) teaches that Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the Hebrew laves at that time. In order to avoid the pain of Pharaoh’s cruel decree, Amram ordered all the Hebrew men to divorce their wives, but Miriam convinced her father not to give in to Egyptian oppression.

By all logic as a “good” daughter, loyal subject of her King and worshipper like the Egyptians of her father as a god, she would have simply tipped Moses’ basket over and drowned him. But she too answered to a higher authority. Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the Bible, but the Sages call her, “Bityah”, “”the daughter of the Almighty.” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3)

Finally there is a strange but interesting passage in Exodus 24-26 that tells of Zipporah circumcising their son after Moses had neglected to do so. It is a passage the rabbis could have interpreted any way they wish, but the rabbis (Shmot Rabbah 5:8) credit Zipporah with saving Moses life by her quick thinking and decisive action!

These and the many others like them are the stories we Reform Jews must tell if we want to be effective agents in the ongoing struggle for gender equality in Judaism and in our world.

 The task of our generation is twofold: 1. To interpret the Bible to all of those who will hear our voices and/or read our words to give women the enormous credit they are due but do not receive in traditional circles, and 2. to continue the forward progress in women’s rights begun by the Sages of the Mishnah until women and men are held in completely equal regard.

 

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What Does “Created in God’s Image” Mean?

Lights in the Forest, edited by my good friend Rabbi Paul Citrin, has just been published by CCAR Press. I am pleased to have contributed four essays to the volume and to serve on its Editorial Committee.The first of my essays on what it means to me to be created in the divine image follows.

 

      It certainly does not mean that we look like God. It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is: Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth.   Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance’ afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

 

Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today. But we-–not God–will decide if we choose to do so or not.

 

 

 

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Elul Arrives

Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”

 During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

 At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

 We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

 But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments ore even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

 I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

 

 

 

 

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Approaching Elul

 On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.

 We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”

 It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

 The moon of Av wanes rapidly,

And soon Elul arrives—

A holy month, our Sages taught,

A chance to examine our lives.

 We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe

The Holy Days just ahead.

We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,

“What might we have done instead?”

 To better live true to the Covenant

The Almighty asks we uphold

To work to create a better world

As our lives unfold.

 Will our world be a kinder realm

Because God planted us here?

Will we strive to make the earth a place

Where no one needs to fear?

 As the moon of Av wanes rapidly

And sacred Elul arrives

May these be the questions we ask ourselves

As we examine our lives!

 

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A Visit to Eden

These are days of great concern for Jews around the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is a real and alarming concern, yet, this past weekend I was able to put those concerns on hold.

In What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, I point out that the carefree world of the Garden of Eden is a world from which we’ve all been expelled. But this weekend as the guest of my dear friends, Elaine and Sheldon Kramer, I came close to an actual visit: Shabbat Eve services and the privilege of leading Torah study at Temple Isaiah in Maryland, the Bar Mitzvah of 79-year old Milt Kline, whose family I have known for 41 years, and yesterday morning cheering at the finish line of the IRON GIRL TRIATHLON for the Kramer’s daughter Missy, at whose Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation and wedding I officiated. This, coupled with the opportunity to discuss, sell and sign some books, has me feeling blessed, indeed!

During his Bar Mitzvah service Milt read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy (7:12-17) reaffirming the centrality of our Covenant with God. That Covenant, as God charged Abraham in the book of Genesis requires us to:

  1. Be a blessing in our lives (Genesis 12:2).
  2. Walk in God’s ways and be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1) meaning, we must embrace and exemplify God’s teachings.
  3.  Fill the world with צדקה ומשפט Tzedakah u’Mishpat, righteousness and justice.”

The rest of the Torah concerns itself with expounding on and elucidating the details of those Covenantal imperatives.

At Milt’s Bar Mitzvah, it was my privilege to address the congregation through him. Milt’s simcha also provided the opportunity to illustrate the parallels between the passage Milt read and the key Covenantal details about which his children, David and Lisa, read during their respective Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies nearly 40 years ago.

David’s Torah portion emphasized one of the most important of all Covenantal principles:   לא תוכל להתעלם Lo too-chal l’heet-ah lame You must not remain indifferent.” You see, in Judaism there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  When we see injustice, we must acknowledge it, and then take the necessary measures to eradicate it.

At her Bat Mitzvah, Lisa examined the early observance of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).  In that passage, the Israelites symbolically transferred their sins onto a scapegoat that carried them into the wilderness. Today, as Lisa taught, we have no scapegoats.  We must take responsibility to examine our lives with the intent of repenting for deeds of which we are not proud, with the resolve to do better going forward.

My late Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language training) teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, taught us that it is not just a credit to the Jewish people to have invented a day like Yom Kippur.  It is a credit and gift to all humanity to take a full day each year to engage in solemn חשבון  הנפש (Heshbon ha-nefesh) introspection. We are commanded to eschew all earthly pleasures (i.e., eating, drinking and sexual activity) to focus entirely on the duty of self-improvement.

