Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
If Toni Morrison, the Nobel-prize winning African-American novelist, can refer to Bill Clinton, a white man, as America’s first black president, then surely the process can happen in reverse. Is it possible that Barack Obama is not the first black President but just another white guy who preceded him?
It’s a contentious statement, so let me explain.
Whiteness and blackness are ultimately immaterial concepts that refer to naught but skin pigmentation but were elevated to earth-shattering proportions by racists and those who wished to suppress blacks for their own advantage. But the principal, positive consequence of this barbaric, generational oppression of blacks due to the color of their skin is that in modern America ‘blackness’ has come to represent, more than anything else, a people’s capacity to endure suffering and humiliation yet agitate for their freedom and human rights. That agitation reached its apogee in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., who deserves to be called the greatest American of the twentieth century because he restored America to its founding principles. Prior to King America was a great, but deeply contradictory nation whose brave soldiers liberated Jews from Hitler while back home cowardly lynchings continued, and whose troops bravely fought the Communist menace in Vietnam while denying a black child the right to drink water from a fountain on a hot summer day in Selma. King ended all that. His reward was a bullet to the neck. But ever since then his memory and the black marchers who followed him and desegregated America has become synonymous with the willingness of a people to bear immense burdens to promote justice and freedom.
It was because of that extraordinary legacy that many of us looked forward to the elevation of the first black man, or woman, as president of the United States and leader of the free world. Surely whoever that person would be would usher in a new era, utilizing American influence to promote freedom and the rights of man worldwide. And whoever it would be would have a tough act follow after the actions taken by President Bush to promote democracy and human rights in the Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
Indeed, American has an almost shameful record when it comes to stopping genocide, as Samantha Power chronicled so adeptly in her 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning book, ‘A Problem from Hell.’ The United States responded very inadequately to the genocide of the Armenians in World War 1 and the Cambodians in 1975-1978. President Roosevelt famously refused repeated entreaties to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz during the holocaust. Morrison may call Clinton the first black President. But he did not so much as even meet with his senior advisers to discuss Rwanda during the three months of its genocide in 1994 when 800,000 died through the low-tech slaughter of being mangled by machete. Clinton likewise did little to stop the slaughters in Bosnia and Srebrenica, waking up only, and finally, to intervene in Kosovo.
Fast forward to President Obama whose actions with regards to dictators and wholesale human slaughter taking place on his watch, and the Libyan massacres in particular, have been utterly baffling. I have already written of my grave disappointment in Obama warmly greeting dictators like Hugo Chavez or rolling out the red carpet, literally, for President Hu of China while Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace recipient, Lu Xiaobo, rots in jail, and his wife Liu Xia is held hostage although she has never even been accused of a crime. There is the further issue of Obama’s gross disrespect of the Dalai Lama – sending him out of the back entrance of the White House past huge piles of garbage in February, 2010, in order not to offend the bullies in China.
But Obama’s abrogation of leadership and failure to champion human rights on Libya defies all comprehension and shows just how much the President has strayed from the legacy of Dr. King. First there was Obama’s utter silence for days as Gaddafi opened fire on his own people with jets, helicopter gunships, large caliber weapons, and RPG’s. Then, almost a week into the killing Obama issued his famous denunciation of Gaddafi’s mass murder as ‘outrageous and unacceptable,’ words perhaps more relevant to the threat of a baseball strike than mass human slaughter. The President further threatened Gaddafi with the possibility of economic sanctions, a subject which, one would think, is not exactly on the mind of a brutal dictator fighting for his very life. Finally, on Saturday, February 26th, the press reported that Obama, in a phone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that Gaddafi had ‘lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.’ Come again? Was our President suggesting that a dictator who had slaughtered and tortured his political opponents for four decades, funded international terrorism, and blew up discotheques and airliners somehow had had legitimacy in the first place? And what is the meaning of this statement being made in private to the German Chancellor? Is Mr. Obama too timid to call a press conference and announce in bold, unequivocal terms that Gaddafi is a tyrant who, if he survives, will be tried for crimes against humanity?
Obama’s inexplicable silence in the face of the public murder of peaceful political protestors – recall that his voice was for days absent even when Ahmadinejad mowed down his own people after stealing the election in June, 2009 - is in sharp contrast to the soaring and fearless oratory of Martin Luther King when he spoke of Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses on the last night of his life, April, 3, 1968, at Mason Temple. “I remember in Birmingham, Alabama… and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth… but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” … And we went before the fire hoses… That couldn’t stop us… We would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Just imagine what it would be like, if we had a President who rose to such oratorical heights when he witnessed innocent citizens being picked off by snipers in Tripoli.
