Posted by Robin Podolsky
A couple of weeks ago, we read in Parashat Kidoshim (Shmot 19:19) that we are forbidden to wear “shatnetz.” Our rabbis take this to be what is referred to in Devarim 22:11, fabric that combines wool and linen.
At first glance, this prohibition appears to be entirely a hok, a commandment which is not meant to make rational sense but simply is an opportunity to enact our relationship with God, a way to bring mindfulness to the simple act of dressing ourselves. But it’s significant that we find the first mention of this prohibition in the Holiness Code, that section in Shmot where we are told to leave the corners of our fields untouched so that people on hard times can harvest them to eat; where we are told to treat workers justly and where we are forbidden to stand idly while a neighbor bleeds. Many commentators, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook believe that this commandment also has the character of a mishpat, a commandment that directly furthers justice. In this case, Rav Kook suggests that the commandment about shatnetz draws our attention to how we relate to animals and the earth.
Looking at it Rav Kook’s way, we can see commonalities between the commandments about kosher clothing and kosher food. In some ways, the laws of dietary kashrut go beyond the rational and simply call for obedience as a way to enact our allegiance to God with every meal we eat. However, kashrut also demands that we do not perpetrate tzaar baalei chayim, cruelty to living creatures.
If we may not procure our food through cruelty to the other animals, then all the more so, we may not feed ourselves through cruel or unjust treatment of people. For this reason, contemporary rabbis have advocated that we increase the strictures of kashrut to account for how workers are treated when food is produced. The Magen Tzedek Commission, which arose from Judaism’s Conservative movement, now grants certification to grocery products based on standards for ethical employment as well as animal welfare; and the Orthodox organization, Uri L’Tzedek grants its Tav HaYosher certification to kosher restaurants which treat their workers fairly.
Perhaps it’s time to apply the same rigor to kosher clothing. Today, people all over the world are observing May Day, a holiday dedicated to the celebration of working people. This May Day is a painful one, as the body count of those lost in the recent building collapse in Bangladesh continues to rise. Hundreds of garment workers, alarmed at cracks which had developed in the building where they worked, where forced back inside by factory thugs and threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not continue to produce. The building, owned by one of the more powerful landlords in the country, did indeed collapse, and the death toll has now passed 400.
Bangladesh is a major international center for garment production. Many clothing manufacturers and retailers in the United States do business there. The parallels between the situation of Bangladeshi workers and that of our Jewish ancestors who worked in the garment trade here in the US are striking. In the first part of the 20th Century, conditions for immigrant garment workers in East Coast tenements included starvation wages and grossly unsafe conditions. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, in which over 146 Jewish and Italian-American workers were killed and hundreds more injured, was paralleled by 2010 by two hideous factory fires in Bangladesh. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist workers, the Bangladeshi workers were locked into upstairs factories with no adequate fire protection or means of escape. Hundred were killed or maimed.
Our ancestors did not stand for being treated unjustly. Even before the Triangle fire, they organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Through strikes and with the support of Jewish community leaders—some of whom were much better off than the workers and still felt compelled by Jewish values to fight for fairness in the workplace—the union won acknowledgment of their right to bargain collectively, and they were instrumental in the passage of workplace safety laws.
Our ancestors celebrated May Day by marching for their own rights. We can observe it by renewing our commitment to holiness, to the principle that, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, we stay in a good relationship with our fellow human beings along with our Creator. Perhaps it’s time for heksher tzedek on clothes.
But we don’t have to confine ourselves to individual action. The Institute for Global Labour and Human rights reminds us that our country does pass laws regulating imported goods when it comes to copyright infringements and that Congress, spurred to action by reports of garments made from dog and cat fur making their way into the US passed the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000. Just as we support actions against tzar baalei chayim, so too we can work for the passage of the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act introduced to Congress in 2007.
After the Triangle fire, Rabbi Steven S. Wise said, “The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable, and, if that sacred human right be violated, we shall stand adjudged and condemned before the tribunal of God and of history.”
5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh.
3.31.13 at 4:01 pm | On Pesach, let's remember two American Jewish. . .