I also noted that Lisa’s Haftarah (portion read from the prophets) was an angry rant from the prophet Ezekiel proclaiming that the people of Judah would suffer hardship and exile because they abandoned the covenant. (See Ezekiel 22:29-31).

It was wonderful to observe, then, that Milt’s Haftarah, 36 years later, brought the journey full-circle with a message of forgiveness, return and hope. “For the Eternal One has comforted Zion …and has made her desert like the Garden of Eden … joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of joyous song!” (Isaiah 51:3)

Yes, there is a real world of pain and suffering out there that invites pessimism and despair, but our tradition exhorts us—commands us—to look with hope toward the future.  No matter how bleak things appear, we trust in the promise that the wilderness in which we live can be transformed into an Eden, in which joy and gladness negates suffering and pain.  

That is the hope I embrace and cherish as I return to ‘the real world,’ strengthened by my glorious respite in Eden.

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At Last

Today I got word that What’s in It for Me! Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives was available for sale on KINDLE and NOOK. What a thrill it was for me to see my book’s link!

It will still be some time before it is available in hard copy other than through my web page, http://www.rabbifuchs.com, but no matter!

Now the ideas I have been studying, teaching and developing for more than 40 years have a chance to reach and influence a significant number of people. It is welcome news as Shabbat approaches.

It is especially meaningful that this milestone occurred while I am in Columbia, MD where I will teach some of these ideas at Temple Isaiah. TI is the congregation that welcomed me as it’s first rabbinic intern 41 years ago, and TI is the congregation which installed me as it’s first full-time rabbi a year later.

Temple Isaiah is the congregation that celebrated my marriage to Vickie and rejoiced with us in the birth of our three children, gifting each with a beautifully engraved Sterling Kiddush Cup. Now that my children are adults, those beautiful symbols of Shabbat joy mean so much to them and to Vickie and me!

I served Temple Isaiah for thirteen years in all. The congregation is my first professional love, and the bonds are enduring. So I am back to teach Torah with the same enthusiasm and joy as I had when I arrived 41 years ago. I come with the same hope I cherished then: that my message will have meaning for those who hear it and inspire at least one person to use his or her talents to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

I feel very blessed!

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Book Excerpt: The Golden Calf: Lowest of the Lows

No sooner does Israel declare her allegiance to God and God’s covenant than she falls off the wagon. Moses is gone forty days and nights, and during that time the Israelites become frightened. They are still very much in a slave mentality. And without the guidance of a visible leader, they lose it. They turn on Aaron and demand, “Give us a god we can see,” because who knows what has become of this Moses.

Aaron, to his discredit, utters not a whimper of protest. He tells the people to bring him their jewelry, and fashions an idol, a golden calf for them to worship.

“Why,” I have often been asked, “is Aaron not punished for his complicity in the peoples’ apostasy?” From a historical perspective, the answer is simple. It was Aaron and his descendants who had taken control of Israelite life at the time the Torah attained its present form. His descendants give us the Torah as we now have it.

The logical follow-up questions then are: Why is the story recorded at all? If Aaron and his descendants had the power, why put something in the biblical narrative, which reflects so negatively on the first high priest of Israel?

The answer is that the memory of the golden calf incident was much too vivid to extirpate. It would be akin to editing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the history books of the United States.

Hence, the priestly redactors of the Torah did the next best thing regarding the golden calf episode. They buried it. They did not place in its logical place after the Ten Commandments and the laws, which followed them. Those who edited the final version of the Book of Exodus hid the golden calf incident in the midst of two long, and to some, boring accounts of the intricate details of the building of the desert tabernacle.

The Torah records: God tells Moses to hurry down from the mount as the Children of Israel have run amok. They have forsaken God’s wishes in favor of building an idolatrous calf to worship. God threatens to destroy the entire people, but Moses stays God’s hand, and asks, “How will it look to Egypt?” The Egyptians will think that You destroyed the people because you were not powerful enough to deliver them to the Promised Land. Now God might not have been a bit worried about how it would look to Egypt, but the point is that God and Moses were in partnership; and God heeded Moses entreaty to forgive the people’s great sin.

Then, Moses himself loses it. When he sees the people reveling before the calf in orgiastic fashion, he becomes so enraged that he hurls the tablets of the Covenant to the ground, smashing them to bits.

Eventually, God calms down, and Moses calms down. When it is time to put the incident behind them, God seems to take Moses to task for smashing the tablets. “Hew out two tablets of stone like the first,” God commands (Exodus 34:1).

The implication is that although Moses had a right to be furious, he had no right to smash the tablets. This time, he has to hew them out himself instead of God providing them as (the text seems to suggest) God did the first time. The lesson for us

is that we take much better care of something in which we have invested time and energy to create.