Equally puzzling is the neutralization of Samantha Power herself, now serving as a special assistant to President Obama at the National Security Council and participating in the kind of do-nothing-on-human slaughter Presidential administration that she decries in her book.
And so, we continue to wait for America’s first black president, someone who will step into King’s shoes and use the most powerful office on earth to make freedom ring, not just from Stone Mountain, Georgia and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, but from Tripoli to Riyadh and Damascus to Beirut.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is the international best-selling author of 25 books and has recently published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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January 21, 2011 | 12:42 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The best response thus far to Amy Chua’s screed against the soft, indulged style of American parents, “‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” was by David Brooks of the New York Times. Chua decries American parents as wimps who capitulate to their kids. Not Amy. She has threatened to burn her children’s stuffed toys if they don’t excel at piano, withheld food, water, and bathroom break to teach piano to her seven-year-old, called them lazy, stupid, and fat, denied them play dates and sleep overs, TV and video games, and has slowly molded Carnegie-hall protégés with straight A’s. Thunderous applause. To which Brooks responded that the hardest cognitive skill that any child confronts is learning group dynamics and how to get along with other people, interactions which Chua seemed to dismiss as beneath her kids.
Touché. The man has a point. America as a nation would probably get an overall A in the success department but a D minus in getting along with each other. With half the population divorced, families disintegrating all around us, and some nutjob shooting up innocent bystanders about every other week, we clearly have demonstrated something of an inability to master interpersonal relationships, both with those we love most as well as strangers.
But I have a variation on Brooks’ argument. The draconian parenting advocated by Chua in her book breeds a real and potentially toxic narcissism. In essence her argument is that we must raise children with an extreme focus on self. Our kids are brought into this world not to be a blessing to others through a life of service but to become immensely successful, with success defined narrowly and almost exclusively in terms of personal achievement. A success is a concert pianist and a Nobel prize winner, an Olympic Gold medalist, a billionaire businessman, and a powerful politician. Great. Knock yourself out. But I counsel some of these “successful” people. Their lives are often ill-balanced and given their egos’ strangle-hold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond the dictates of their ambition.
Sure, we can all agree with Chua that TV and video games are a waste of time and I endorse her call for far greater discipline in parenting. But where does selflessness figure in the values by which she raises her children? Should every child really be raised believing that the greatest gift they can give the world is to inflict their vast achievement on it?
Indeed her book has generated such a wide readership precisely because American parents seem so much more interested these days in raising successful rather than good children, kids who excel at making money rather than making friends, at obtaining status rather than obtaining wisdom, at winning championships rather than championing a cause larger than themselves.
I wonder what the Amy Chua’s of this world do when one of their kids expresses a desire to be, say, a Rabbi, Priest, or teacher? Do you rent your garments and don sackcloth and ashes? Or do you simply them, OK, but only if you rise to be Chief Rabbi, the Pope, or the secretary of education?
Here’s the thing. I want my kids to be successful, sure. But more than anything I want them to be soulful and moral. Yes, I would like to see them prosper, afford nice things, and earn the admiration of their peers. But damn it, if money and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic, and giving then I have utterly failed as a parent.
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio host and author, tells a story of a woman who bragged to him that her children were top doctors and lawyers. He asked her, “Are they good people?” “Why of course,” she responded. And then his clincher. “Then why didn’t you tell me that first?”
I am proud when my kids show me a good report card. But I receive real joy when people who have met them tell me how respectful and warm they are.
Let us reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but they are selfish egotists, you blew it.
To the Amy Chua’s of this world I ask this question: Is America really missing success, or are we beginning to squander that success through an erosion of values? Success without values always ends in misery and failure.
That does not mean I dismiss many of Chua’s important points. I too have been mostly opposed to sleepovers because they involve no sleep before they are over. The kids come back dead tired and blow the next day. And often there is no parental supervision to speak of.
Kids should not be veging in front of TV’s and the last thing a child needs for their healthy development is to beat up a hooker with a lead pipe on a video game.