3.7.13 at 4:26 am | Silverlake salon to feature American Jews who. . .
2.6.13 at 7:39 pm | When good TV attacks.
1.27.13 at 10:32 am | on the perils of carelessness
12.24.12 at 4:02 pm | On being really Jewish and having fun at. . .
5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh. (12)
7.1.12 at 6:14 pm | Back home from FASPE trip to Auschwitz via German. . . (4)
3.31.13 at 4:01 pm | On Pesach, let's remember two American Jewish. . . (3)
March 31, 2013 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
In this season, when we celebrate freedom and the honor of obligation, let’s remember two rabbis who exemplified those values. The two teachers I have in mind were contemporaries and, for a while, neighbors. Orthodox Rabbi Sabato Morais and Reform Rabbi David Einhorn led congregations in Philadelphia in the years leading up to the USA’s Civil War. At a time when few rabbis dared (or maybe cared) to do it, these tzadikim condemned slavery forthrightly, drawing on Jewish tradition.
Sabato Morais, in his 1864 Thanksgiving sermon to Congregation Mikveh Israel said, “Not the victories of the Union, but those of freedom, my friends, do we celebrate. What is Union with human degradation? Who would again affix his seal to the bond that consigned millions to [that]? Not I, the enfranchised slave of Mitzrayim.
David Einhorn, in a 1861 Passover sermon, later expanded and published as War With Amalek, wrote, ““Is it anything else but a deed of Amalek, rebellion against God, to enslave human beings created in His image, and to degrade them to a state of beasts having no will of their own? Is it anything else but an act of ruthless and wicked violence, to reduce defenseless human beings to a condition of merchandise, and relentlessly to tear them away from the hearts of husbands, wives, parents, and children…?”
These teachers were unified on one of the key moral questions facing spiritual leaders of their time despite their disagreements about many other important things. Morais, a founder of Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), was determined to maintain a halachic standard for American Jews, believing that the principles he expressed in his sermon were indissoluble from the web of study and ritual that binds Jewish communities into a people. Einhorn, a leader in American Reform Judaism advocated a Judaism rooted in prophetic discourse and a rejection of ritual commandments (hukim) in favor of the ethical ones (mishpatim). Yet each man, recalling our central narrative of redemption from slavery, responded to oppression of American slaves with the same moral clarity.
Their fates, for a while, were different, although, at the end, each was honored. It was Morais, the more traditional Jew—and, in his time, a liberal who spoke out, not only for the end of slavery, but also for the importance of women’s education, Native American rights and worker’s rights and who battled prayer in public schools and all attempts to construct the United States as a Christian nation—who kept his congregation. Despite some threats on his life and safety, Morais stayed on his bimah at Mikveh Israel where he had a lifetime contract. Thousands attended his public funeral.
Einhorn had taken up his Philadelphia pulpit at Knesset Israel, because he had, in 1861, been driven from his Baltimore pulpit at Har Sinai for his anti-slavery stance by a mob that threatened to tar and feather him. He eventually left his new congregation to settle in New York, where he led Congregation Adas Jeshurun, which would eventually merge with another synagogue to become Congregation Beth-El. There he retired and, he too, was mourned by his large Jewish community when he died.
Each left a legacy. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a lion of the JTS, was among those rabbis who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and resolutely opposed America’s role in the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted on the premises of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. More broadly, Orthodox Judaism, with which Morais identified is alive, and continues to sprout vigorous debates and tendencies. Conservative Judaism, for which JTS serves as a seminary, is still a halachic movement, one which sees halachah as a living, evolving tradition; and Reform Judaism continues to regard living Torah as the basis for a Jewish life. While they don’t always land on the same side of every question, each Jewish movement maintains its obligation to respond to the key issues of its day.
The USA has, more or less, caught up to Rabbis Morais and Einhorn on the question of slavery, but we should never forget how much courage it must have taken for them to speak out when they did. How can we emulate their example?
March 7, 2013 | 4:26 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’ve been quiescent lately, what with school and thesis and flu and an internship at a real live synagogue. The last year of rabbi school is b@t5hit nuts.
