Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This Monday President Obama hosts his second White House seder in as many years. As a Jewish American I am grateful to the President for highlighting the festival of Jewish emancipation and peoplehood. But given a choice, I would readily forgo the White House Manischewitz in exchange for an end to the bitter herbs the President is dishing out to Israel. Publicly shunning the Israeli Prime Minister and privately berating him is not going to be forgiven because of gefilte fish and matza balls. You want to show American Jewry some respect, Mr. President, then stop treating the elected leader of the Jewish state like Pharaoh.
I received my own lesson this week about how to treat those with whom you sharply disagree. I was in Italy to promote the Italian translation of my book The Michael Jackson Tapes. Gary Krupp, the New York-based Jewish papal knight of whom I had been sharply critical for defending Pius XII, went out of his way to arrange for me to be invited to the Vatican to see documents relating to Pius’ pontificate. When I arrived, just one week before good Friday, although the Vatican was under siege with international press reports of pedophile priests, Monsignor Livio Poloniato, who works in the Cardinal Secretary of State’s office, gave me hours of his time to show me around. Here I was, an unrelenting critic for over a decade of a Pope whom the Holy See is seeking to canonize. Yet, the high-ranking Priests I met could not have been friendlier. From Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, who is Chief of Vatican Protocol, to American members of the curia who have lived away from home for twenty years, everyone I met showed kindness and warmth. The visit did not change my view of Pius XII, whom I continue to view as guilty of the foremost moral omission of the twentieth century in refusing to even once speak out against the holocaust. But it did get me thinking.
As I walked the streets of Rome over the Sabbath, I contrasted the warm welcome accorded a leading Papal critic with that of President Obama’s disdainful treatment of the democratically-elected leader of the Jewish State, Binyamin Netanyahu. If the reports are true and President Obama got up and left in middle of his meeting with Netanyahu at the White House, derisively telling him he was going to have dinner with his family and telling the Prime Minister to ‘get back to me if you have anything new,’ then as an American I am ashamed of our President’s behavior. As a Jew I am scandalized by his contempt. Yes, having dinner with your kids is very important and constitutes the main objective behind my national ‘Turn Friday Night Into Family Night’ initiative. But to use your kids as an excuse to treat a guest like garbage is repellent and constitutes a terrible lesson to the children.
And all this because the President so readily dismisses the Jewish insistence on holding on to a capitol we established three thousand years ago and have prayed to return to thrice daily ever since the Romans forcibly ejected us in the year 70.
There was a time, not long ago, when, while disagreeing with many of the President’s policies, I found him inspiring. Here was a man who never had the love of a father who overcame immense obstacles to emerge temperate, committed to the common good, and a devoted husband and father. As a lover of great oratory I was moved the President’s eloquence and passion. I penned a much-circulated column praising his decision to stop using the name Barrie and return to his given name, Barack. I wrote that all Jews - who so often hide their identities by changing their names - should learn pride from our President.
Sadly, I am now beginning to question Obama’s very character. Am I to look up to a President who treats Netanyahu like a Mexican cartel kingpin, refusing to greet him publicly, share a press conference, or even take a single picture with him? Is our president ignorant of basic manners? Perhaps we should be grateful that the President even allowed Netanyahu into the country. Since the Arabs are famously celebrated for their hospitality, perhaps on his next meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia President Obama can skip the bow and inquire instead as to how to treat a guest.
Remember the way the President treated the Dalai Lama this past February? Fearing upsetting the bullying Chinese, Obama similarly refused to publicly greet a fellow Nobel Peace laureate whom the world regards as its foremost humanitarian. No pictures, no press conference, no public welcome. To cap it off, he made the leader of Tibet leave through a staff kitchen entrance that was strewn with giant bags of garbage.
All this reinforces my growing suspicion that President Obama not only lacks a commitment to a moral foreign policy that champions freedom and democracy, but, when you cross him, even a commitment to basic courtesy. Cross the man and all that charm turns to ice.
I hope that as the President reads the words of the Haggadah this year he will focus on the very last line of the evening. It’s just four words, easy to remember, and it’s something the Jews have been saying six hundreds years before Islam came into existence. “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger. www.shmuley.com.