I do believe that American kids are spoiled and indulged and that far too many parents seem to be afraid of their kids. Afraid of saying no, afraid of giving simple, unalterable rules, afraid of giving them chores and responsibilities around the house. Why? First and foremost because we have such bad marriages these days that for many a parent their principal form of affection comes not from a spouse but from their children. And the last thing they’re going to do is bite the hands that feeds them. Second, we can’t say no to our kids because we feel guilty about how we neglect them as we ourselves veg in front of a TV. And finally, discipline takes a lot of out of you and we’re so tired and stressed from our jobs, where we invest the major part of our creativity, that we arrive home a depleted wreck, scarcely able to muster the strength to stand up to our children.
But there is also an overarching, pernicious American belief that the essence of good parenting is giving your kids all the things you yourself didn’t have as a child. But by giving your kids all the material things you lacked, you are robbing them of the one big thing you did have, namely, pride in your own effort and achievement. We’re not supposed to give our kids everything. They’re supposed to earn it.
But what Chua doesn’t seem to recognize is the need, as Maimonides expressed it, for moderation in all things. And this is especially true of parenting. Effective child-rearing involves finding the balance between how much we ought to actively chisel our children into what we believe is the perfect image versus passively allowing their own personalities and gifts to unfold.
But what most rubbed me the wrong way is Chou’s seeming insistence that having a kid who can play the piano or the violin is the ultimate in success. I believe in developing a child’s potential. But our kids aren’t a bunch of circus monkeys that we’re just supposed to train to impress teachers, ace exams, and perform in front of admiring audiences. They are people too and we have to help then find a personal truth that accords with their unique gifts and disposition. King Solomon expressed it wisely: Educate a child according to his way.
In the final analysis what Chua exhibits above all else is considerable insecurity. She tells her children that they risk becoming losers, which is what she terms anyone who is second-best. Life is a winner-takes-all competition and Chua’s ambition rules her like a demon. Yet she thinks nothing of coercing her children into the same cult of demonic possession.
At Oxford I met many people like Chua. They inevitably ended up, like her, as professors at elite universities. Their rigidity and obsession with success ensured that they never took real risks, preferring tenured and comfortable positions for life to the rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurship. For all their ambition people like Chua would never go into politics, for example, for fear of allowing a force outside themselves to determine their fate, the fear of failure precluding the ability to take real chances.
And are we really be loving to our children when we raise them in a climate of overarching fear?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ He is previously published the critically-acclaimed parenting manuals ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children’ and ‘Parenting with Fire.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
January 3, 2011 | 11:42 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
America seems to be running out of gas. Lethargy is creeping into the national DNA. We seem beset by problems that we can’t fix and won’t go away.
First, we’re going broke. With a deficit of $13.9 trillion dollars, every American child is now born saddled with debts of $33,000. Economists believe that the trillion dollar Federal bailout of the banking industry is chicken feed compared to the coming bailout of state and municipal governments whose profligate ways have all but bankrupted them as well. Forbes reports that New York City alone has a debt of $64.8 billion, or $7,760 per resident.
The American human rights agenda is stymied by debt, with China successfully preventing even American beneficiaries like Afghanistan and Iraq from attending the Nobel prize ceremony for dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese have embraced the values of thrift, hard work, and excellence in education that once made America great while we become more indolent and ignorant.
Rather than focusing on personal development, Americans seem obsessed with the lives of others. Social networking sites addict us with the goings-on of friends and acquaintances we haven’t seen in decades and the internet is cultivating among our youth the trifecta of exhibitionism, narcissism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nielsen observed that online social activity of consumers increased from about three hours per day in 2008 to five and a half a year later.
Reality TV is assaulting the very notion of human dignity, with millions of Americans regularly prepared to subject themselves to public humiliation to garner attention. There is even a growing trend among teen girls to get pregnant just so as to qualify for MTV’s Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, where the cost of fifteen minutes of fame is a lifetime of responsibility.
Our schools are a shambles with American High School students now ranking 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading worldwide. While we trail Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein, China is the world number one in reading.
American families are fractured and marriage is a rapidly deteriorating institution with forty percent of Americans now saying that it is obsolete.
Our kids are raised on junk food and junk TV, the lack of substance in the diet breeding a uniquely American form of insatiability. We eat but we’re not satisfied and we have an epidemic of childhood obesity. And when we grow up we continue the trend of leaving no itch unscratched, no thirst unquenched, rarely asking ourselves what hole has opened up inside that is so bottomless that no matter what we shove inside it cannot be filled.