But now I can offer a chance to talk in person! (Yeah, I know, be still your heart.)
On this coming Sunday, March 10, at 3pm, three American Jews who have returned from trips to the Ashkenazi Old Country will be sharing our experiences at the Red Lion Tavern at 2366 Glendale Blvd. in Silverlake (why yes, it is a German bar—looks who’s back, taking over your space and drinking your beer!)
As you long-time readers know, last summer I visited Poland and Germany with other seminarians through FASPE, Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (See the archive for some details.) We toured the site of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, including the death camp, Birkenau. We visited the living and growing Jewish community of Krakov. In Germany we studied at the Topography of Terror Museum at the site of the old Gestapo headquarters and at the villa in Wansee where the “Final Solution” was discussed. We also saw the Neu Synagogue, where Regina Jonas, the first Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi once served before she was taken to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Just as importantly, we read the work of historians, eye witnesses, religious leaders and philosophers; and we talked profoundly, not only about how we had been impacted by what we saw, but also about how lessons from Shoah studies will inform our own work as clergy. I will be sharing some personal writing and also, I hope, having a discussion with you about what we can learn from this history.
My friend, the poet Helena Lipstadt, had the chance to work with other artists in Poland on the restoration of synagogues. Rob Peckerar works with the amazing organization Yiddishkayt to bring Yiddish culture to new generations. They will be telling their stories and sharing pictures as well and they also are looking forward to talking with you.
Please join us if you can. There will be snacks and tea and, of course, good beer.
February 6, 2013 | 7:39 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
Really? Venal Jews, what a twist, did you think that up all by yourselves? Or is this some sort of double back-flip attempt at irony or controversy trolling? Or are you really that oblivious?
Thing is, Grey’s Anatomy is one of my favorite must-watch shows. I so want to keep it that. I love a show in which the primary relationship is a friendship between women. I love that one of the women, the eponymous Grey, started out all “dark and twisty inside” and actually got better and is in a strong marriage with a decent guy and is a pregnant mother and actually became more and more interesting as she grew more and more healthy. Speaking of Jews, I love that the other woman, Cristina Yang—my favorite TV Jewess (stepfather, family conversion, etc.), is unapologetically driven by her passion for excellence at medicine, no matter who she marries or has sex with. I love that the other anchor couple who ground the show are lesbians who are given individual personalities and story lines—most recently, one of them, the perky one, had a leg amputated and she was a far, far distance from the perk for a long, long time.
Yes, with Cristina’s Jewishness, with Callie and Arizona’s lesbian marriage, with Meredith and Derek’s adoptive parenting, Grey’s has mostly managed to get past the obvious. Which is why I find it disheartening and frustrating that, with a story line about budget cuts at the hospital where all these people work, we have been given stereotypically venal Jews.
(And the story line is a ridiculous set-up anyway. The budget crisis was precipitated by a lawsuit won by the very doctors who are furious at the budget cuts. Their award was so large that all they would have to do is settle for half of it, walk away independently wealthy and still save the hospital.)
The Jews decide to close the ER. The Jews decide to standardize all medical procedures and the doctor with the very most Jewish name loudly shares his opinion that ‘patients don’t matter’ when there is a bottom line to consider The Jews are not, it turns out, trying to save the hospital at all, but to spiff it up for a new buyer, because they are Selling Out.
Oh, Shonda, please don’t live up to your name. You’re better than this.
While we’re in the vicinity of the subject: why can’t Cristina ever find a Jewish guy? (Oh, I know, what are the odds of her finding a Jewish doctor at a hospital? But you’re creative, you could think of a way.)
Currently, she’s still hanging around with (shagging) her very Gentile ex-husband who pushed her into a quick marriage while she was suffering with PTSD ( it was a shooting, yada); tried to bully her into going through with a pregnancy she did not want; threw her abortion up to her at a party with their friends after promising to be supportive about it; and, finally, had sex with someone else while they were married.