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March 26, 2010 | 4:16 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The advent of Passover and Easter, which always fall around the same time, beckons a deeper discussion about one of the principle differences between Judaism and Christianity. In essence it is the difference between a values system based on struggle and a values system based on perfection.
The reason there are no perfect people in the Torah is that we don’t believe in perfect people and we do not respect perfection. Do you know what the perfect person lacks that the imperfect person has? An imperfect person fights to do what is right. He struggles with his conscience. When you fight for something, you demonstrate its worth.
Look at the contrast with every other belief system. Christianity is predicated on perfection, on the idea that Jesus was tempted but never fell. The same is true for Muslims and Mohammed. In Buddhism, the Buddha is perfect. In Hindu, Krishna is perfect. Even in the pantheon of great American heroes, our founding fathers were once portrayed as saints. I remember being taught as a young boy that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a single penny. Both these stories were pure invention, but the idea was: How could you respect the founder of your nation if he was flawed?
Here in America we live under the tyranny of perfection. We are constantly being sold glossy images of people with perfect bodies, perfect résumés, and perfect lifestyles. Convincing people of their inadequacy in relation to these paragons of physical, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic perfection has always been a good racket, but never more so than today.
It even seeps into our religious debates. The insinuation that Jesus was lonely and required the love of a woman, as Dan Brown suggested in The Da Vinci Code, deeply offended many of our Christian brothers and sisters. When I debated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., about the subsequent movie, he said that the film’s protestors should remain calm but he could understand why people were upset. I said I understood how the departure from New Testament orthodoxy was provocative, but why was it deemed so hurtful? Dan Brown and the moviemakers didn’t say anything bad about Jesus—they said only that he got married! So what? If he were a young Jewish man growing up in the Galilee region in ancient Israel, not only would he have been expected to marry but it would have been sinful for him not to.
Why were Christians offended at the thought that Jesus married? Because the idea suggests he felt something was missing in his life. In short, he wasn’t perfect. As a perfect being, he required the love and validation of no one. You and I? We get cold and need comfort and want to be held. We feel dispirited, and we need someone to inspire us.
I am always impressed at the deep spirituality of my Christian brothers. I am a rabbi with a deep love and awe for the incredible commitment to goodness and faith that is so characteristic of my Christian colleagues. But ultimately Christianity loses me when it dismisses the humanity of Jesus in favor of his divinity. Jesus is so much more interesting when we read of his struggles in the New Testament to fulfill the will of G-d, like when he says, while dying on the cross, “My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?” And I am always puzzled why my Christian brothers and sisters seem disheartened to discover Jesus’s vulnerabilities.
Personally, I have no patience for perfect people. I find them boring, predictable, and judgmental. It is human beings whose goodness is real, yet purchased amid Herculean effort and struggle, whom I find so endlessly fascinating.
Judaism doesn’t value perfection. I believe that perfect people are sweet and nice but I have no relationship with them, nor would I seek one. If they’re perfect, they don’t need me. It has been estimated that in many marriages, the criticism-to-compliment ratio is three to one. The argument troubled couples make is always essentially, “but my spouse is so imperfect!” I counsel them to remember that if their spouse were perfect, he or she would never have married in the first place. So why not be thankful for our loved ones’ imperfections (as long as they take responsibility for their actions and apologize sincerely when they’ve done wrong)?
I am not a Christian not because I was born Jewish, because if Christianity were true I would be obligated to convert. Rather, perfection has no appeal for me. Perfect people do the right thing every single time. How could they understand someone like me, for whom every day is a struggle?
Being with perfect people is like watching a movie when you already know the ending. You can’t thrill to perfect people’s victories because they don’t involve real courage. Real courage means to be victorious over fear. If you were never afraid, were your actions courageous? No.
People used to think Martin Luther King Jr. was a saint. He started the civil rights movement when he was only twenty-four years old. He was killed before his fortieth birthday. Of course, one thought, saint that King was, he was able to lead those marches in Birmingham and in Selma and inspire a whole generation. No wonder he was so incredibly eloquent and courageous. He was perfect. But then we discovered that in fact he was deeply human and did things that betrayed big character flaws. Suddenly we saw him differently. In fact, his true greatness was thereby manifest: He was flawed and frail and still he accomplished so much. You mean he was scared in front of those attack dogs and Bull Connor? He had to struggle to do those things? My G-d, that truly is a great man.