But where the American malaise is most felt is in the area of human happiness. Skyrocketing levels of depression seem incongruous in a nation with the world’s largest economy and highest standard of living. Yet we consume three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants and one out of three American women is on one. Still, the number one cure for unhappiness in America remains shopping, which explains why, even with credit cards maxed we cannot curtail our spending addiction. On Black Friday 2010 millions of Americans got up at the crack of dawn to spend, according to ShopperTrak.com, $10.66 billion on things they may not need because it was twenty percent off.
I know, I know, we’ve had bigger problems before. During the Civil War we killed each other. During the Great Depression a quarter of the population was unemployed. And during World War II we faced a threat to civilization itself.
But there’s a difference.
Previous crises always had an identifiable, external cause that could be remedied, however painfully. During the Civil War it was slavery, the Great Depression high tariffs. In the Second World War it was Hitler and the Japanese.
This time there is no external cause. The enemy is us. Americans are suffering from corrupt values. The Tea Party blames our problems on spending-addicted politicians. But other woes in America belie a similar lack of discipline that has no relationship to finance. Rotten principles are at fault. Thrift has been replaced with indulgence. Spiritual longing with material consumption. Genuine curiosity with obtaining knowledge merely to pursue a career. Being a blessing to others has succumbed to the single-minded focus on self. Character has been supplanted by personality. The loud and boisterous get attention while those of quiet virtue are overlooked. And hovering over the decadence is a hell-bent obsession with money at any cost and fame at any price.
America is the greatest country on earth, but no nation has ever surmounted the challenge of success. Prosperity replaces hard work with a sense of entitlement, a yearning for knowledge with a passion for luxury. It was abundance, rather than invading hordes that slowly corrupted the soul of Rome and it is ironically vast American achievement that is now eroding the moral fabric of the nation. The Talmud expresses it succinctly: when you have not enough to do, you do what you ought not to do. America’s sense of high moral purpose has replaced with sustaining a standard of living. But plush carpets and plasma TV screens cannot nurture the human soul.
But there is hope. No country on earth can match America for determination and resilience and we can transform American malaise into American renewal by rebirthing the values that made us great.
Foremost among them is America recapturing a sense of adventure and discovery. We need teachers that excite students about the horizons of learning, a government that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship rather than penalizing hard work, families that turn off the TV and get their kids out hiking in national parks. Passivity is the enemy, strenuous activity the solution.
Second we need to recapture a sense of gratitude, appreciating what we have instead of being always greedy for more. America has many blessings. It must now the blessing of enough.
Third, we must instill within our citizenry civic virtue, living a life that is a blessing to others. The quickest way is to establish a mandatory year of national communal service that immediately follows High School.
Americans must also foster a new identity defined by the good deeds we do and not the things we own. This will most likely come from religion which must stop wasting its time fighting cultural battles like gay marriage and get back to teaching people the nobility of a purpose-lived life. We must create communities that are not on-line by reinvigorating Synagogues and Churches, community centers and charitable volunteering. We need a national Sabbath, a day where all stores are closed and where people don’t shop but spend time with friends and family.
Finally, we need to teach our youth about human dignity and the necessity of values. Public schools should institute dress codes that emphasize dignified dress and there should be a mandatory values class imparting non-sectarian, universal values of right and wrong, the moral bedrock upon which this great nation was built
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network and one of the world’s leading relationships experts. This week he is publishing his newest book “Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children.” (Vanguard) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
December 13, 2010 | 1:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
On a fresh crop of newly released Nixon tapes, the President, who disliked Jews but helped rescue Israel during the Yom Kippur War, says of his senior Jewish advisers Henry Kissinger, William Safire, and others that they shared a common Jewish inferiority complex and worked hard to compensate.
“What it is, is it’s the insecurity,” Nixon said. “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.”
Wow, I wonder where he got that idea. Could it have been from Kissinger’s own words on the tapes? After a meeting with Golda Meir in the Oval Office where she raised the issue of trapped Soviet Jews, Kissinger turned to Nixon and said, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
One shudders at the words of the first ever Jewish Secretary of State bending over backwards to show the leader of the free world that he bears no special kinship with his people. While the Kennedy’s unapologetically championed the rights of a free Ireland, with Teddy Kennedy being instrumental in bringing Gerry Adams of Sin Fein to the United States, Kissinger is adamant that even another holocaust would not be an American concern.