C’mon. No, a strong Jewish woman like Yang does not need an Alpha male to ‘match’ her, nor do we need to see her punished for normative behavior among doctors of the testosterone persuasion. Why can’t she get a cool, intricate, soulful, roguishly charming, gentle Jewy Jewish guy from LA or New York (no not a muscular paratrooper from Tel Aviv), who grew up with strong women and knows how to appreciate them? If you must traffic in stereotypes, how about one of the good ones?
January 27, 2013 | 10:32 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
Mishnah Avot 1:11 warns us to “be careful with your words.” Advice, it turns out, that I have not heeded adequately and, therefore, I hurt someone’s feelings carelessly and also demonstrated some sloppy thinking.
Months ago, in a post about the forbidden temptation of the contemplative life, I made a glancing reference to the controversy in Israel over exemptions for Torah scholars from military service. The post wasn’t about that subject; it was about my own struggle with the time/money question. In that context, I made reference to Orthodox yeshiva scholars who are able to devote themselves to Torah without distractions—a situation I regard with more than a little envious yearning.
I recently learned though, that my careless throwaway reference to a complex issue had caused some real pain to a colleague at the school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion.
One of the most wonderful things about my school is its diversity with regard to hashkafa. Our faculty represents a great swath of the Jewish spectrum, including people with ties to the Orthodox, Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements and the tendencies and counter-tendencies within them, and the student body mirrors that multiplicity. There are Hasids and Litvaks, mystics and rationalists, people who are steeped in popular culture and people who avoid it, political leftists, rightists and centrists. Women in sheitels pray with women in tfilin.
Some of my favorite teachers have been Orthodox thinkers and rabbis, not only for the depth and breadth of their Torah learning, but also for the complexity and practical sense of their thinking—and the humor and pleasure with which they infuse their classes. In fact, our Academy recently chose one such teacher, Dr. Tamar Frankiel, our former Provost and faculty member to be our President. Dr. Frankiel is a living example of how Orthodox women are a vital force today’s living Judaism.
I have learned just how broad and diverse the Orthodox world is, and my colleague who rebuked me for the casual reference I made in my post reminded me of how unhelpful it is to use the word as a single descriptive adjective. She reminded me that, even with regard to the question of the yeshiva military exemption, the Orthodox world in Israel contains people associated with a range of positions and choices.
So I apologize for referring casually to “Orthodox men” in the context of a controversial issue without making that complexity clear and in a way that served to reinforce a cliché, not to shed light.
My encounter with my Orthodox colleagues continues to teach me a great deal. We still don’t agree about some key issues (to be discussed in later posts). But I am becoming a better Jew for having known them.
December 24, 2012 | 4:02 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
One of the nice things about living a seamless Jewish life is no more Christmas angst. The key is staying out of malls or planning to make a day of it. (A friend and I were reminded of this when we made the innocent decision to see The Hobbit at The Grove. Could not believe the parking or the saccharine music piped just a little too loud. But the tree and the lights were like a second Rivendell.)
Generally, though, what’s not to like? Most of us get a paid holiday from work with no religious restrictions to observe. There is, of course, the traditional movie and Chinese food (or Greek, as Greek Orthodox Christmas is weeks away). There are service opportunities at homeless shelters throughout the city—of course that’s true every day, isn’t it?
Most people are in pretty decent moods. Our city of neon gets even more shiny than usual. And people who wish one a merry Christmas are, for the most part, just being nice, not aggressively evangelical.
For the most part. There are those who make a public stink about anyone who broadens the greeting to “happy holidays,” and who propagate the ‘war on Christmas’ meme. This bespeaks a refusal of pluralism and a desire to re-vision the United States as a Christian country that only ‘tolerates’ others who graciously accept their place.
What is wrong with acknowledging the scope and breadth of the holiness and joy at this time of year? Why not be sensitive to the mood of this season as it begins to build?
First we have a coming to terms with the gathering night. Yom Kippur, Day of the Dead, Halloween/Samhain all invite us to conceive of November as a time when the veil between worlds thins, when we take stock of ourselves and our frailties and remember our beloved dead. The last two holidays especially invite us to consider the uncanny, to face our fears with humor as well as respect.