To me, that is so much more inspiring. King wrestled with his conscience. Now he speaks to me, because I’m just like him. He was not an angel, not a saint, just a person who struggled to live righteously and courageously. And in so doing he changed America, dealt a fatal blow to racial injustice, and restored the country to its founding creed of all men being created equally by G-d. And he did all this not intuitively or instinctively, but amid great effort and struggle. It was never easy. But if he could do it and he was human like me, then I have no excuse not to try to rise to similar acts of courage.
The truly righteous man is not he who never sins but rather he who, amid a predilection to narcissism and selfishness, battles his nature to live a virtuous life. The truly great man is not he who slays dragons, but he who battles his inner demons, who struggles with himself to improve and ennoble his character.
The truth is that perfection fosters dependency. It is an engine that actually retards human progress, because it continually tosses humans back on a sense of their own inadequacy. Rather than lift them up, it keeps them down. That’s why kings used to claim they were perfect beings, kissed by G-d and standing high above their lowly subjects—because if you can convince people that they’ll never be as good as you, they won’t even try. They will worship you and hate themselves.
Those for whom life has been so sweet and smooth, those who refuse to struggle, will never know the true taste of courage. They will never develop the ability to overcome obstacles to do what is right. They will never firmly establish that their convictions are not just feelings. Struggle is where the infinite value of goodness is established.
The Zohar says that every single time you choose to subdue and subjugate evil, G-d’s glory rises higher and higher. Every time you exert the effort to choose righteousness over selfishness, you are showing that righteousness is precious to you, that G-d is a living presence, and that you are prepared to fight. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it entails sacrifice. Struggle is what establishes the infinite preciousness of righteousness.
Israel literally means “he who wrestles with G-d.” It was the name given to Jacob, who wrestled with a brother who sought to kill him and a father-in-law who sought to enslave him. Most of all, he wrestled with an angel. Israel is he who wrestles with the G-dly portion of his existence.
Most of what we cherish in life involves a struggle. I was a child of divorce, so I was extremely excited to be married. I anticipated perfection. Shortly after our wedding in Australia, I went out, a newly married man, to buy a camera. And in the camera store I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter was pretty. I was mortified. This is ridiculous! I thought. What kind of husband am I? I came home and confessed to my wife that I had noticed that another woman was attractive. She laughed at my naïveté. But it still bothered me, so I thought deeply into this. Why did G-d make love so imperfect? How do we even notice the opposite sex when we are in love with our spouse? Why is it that even in the best marriages we still recognize that other people are special?
Now I understand why G-d made love imperfect. Relationships are special when you choose each other anew every single day. Some think marriage is when you choose your spouse under the chuppah—the canopy used in Jewish weddings—and you’re done. Married! You never make that choice again, and your choice becomes a thing of the past. The marriage becomes stale and ossified, and the commitment is never renewed. But because we all struggle to keep the passion and intimacy in our marriages alive, because we struggle to compliment and love each other, because we wrestle with our nature to always focus on each other, love each other, and put each other first, we choose each other over and over again, and that’s why love is imperfect. The man who chooses his bride and never has to choose her again is one who takes her for granted, who doesn’t seek to bring novelty to his relationship, who allows it to stagnate. But if you forever renew your commitment and investment, your goodness and your relationship never go stale.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a renowned TV and Radio host, is the international best-selling author of 23 books. He is about to publish Renewal: Living the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books). He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. www.shmuley.com.
March 15, 2010 | 2:18 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
In my eleven years living in England I often observed, as did many others, that Anglo-Jewry lacked the vibrancy and innovation characteristic of American Judaism. The absence of an electrifying sense of Jewishness and communal dynamism was a subject much discussed among the Anglo-Jewish leadership. In areas like per capita philanthropy and social services, Anglo-Jewry led the world. But in communal programming and affiliation it was hemorrhaging numbers at an alarming rate.
Some said that Anglo-Jewry’s relatively small number accounted for fewer truly original ideas. Others spoke of the natural reticence and lower-key disposition of the English in general and Anglo-Jewry in particular.