But as King Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. It’s simply not news that Jews often lack self-respect and constantly seek mainstream, non-Jewish legitimacy. Which is why even as an orthodox Jew I believe passionately that Jewish pride is more important than Jewish observance. Jewish self-esteem is the body within which the soul of Jewish observance must reside.
At Oxford one of my students who had become religious balked at wearing a Yarmulke around his friends. I told him, “I don’t care if you drive on the Sabbath or eat sweet-and-sour pork. Just do so with a Yarmulke.” He thought I had lost my mind. “A Yarmulke is not more important than the Sabbath. And second, there is no way I’m going to drive on the Sabbath or eat a Cheeseburger at MacDonald’s with a Yarmulke on.”
“Aha,” I said, “ so now you that when you proudly affirm a Jewish identity you feel uncomfortable acting in a manner that contradicts your Jewish commitments.”
I thought of this story recently in an incident with the American Jewish University (formerly, the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles after my organization, This World: The Values Network, approached the AJU to ask if they would partner with us on a West Coast version of my debate with Christopher Hitchens, the world-renowned atheist and humanitarian who is battling esophageal cancer, on ‘Is there an Afterlife?,’ which we had just staged at the Cooper Union in New York (the DVD is available on my website).
The AJU responded with an offer to have their Whizen Center host the event and pay me as a speaker, bringing in Rabbi David Wolpe and author Sam Harris to make it a four person debate. They made it clear, however that they had a very limited budget and could therefore offer a small stipend, to which I readily assented given my normal practice of accommodating important organizations with limited funds. I later discovered, however, that the tiny budget seemed to apply only to the religion, rather than the atheist side of the debate, a matter I raised with Dr. Robert Wexler and Mr. Gady Levy, who run the esteemed speaker program. I shared with them the point of principle that, while there may have been a misunderstanding here, the community ought to try and treat its own with the same respect it treats others and simply telling me that unless I accept their offer the event, which we conceived, will proceed without us is unacceptable. We are currently in discussions to fix the matter so that this important debate can be staged for the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Indeed, the story of Jewish insecurity and not valuing our own is as old as Jewish history itself, affecting even our greatest heroes.
Seventeen years ago I met Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and asked him to lecture for our L’Chaim student organization at Oxford, which, at 5000 members, was second in size only to the Oxford Union itself. I told Rabin that we had already hosted Peres, Netanyahu, and Shamir and would be honored to have him as well. He asked me, “Who will be hosting me? The University or the Jewish students?” I explained that it would be a joint event between us and the Union. But he pressed again for clarification. Would it be the Jewish students who were inviting him or the mainstream students?
Rabin was Israeli Chief-of-Staff during the Six Day War, who oversaw Israel’s greatest military victory and to whom Jews the world over remain forever indebted. But even this tough-as-nails sabra struggled, as do we all, myself included, with the seductive nature of non-Jewish legitimacy. Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, Michael Jackson, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, and countless other non-Jew luminaries all proudly addressed our students from our rostrum.
Rabin ended up graciously accepting our invitation but was forced to turn around after having arrived in Britain due to a terrible bombing in Tel Avid. The lecture was later delivered by his son Yuval who gave one of the most eloquent and proud speeches about being Jewish that I have heard.
I sometimes see the same trend with my own children. A prouder, more stalwart, less insecure generation of Jews is replacing us. They walk with Yarmulkes held high and tzitzit waving in the streets. They fight for Israel on campus even when marginalized for doing so. They are the living fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (4:6) that the day will come when the hearts of the parents are returned through their children.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network, which brings together international speakers to debate the great values-based issues of our time. In four weeks he will publish his new book, “Honoring the Child Spirit: Rabbi Shmuley and Michael Jackson in Conversation about What Parents Can Learn from their Children.” www.shmuley.com
November 22, 2010 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Every year Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raises about $100 million dollars from mostly evangelical Christians in the United States for distribution to social-welfare projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union. This is a staggering sum making the fellowship arguably the largest foundation for Jews in need in the world. One would think that we in the Jewish community would show immense gratefulness to our Christian brothers and sisters for such love. I therefore found it extraordinary, not to mention embarrassing, to hear that there is a growing campaign among elements in the Israeli Rabbinate to discredit the organization and forbid Jewish organizations from benefiting from their funds.