The rabbis take the story and its lesson a step forward in this marvelous Midrash. “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught: Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed…” (Palestinian Talmud, Shekalim 1:1).

Wow. The Midrash teaches us that we can learn at least as much from our mistakes and failings as we can from our triumphs. We all make mistakes⎯even big ones. But if we turn our failings into instructive lessons rather than letting them destroy our sense of purpose and self-worth, they can be of enormous benefit.

The golden calf story is a strong warning to all of us not to overvalue material things. One of my favorite prayers is, “Help me, O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain.”

Ray Stevens makes this prayer concrete for us aptly in a popular song of yesteryear:

“Itemize the things you covet as you squander through your life – bigger cars, bigger houses, term insurance for your wife!…Did you see your children growing up today? Did you hear the music of their laughter as they set about to play? Did you catch the fragrance of those roses in your garden? Did the morning sunlight warm your soul, brighten up your day? Spending counterfeit incentive, wasting precious time and health, placing value on the worthless disregarding priceless wealth.” (Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman,” 1968)

In essence, God brought us out of Egypt not just to be free of Pharaoh’s oppression, but also that we would be free to journey to Mount Sinai and accept responsibility for the Covenant God made with Abraham. Accepting responsibility means that we use our talents to create a more just, caring, and compassionate society. It is easy to lose sight of those values in our rush to make a living. During our time off, we rush around with the goal of amassing bigger, better, and shinier material goods.

Indeed, the golden calf is alive and well. It lives in our cities and towns, and if we allow it, the turbo-charged golden calf of today will take over our hearts and minds, as well.

The golden calf narrative is a quintessential illustration of the middle ground of biblical understanding. Who knows if there was a golden calf, and whether God became furious at our worshipping it. I do not take the story literally, but the truth of the Bible is not literal truth. On the other hand, I do not simply dismiss it as an ancient fairy tale. The truth of the story is in its message, a message that can change our lives if we take it to heart.

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The Beginning of Desire

I first fell in love when I was seven, with a nurse at East Orange General Hospital when I was there for a hernia operation. In those days a hernia required a five-day hospital stay, more than enough time for me to fall in love with Miss Whitman. Today I don’t remember anything about her except her name, and that she had brown hair and a beautiful smile. But I will never forget my feelings for her.

 Then there was Sylvia. Sylvia etched herself indelibly into my heart in the summer when I was eight. She was a junior counselor at Brook Lake Farms Day camp that I attended that summer The only two things about the experience (other than that I enjoyed it) that I remember were the camp song: “Rah, rah for Brook Lake Farms we love to cheer! Always good campers year after year … “ and Sylvia!

 She must have been about seventeen and drop dead gorgeous. She smiled at me like she would smile at everyone, but that didn’t matter I was in love! Toward the end of that summer, I believe I experienced my first miracle. Our family—Dad, Mom, my sister Rochelle and I—went “down the shore” for a day. The beach was crowded, as you would expect on a hot, sunny, summer Sunday. And suddenly, somehow, out of the mass of people–like magic–Sylvia appeared. Wow! She smiled, gave me a hug, chatted a bit with my parents and then my dad took a photo of the two of us sitting in the sand with her arm around me. I have long since lost the print, but the pose is forever engraved on my brain. Sitting in the sand—if only for a few seconds—with Sylvia’s arm touching my bare skin was my definition of paradise.

 Sometimes I wonder if my first two loves—Miss Whitman (never knew her first name) who must be in her 80’s and Sylvia in her upper 70’s—are still alive. If so I wonder what they are doing now and of course, what they look like.

 Since then I have fallen in and out of love many times! I admit I maintain curiosity about where these women are today and what they are doing. One of the advantages of Facebook is that it has unlocked many of these mysteries.

 Of course, the one true and enduring love of my life has been Vickie with whom I share 40 and counting wonderful (most of the time) years of marriage! Because of her my life has been blessed beyond measure.

 But still, I confess, my mind occasionally transports me back to places like East Orange General Hospital, that sandy beach down the shore, and to other stops along my life’s journey.

 Many of the memories are very pleasant; some not so much, but they are all there. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about these flights of fantasy. When I do, I remind myself that all of these experiences have made me who I am. I have learned from all of them, so why should I deny them a place in my memory bank or a peek now and then on social media?

Yes, I think that is OK, as long as I know the difference between that which is real and enduring in my life and that which was fleeting and vain.

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A Laboratory for Diversity

“Hail to our Alma Mater, Old East Orange High!” These words of our school song brought Goosebumps to my arms when those of us attending spontaneously sang them in unison at our 50th class reunion

What a joyous experience the reunion was! It was good to see people I had not seen in half a century, and I was proud to introduce my wife Vickie, who grew up in San Francisco, to the people I knew back then.