In truth the principal reason for the stagnant state of Anglo-Jewry relative to its American counterpart lay elsewhere. Anglo-Jewry is profoundly hierarchical while American Jewry is profoundly meritocratic. Britain, for example, has a Chief Rabbi who is the community’s titular head and Ambassador to the wider community while in America a rabbi’s standing is judged not by any communal appointment or particular title but by effort and impact alone. The absence of a communal hierarchy means that individual Rabbis and communal leaders can innovate and try new and transformative programming without having to fit into an existing infrastructure of control or thought.
In both countries it is interesting to note that its two most successful ideas over the past two decades – Limmud in the UK and Birthright in the United States – originated with activists who were working outside the main organs of the established community. And that’s because giant bureaucracies often stifle originality. But in the UK where the bureaucracy affects the most important leaders of all – its spiritual guides – it is extremely challenging for Rabbis to go up against the spiritual status quo.
We see the same problem manifesting itself in Israel where Rabbinical innovation is strongly limited by the hierarchical demands of an established Chief Rabbinate. In effect a Rabbi is made to feel that someone is watching over him at all times. Being an impactful leader requires the freedom to maneuver and innovate. But wherever there is a Chief Rabbinate there is strong pressure to fit in and conform. And I only partially buy the argument that having an orthodox Chief Rabbinate helps to solidify orthodoxy as the community’s main and established current. In the final analysis, an ossified orthodoxy that retains hegemony by communal fiat will always feel oppressive and invite rebellion, whereas an orthodoxy that is alive and pulsating will rise to the fore naturally and be embraced organically. In America there is no orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Yet few would argue that orthodoxy is now the community’s most potent, effective, and vibrant force. And it became that way without being artificially propped up.
There is more.
Having a Chief Rabbi assumes community cohesion in name rather than fact. Whoever, therefore, occupies the position is immediately compromised by having to be all things to all people. In the United Kingdom, the community is bitterly divided between orthodox and non-orthodox. One of the things I found most distasteful about being an orthodox Rabbi in the UK were the constraints put on me from working publicly with my conservative and reform brethren on matters of great communal concern. In the United States it would be unthinkable for an orthodox Rabbi to be prevented from working, say, to defend Israel on campus with his reform counterparts. But in the UK sharing a public platform with the non-orthodox clergy is sacrilege. This prohibition served in no small measure to sow unlimited enmity between reform and orthodox Jews even in areas where there should be clear unity and agreement. The most famous example was when we orthodox Rabbis were prevented from attending the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a holocaust survivor and Britain’s most celebrated reform Rabbi. Is it not better for orthodox Rabbis to use halacha, Jewish law, as their guide rather than rigid communal orthodoxies? And can you imagine any halacha that would forbid a Rabbi, of all people, from burying another Jew?
The limitations of having a Chief Rabbinate explains a paradox of British Jewry under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. On the one hand, Sacks is universally admired as one of the eloquent Jewish thinkers of our time. A gifted communicator in both the written and spoken word, Sacks combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern understanding of contemporary events and social currents. Yet, the UK community has stagnated and shriveled under his leadership. Indeed, the paradox of Sacks’ leadership is how, amid Britain being privileged with arguably the most effective Jewish apologist of our generation, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has exploded under his watch as never before. Some of the highlights include the British High Court ruling, unbelievably, that the orthodox community has no right to determine whom the members of its own community are, the arrest warrant issued against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni by a British court, the decree that produce from the West Bank had to labeled as having been grown by Jewish settlers, and the ban by the British academic establishment of Israeli academics at their conferences. How could such an outpouring of anti-Jewish emotion erupt under Sacks’ capable watch? The answer is that in many of these cases Sacks only tangentially engaged himself. A Chief Rabbi is a member of the establishment and establishment figures – seeking respectability above all else – always try and avoid confrontation.
The closest thing America ever had to a Chief Rabbi was Stephen S. Wise who chose to be very guarded and tightlipped during the holocaust, shirking from nearly every political confrontation with his close friend Franklin Roosevelt. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a brilliant documentary about his tragic reticence entitled ‘Against the Tide,’ which serves as a moving and cautionary tale of ever concentrating too much Jewish communal power in a single, establishment voice.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network and has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.