Other holidays overlap. Solstice, Diwali, Hanukah and Kwanzaa are all observed with candles and light, the promise of renewal after winter, the assurance that seeds grow in the dark. Hanukah and Kwanzaa both celebrate cultural pride and are signs of its flourishing. Eid Al-Adha and Christmas both celebrate the willingness to sacrifice and the rebirth of hope. All the religious holidays celebrate the miraculous, the gift of meaning.
Joy upon joy, holiness upon holiness. Why not be sensitive to the varied flavors of uplift and revelation that the season brings in our fabulous world city? Why not wish everyone “happy holidays,” instead of assuming that we know what holiday they observe at home?
The more grounded in my own tradition I am, the easier it is for me to take pleasure in the joy of others. I see no reason to appropriate Christmas as an ‘American holiday’ or a secular holiday. I attend the parties of my Christian friends because I love them. I don’t sing Christmas carols, because I don’t believe that the obscure rabbi Yehoshua ben Yosef, one of the thousands of Jews tortured to death by the Roman Empire, was ever a Christ, let alone resurrected, and I see no reason to disrespect a tradition by trivializing it as a harmless (because meaningless) bit of popular myth.
This reminds me—I have learned, not only to stay out of malls, but also to be very selective about TV. Once you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life twice, enough is enough. It’s easy to avoid the movies and Peanuts special, but then there are those Very Special Episodes.
As my colleague Abe Fried-Tanzer reminds us, Glee is getting better, but has a ways to go. Yes, we did get the adorable Puckerman brothers’ rendition of Hanukah Oh Hanukah, but then we have Rachel, a marked Jewish character, winning a winter showcase with a rendition of O Holy Night, not only a Christmas song, but a deeply doctrinal one. WTF?
Of course, we know what’s up: the show has a Christmas album to sell, and Lea Michele, who is not Jewish, has the pipes of an angel and killed the song properly. Still, I ask again, WTF? Why code a character as emphatically Jewish and then strip her of all religious affiliation?
That has been a source of irritation for me with regard to this show anyway. Why create what is obviously the kind of real life town that abounds throughout the Midwest—one with a substantial Reform Jewish presence from the 19th Century wave of immigration—a town in which Artie Abrams, Tina Cohen-Chang, the brothers Puckerman and Rachel Berry (and Jacob Ben-Israel, but the less said about him the better) could form a substantial community, and then make so little of them? Every single religious episode of Glee that I can remember only features Christian spirituality; except for the hilarious Schindler’s List/Simchat Torah Puckerman interlude, which actually captures a certain…situation. But why is there never the breakout sincerity moment with Judaism that there sometimes is with Christianity? Why don’t we get to see the religious and cultural life this community enjoys as we have with Quinn and Mercedes’ churches?
So: Very Special Episodes reveal unconscious biases and unresolved narrative breaks. Good for provoking thought maybe, but holiday cheer, not so much.
Mah-ever. A very nice woman from my Jewish seminary’s Christian sister school just texted me “happy Christmas,” and I wished her the same. My neighbors’ lights are really very pretty. I’m off to make my yearly veg contribution to my Christian carnivore friends’ annual Christmas Eve potluck. Tomorrow I get to watch Keira Knightly throw herself under a bus over a decadent aristocrat before enjoying the best fake meat cuisine in the world. Happy Holidays!
December 14, 2012 | 3:20 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
(For now, the only constructive comments I can think to offer about Connecticut are an acknowledgement of the horror and an offering of prayers. Next week, after the close of this festival during which we’re forbidden to eulogize and after more facts have come to light, there may be something more to say. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall gets us off to a worthy start.)
My childhood memories of Hanukah are all happy and uncomplicated; good things to eat, games and a licensed opportunity to play with fire. Even a painless lesson in the futility of acquisitiveness. I remember an early year—I might have been in the first grade—when, at about the sixth night of presents, I received some kind of perfectly nice board game—something we might have got at the five-and-dime only wrapped in pretty paper--and was about as politely pleased as a six year old could be. Stuff was piling up that I hadn’t even played with yet. My parents and I looked at each other and acknowledged that too much surfeit makes the whole game of giving and receiving kind of dull.