The worst of all character traits in the Jewish religion is to be an ingrate. Denying the goodness that others perform on your behalf leads to a closing of the human heart. Noone wants to be taken for granted. So great is the emphasis on appreciation in our religion that our greatest prophet, Moses, is commanded by G-d not to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood in the first plague against the Egyptians because that same river had saved his life when he was a baby. Later, in plague number three, G-d will again warn Moses against smiting the dust of Egypt and turning it into lice because the dust had saved his life when he had to bury the body of a murderous Egyptian taskmaster.
Imagine that. A man who speaks to G-d face to face is told he must show thanks to water and dust. But such is the extent to which Jewish values demands gratitude.
Over the past two decades evangelical Christians have emerged as Israel’s most staunch and reliable friends. Pastors like John Hagee, my friend Pat Robertson and countless others have galvanized colossal Christian support for Israel. Even in the worst bombings of the second Intifada, when tourism to Israel fell off a cliff, Christians still came in their millions. The same is true of stalwart Christian political support for Israel. While President Obama continues to bully Israel over apartments in Israel’s undivided and eternal capital, Jerusalem, American Christians have a litmus test for their elected leaders. Don’t support Israel? You’re out.
As I write these lines former President George W. Bush is enjoying a public renaissance in America with the publication of his new book, Decision Points. The President who was the best friend Israel ever had in the White House makes clear, at the beginning of his book, how he turned his life over to Jesus to be saved, and there can be no question that there is a direct link between his deep Christian faith and his love and unyielding support for Israel against those who, like Mahmoud Ahmedenijad, seek its annihilation.
I am well aware of our immense differences with the Christian evangelical community. I would venture to say, with no intention at arrogance, that I have conducted more debates against leading Christian scholars and missionaries, like my friend Dr. Michael Brown, on the Messiahship of Jesus and the evangelical insistence that only Christians go to heaven, than any other American Rabbi over the past decade, most of which are available on YouTube. Jesus was a devout and observant Jew for every day of his life on earth. He ate kosher, honored the Sabbath, donned tefillin, insisted on the indivisible unity of G-d, and fought for the independence of the Jewish nation against brutal oppression of Rome, beliefs for which he was ultimately crucified. It would behoove our Christian brothers and sisters to conclude that they have much more to learn about the authentic historical Jesus from Jews than any misguided attempts at converting them. Indeed, not only must these attempts be emphatically resisted by the Jewish community with overwhelming scholarship, but precisely the opposite is true. Christians must learn from the Jews to reject any deification of Jesus, which he, as a Pharisee, would have seen as the ultimate sacrilege and which is the subject of my upcoming book on the Jewish Jesus. They must follow Jesus as teacher and prophet rather than divinity. Every human being is a child of G-d, and not just Jesus, as the Bible makes clear in Deuteronomy.
But whatever our theological differences with our evangelical brothers, none of this negates the unparalleled kindness and friendship they show Jews and the Jewish community. To say they do this merely to convert us, or because gathering Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse, is to perpetrate a sacrilegious act of character assassination. Christians support Israel out of deep love and brotherhood. And it’s an act of defamation that even some Christian leaders are guilty of. I was disheartened, in a recent visit to a mega-church in North Carolina, to hear a renowned Christian scholar tell me that the only reason American evangelicals send money to Israel is because they mistakenly believe that the money is being used to proselytize Jews. Bullocks. I meet these evangelicals all the time. I have travelled with great men like Glen Megill of Rock of Africa on Christian relief missions to Zimbabwe, the poorest country on earth, and have listened as they have told me that their first commandment as Christians is to love and protect the Jewish people for no other reason other than G-d commanded it.
The man more responsible than anyone else for building this bridge between Christians and Jews is Rabbi Eckstein, a man whose efforts, with Christian support, feeds thousands of hungry Jewish children and Jewish elderly every day in Israel and abroad.