I feel very blessed that I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. My class was–give or take–half black and half white. We learned in a laboratory for diversity. Our reunion attendees reflected that ratio, and I can say with pride that it was 100% color blind!

I believe the reason is that respect for racial and religious differences was an unspoken agenda of our high school curriculum in those days.

During my formative years I was one of the few Jews in my school environment. Among my classmates all I encountered was interest in and respect for my beliefs. I was the only Jew in my small (seven-member) high school fraternity, and it was not a problem for the others when I asked that we not hold all of our meetings on Friday nights because I wanted to attend services at my synagogue.

I am a rabbi and a proud Reform Jew, but that does not mean for a second that I think everyone should believe as I do.

Diversity is not just something to tolerate; it is something to respect and affirm as a positive good. We are enriched as a society by the different cultures and religious beliefs in our world.

And yet, I cannot count how many times people have asked me, “Why do we have to have so many religions? Why not just one?”

I answer, “Whose religion should it be? Will it be yours in which the belief in Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven are essential for salvation? Or will it be mine where Jesus plays no theological role at all? The bottom line is we will never have just one religion unless people are forced to abandon beliefs they hold precious.”

Also, I often hear of the problems caused by religion as a reason for abandoning it. My response is, “Religion does not cause problems. It is the inability or unwillingness of some to recognize the validity of beliefs different from their own that causes problems.”

There is biblical warrant for diversity in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). When people ask me why we have to have all of these different religions, why not just one, I point to that story and say, “Once upon a time it was that way. People talked the same, believed the same and acted the same. God thought so little of all that unity that the Almighty scattered the peoples and confounded their language In short God created diversity.”

When I was about five, my mother gave me one of the greatest presents I ever received. It was a phonograph record called “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” One of my favorites went like this: “I’m proud to be me but I also see you’re just as proud to be you. Its just human nature so why should I hate for being as human as I. We’ll get as we give if we live and let live, and we’ll both get along if we try!”

It was good advice when I was five-years-old, and it is good advice to day for all of us today. The “Laboratory of Diversity” that was East Orange High School 50 years ago is a worthy model for humanity today as we share space and strive to coexist in harmony on this ever-shrinking planet!EOHS

 

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Why I am Going to Germany

In a recent meeting the head of Germany’s United Jewish Appeal, Nathan Norman Gelbart, said in his address that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.”

Random attacks on Jews and Jewish groups in Europe testify that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe as my wife Vickie and I prepare to embark September 14 on a ten-week stay in Germany to work in synagogues, schools, and Lutheran churches to promote greater understanding and mutual respect.

The emotional highlight of the visit will doubtless come on November 9 when I speak at the annual Kristallnacht—known in Germany as Pogromnacht—commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the magnificent church where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.

My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs—a school principal named for my father–heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.

This will be my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 30 and 33, the year Hitler came to power.

My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebisfelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day long detour Berlin where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums did I receive a visa.

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny dusty, hard to find cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.

When Vickie and I visited in 20ll, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community–revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants—personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.

Ursula Sieg, regional Pastor for Church-School Relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, is painstakingly coordinating our upcoming pilgrimage with a packed schedule of sermons, lectures and dialogues. Her motivation is to have Germans learn about Judaism and further Germany’s yeoman efforts to promote mutual understanding and respect. She has enlisted and received moral and financial support from the  Förderverein Judentum in Schleswig-Holstein (Society for Support of Judaism in Schleswig-Holstein), the Progressive Jewish Community of Kiel and the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and Potsdam for these efforts. We are very grateful to Pastor Sieg and all of those who are contributing to making our visit a reality.

Last winter when Pastor Sieg first proposed the idea to me, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. For example in 20ll and 2012 as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I signed papers that helped lead to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. The agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the new institute, which offers B.A. and M.A. programs to students from Germany and beyond, including those studying to be rabbis and cantors. I Iook forward eagerly to returning to Potsdam to lecture and interact with students and faculty at the school.

With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. Now my joyful anticipation is tempered by the reality that anti-Semitism in Europe –and even in Germany where anti-Jewish demonstrations are barred by law—is surfacing once again.

“Why are you going there,” people have asked? “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly do not believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government—beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel–and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.

Still I am wary. The current war in Israel and Gaza—and the world’s reaction to Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of Hamas whose very existence is predicated on Israel’s destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are, as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

But still I will go. I will go with joy and gratitude for the people that invited me. I will go with the knowledge that many in Germany are eager to learn about the faith and way of life that gave birth to Christianity.

On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.

But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.

I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend ten weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny is calling me to do my best. If enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.

 

 

 

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Filed under anti-Semitism, Gaza, Geiger Kolleg, Germany, Leipzig, School of Jewish Theology, University of Potsdam, Ursula Sieg