The sparkling candles, however, never grew dull, nor did the story of the Maccabees. This was a story of the relatively weak beating the strong, of people standing up for their freedom and succeeding. As I grew older, the story did not lose its resonance. During my teenage years, nation after nation in the Third World fought back against colonialism, and it was easy to see in the Hanukah tale a foreshadowing of their struggles.
Later, as I matured and regained that connection to Judaism which had withered in my youth, the spiritual meaning of the holiday merged with the political. It continues to strike me as significant that the Maccabees fought to worship as they believed right—fought for the life they knew—and in order to protect that life, wound up leaving familiar far behind. They left Jerusalem for the country, where they fought a long guerilla war, only taking the city at the very last. They left their homes for the Greek soldiers to raid, hiding out in the wilderness from where they launched their attacks. It turned out that what made them who they were was not their familiar soil, but their allegiance to the One God. This is the story that we find in the Books of Maccabees—which we can read in the Catholic Apocrypha, but not in our own Tanakh.
Our Rabbis, in legislating observance of Hanukah, have nothing to say about a victory over imperialism. Instead, in Tractate Shabbat, we learn about the miracle of oil; how when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally retaken and cleansed, there was only sufficient oil for one night’s lighting of the ner tamid, but the lamp stayed lit for 8 days. Like the story of Pesach in the traditional Haggadah, this approach to Hanukah links our victory to our connection to the Holy One, refusing any disconnect between that link and the efficacy of human agency.
Eventually, I began to understand our Rabbis’ approach to the holiday as a celebration of a miraculous deliverance at the hand of God rather than as a commemoration of military might. Of course our Rabbis, under the ruthless Roman yoke in Eretz Yisrael and, later, under the relatively benign protection of the Persian Empire in Bavel, had practical reasons to demur from celebrating political rebellion.
But there’s more to it than that. Our Rabbis understood the Maccabean story less as a fight for Judean political sovereignty and more as a crucial tipping point in the construction of what would become the Judaism-as-religion that we have inherited. They incorporated the holiday into our spiritual heritage, a candle that would light our way no matter where the Diaspora might take us.
There is an historical basis for their understanding. Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who tried to impose Greek worship on the Judeans/proto-Jews, was a Seleucid, a successor to Alexander the Great. When Alexander arrived at Jerusalem, he was flattered, he was given his tribute/protection money—and he left the Temple alone. It was when the Seleucids attempted to force their way of worship onto the Hebrews that everything exploded. The discovery of this bottom line was, I believe, a key moment in Jewish self-understanding, one of those foundational events that enabled the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism out of the ashes of our Temple when it fell.
Rabbi John Rosove, a colleague on this site, argues convincingly that the Maccabean victory represents the resolution of a Jewish civil war, of traditionalists and moderates versus extreme Hellenizers. The divisions he describes are real; however, as Shaye Cohen reminds us in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (WJK, 2006) we can parse the nuances even further. All Jews in the antique period lived in a Hellenistic milieu—Greek was the language of commerce, material and intellectual, in a way not dissimilar to how English functions today. The question facing all Mediterranean and West Asian peoples was how to integrate the global culture of their day with their own unique heritage. And—crucially—all of this was happening in the context of imperial military domination.
There is nothing unique about foreign occupiers seeking and finding alliances with the upper classes of the peoples they wish to dominate. Nor is it unusual when oppression and military might are intertwined with more welcome contributions. It is true that Alexandrian emperors brought more than idols to the land of Israel. They brought international trade, great theater and art and a complex philosophical tradition with which Judaism would interact for centuries to its enrichment; philosophical material that, one might argue, even found its way into our Tanakh and that helped to shape the dialectical discourse of our rabbis, along with an urbane salon tradition on which parts of our Pesach seder are modeled in form, although certainly not in content. But they tried to tell us what to do in our own temple and that was not allowed to stand.