Israel is a nation that dwells alone, with few friends and many prejudiced enemies. Rather than Rabbis and lay leaders attacking Christians as having nefarious motives for their charity, we should offer thanks and gratitude to hard-working Americans of faith who believe, as the Bible says, that through Israel all the earth is blessed.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach heads This World: The Values Network, which seeks to heal America through universal Jewish values. An international best-selling author of 24 books, his most recent work is “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
November 8, 2010 | 12:01 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Home to 5000 Chabad Colleagues By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach 7 November 2010 - Tonight I attended the international Chabad emissary conference – the Kinus Hashluchim HaOlami – for the first time in sixteen years. When I was the Rebbe’s emissary at Oxford University I came annually. But with my split from Chabad over my inclusion of non-Jewish students at Oxford, I stopped. A lot has changed in that time. The man responsible for my firing from Chabad was himself fired. My close friend Cory Booker, whom I made president of our organization and who became the symbol of the non-Jewish outreach that cost me my position in Lubavitch, has become an American political superstar and one of the most sough-after speakers in the American Jewish community and will be the guest of honor at next month’s Colel Chabad dinner. Most significantly, the Rebbe passed away a few months after the last conference I attended. So it was with some trepidation and more than a little lingering pain that I joined my former colleagues in Chabad’s annual celebration of its global network of Ambassadors. How did it feel? Like being reborn.
Like coming home and having a central riddle of one’s life make sense again. What motivated a modern-orthodox boy of eight to fall in love with a Hassidic Jewish group who in the 1970’s was largely dismissed as a cult? More than anything it was this: Chabad made me feel like my life mattered. In a private audience the Rebbe told me I was born for great things.
I was part of an eternal people who had vastly contributed to the dissemination of G-d’s light in an otherwise dark world. Through persecutions and holocausts, assimilation and intermarriage, materialism and ignorance, that people were now endangered. And there was a sage who lived in Brooklyn whose English was broken but whose determination was resolute. He would, before he died, breathe new life into a fading nation. He beckoned me to join him as an agent of Jewish renewal. Chabad became the passion of my life. Defying my parents’ strong objections I left home at fourteen to be part of the Rebbe’s dream of a global Jewish renaissance and never looked back. A few years later I was his official representative at an important center of higher education, surrounded by impressionable young minds who thirsted for spiritual purpose. I knew then in theory what I witnessed tonight in practice: Chabad would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they executed their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate the people about their tradition. But Chabad sought to raise the earth’s inhabitants to a higher G-d-consciousness and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life. The passion and dedication of Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather it coursed their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of G-d and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality was grafted onto the average Chabad activists’ very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of their character and personality. Witnessing the fulfillment of that premonition tonight at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Netanyahu flew in from Israel to attend the Jewish Federations Annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad Shluchim conference.
If an Israeli Prime Minister wants to be part of the gradual unfolding of modern Jewish history then he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach and grass roots impact. And it is growing exponentially. When I last attended the Chabad Shluchim conference there were a few hundred of us from about twenty countries. We all fit into a small ballroom. A decade and a half later there are 5000 from 80 countries. No doubt, with its staggering birthrate and about half of all its members dedicating themselves to a lifelong posting, by the year 2020 Chabad will be fielding more than 15,000 emissaries in nearly all the world’s nations and will be the mainstream Jewish branch in most. In countries like France, Russia, Australia, and Britain this has largely happened. But even in countries with robust and highly developed Jewish communities like the United States and Canada the smart money will be on Chabad to emerge as leader. Of course, it is not just Chabad which has changed so dramatically over the past 16 years. I have changed as well. My love for Chabad is just as deep, but I am past my infatuation. I see flaws that need to be corrected. The leadership must strive to be more democratic. A growing nepotism must be reversed in favor of the meritocracy which was responsible for Chabad’s astonishing cultivation of entrepreneurial talent. Most of all, if it is to impact the mainstream rather than just the Jewish world Chabad must finally overcome its Jewish insularity and embrace the Rebbe’s collective vision of a global Messianic awakening. Indeed, what was most missing from the gathering tonight was the Rebbe’s tangible presence. Chabad was never about money. Indeed, for me it was a refuge from modernity’s corrosive materialism. But a global movement with an enormous budget must honor the heroic philanthropists who make their work possible. But it must be done in a manner that never compromises the Rebbe’s defining characteristic of treating paupers and billionaires as being of equal and infinite value. But whatever my reservations, the electrifying spectacle tonight more than compensates. Not long ago the Jewish people were made to believe that if they were to succeed in the modern world they would have to make accommodations with strict adherence to tradition. Scraggly beards would have to be shaved off. Large families would have to give way to two kids and a dog. Names like Elazar and Tova would have change to Leo and Tiffany. Yeshiva and smicha would have to be forfeited in favor of Wharton and a Masters. Even orthodox Jews embraced this vision, if not in the name of progress than at least in the name of survival. And yet, the movement that has superseded them all is that which continues to believe that Judaism is so potent that the world will slowly bend to accommodate it rather than the reverse.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international best-selling author of 24 books, heads This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to spreading universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
October 26, 2010 | 10:07 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Oh G-d no. Not another Bible codes book. And this one launched in a full page ad in The New York Times highlighting how in May 2008 Oprah Winfrey sent a Bible code to Barack Obama that he would become President.