According to Cohen, the Maccabees were not (as it has become fashionable to portray them) a bunch of anti-urban reactionaries hiding out from progress. Neither were they romantic revolutionaries seeking a return to some former, pure way of life. They were, in my opinion, legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do—drawing on their own traditions and also appropriating material from the very culture they were fighting—declaring holidays on their own authority, fighting on Shabbat, etc.—in order to achieve independence.
Sadly but not shockingly, the Hasmonean dynasty launched by the Maccabees turned out to be as corrupt and decadent as everything it sought to replace. They even turned aggressively on their neighbors, seeking to convert others to Judaism by force, much as the Seleucids had attempted to convert the Jews. Contemporary Zionists who paint the Maccabees as entirely positive role models might want to remember this, especially in the context of current events. How is the “stubbornness” of Palestinians who insist on a sovereign state so different from that of our ancestors? How to make sure we don't switch roles in the drama?
As Rabbi Rosove observes, Hanukah has become, like Pesach, a holiday that sparks debate over its meaning and what it says about who we are. In other words, Hanukah is more Jewish than ever. Season’s blessings to all.
November 15, 2012 | 7:45 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
No, nobody is obliged to put up with rocket barrages aimed randomly at civilians. Nobody could watch as their children are traumatized daily, or live with one’s own growing anger and anxiety when just commuting to work or going to the store becomes an act of steely resolve, and not demand concrete action to make it stop.
That bit of obviousness doesn’t license the current Israeli government to be irresponsibly callous about the loss of human life. Haaretz has reported that, before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, there was a clear opportunity for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin says, “I think that they have made a strategic mistake…which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides…This blood could have been spared. Those who made the decision must be judged by the voters, but to my regret they will get more votes because of this.”
This is something of a pattern with Likud. Their alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu, whose Avigdor Lieberman makes no secret of his racism and contempt for Arab human rights, might win them an election, but it also is a signal that they don’t take Palestinian statehood seriously and would rather play to their ultra-nationalist base. Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn reminds us that, like Operation Cast Lead which also preceded elections, choosing war among other available options is an old electoral strategy in Israel. (Sorry couldn’t find a translation, and this is beyond what I could do quickly.)
The residents of Sdorot and Tel Aviv are indeed right to call for action. But what action? If, as reports now indicate, there was a credible chance for a cease-fire to stop the rockets, and to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza, then this is a war of choice. A grossly irresponsible and immoral choice. Is southern Israel secure today? Will the Gazan child injured in this bombing feel obliged to forgive as an adult? Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel teaches from Mishnah Avot 5:8, “The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret Torah.” He further teaches that, “Our task as rabbis and Israeli human rights activists must be first and foremost to hold our own government to the most basic principle in international law and in the Jewish tradition: We have a right and responsibility to defend ourselves, but we cannot harm civilians, even in the name of self-defense. As I have taught in the past, Tractate Sanhedrin 74 teaches this principle and the principle of minimum necessary force. Somebody who kills a pursuer to prevent him/her from killing when s/he could have stopped him/her by other means is seen as a murderer. The Talmudic sage Raba teaches that we can kill the person coming to kill us, but cannot kill an innocent third person even to save our own life.”
Perhaps this would be a good time to admit that, if the blockade was supposed to make Israel safe from attack, while it might mitigate the rocket fire, it’s not working as a long-term solution. It is creating generations raised in bitterness. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documents the economic devastation in Gaza—and, yes the misrule of Hamas only makes it worse, but that doesn’t lessen Israeli responsibility. Rabbi Ascherman argues, “Our message can not be to ignore the rockets on our fellow Israelis. However, when we hear "There would be no attacks on Gaza if their would be no rockets on the Western Negev,” we must both join the demand that the rockets stop and remind our fellow Israelis that we can best help ourselves if we stop using our overwhelming power to make life miserable for most Gazans. With our greater power comes greater responsibility.”
Reminders that life for most Gazans has not deteriorated into outright starvation ignore the effect of grinding hardship on bodies, hearts and minds. The situation will not change for the better until there is a truce and, in the longer term, a peace agreement. Right now, it seems as though Israel’s current government has chosen to escalate hostilities when it had other options. This means that people on both sides will die who might have lived.