Surely I as an orthodox Jew ought to applaud a book that proves that the Torah has encoded prophecy, thereby proving its authenticity. But aside from the question of whether President Obama is G-d’s anointed, I have serious objections to the Bible codes.
First, there is the fact that you can take nearly any lengthy book, put it through a computer, and pull out prophecy. Prof Brendan McKay of Australian National University found 13 predicted assassinations of public figures encoded in Moby Dick, including several presidents and Prime Ministers. McKay also found an encoded phrase in Moby Dick that predicted “Drosnin (the author of the codes series) will be murdered by Eli Rips (the Israeli scholar who first discovered the codes) in Athens.” Other scholars found results that were as statistically impressive as Rips in a Hebrew copy of War and Peace.
Next, associated with the codes there is the usual apocalyptic bunkum that has so tarnished religion. The codes apparently predicted an atomic Holocaust in 1986 and, if that didn’t happen, that the world would end again in 2006. (It’s worth noting my cardinal rule about the difference between a real religion and a cult: religion teaches you to revere life while a cult teaches you to fear death). The codes predicted a world war in the year 2000 and that Israel would be destroyed in a global cataclysm (let’s hope Ahmedenijad isn’t reading the book). The book further predicted a comet would strike earth and obliterate much of it in 2006.
What makes an even greater mockery of the codes is that the Torah today is somewhat imprecise in that some of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be replaced by vowels and we are not certain whether the vowel, or the letter itself, should be in certain passages. Insert a few of these missing letters and the codes become gibberish.
But none of this has stopped a few Jewish outreach organizations, most notably Aish HaTorah, from employing the codes as a principal tool by which to attract young Jews to their tradition. Little do they realize that Christian missionaries are now putting the New Testament through computers to demonstrate, through their own codes, that Jesus is the foretold Messiah.
But my personal objection to the codes is something else entirely and has to do with the rise of Judaism as magic and Rabbis as soothsayers. Over the past twenty years we have witnessed a slew of mostly fraudulent Cabbalists and questionable mystics running around the world and telling gullible Jews their future. Many are Rabbis who even claim illustrious pedigrees. The majority employ a classic ‘cold reading’ - where without even realizing it, you end up supplying the information to the ‘seer’ who can really only see your wallet – and are about as capable of telling the future as I am of playing in the NBA. You receive a private audience with these much sought-after Rabbis and they immediately wish you a speedy recovery for your ailing back. They tell you they know you’re having tension with one of your children and that your dead mother has forgiven you for the time you forgot her birthday. They offer sop and comfort, but ask them anything truly useful, like when will the next bomb go off in Jerusalem so as to save innocents from dying – and they stealthily change the subject. But that hasn’t stopped wealthy, educated, and sophisticated Jews all over America from lining up around the block to line these charlatans pockets and get business and personal advice.
We are living in an age that desperately needs religion. Modernity is only a blessing so long as its technological advances are governed by values. Wealth in the West has ended poverty but has brought in its wake soullessness and materialism. Putting the professional before the personal has lead to the decimation of romantic relationships and the neglect family and children.
This is why the Bible is more relevant than ever before. Western men and women need to read of a wealthy nobleman named Abraham who personally sat outside his tent to welcome wayfarers. Politicians who eviscerate each other in attack ads need to read of Moses who brought Pharaoh to his knees yet remained ‘the most humble man who walked the earth.’ Brothers and sisters who haven’t spoken in years need to read of Joseph who became the most powerful man alive but forgave his siblings their attempt at fratricide. Men who cheat on their wives must read of King David who engaged in the most severe penance after his affair with Bathsheba.
But religion as pious sorcery threatens to undermine its moral dimension. The Bible codes and mystical, magical Judaism tell us it’s not the inspirational guidance and wisdom for life which makes the Bible special but it’s hidden numerology and nascent predictions. You turn to the Bible not to learn how to be close to G-d but to predict the next property surge.
So let me be clear. I couldn’t give a damn if the Bible can predict the next President and I don’t need the Torah to forewarn me that I’m about to become nuclear melba toast. Rather, I turn to Judaism to discover the values by which I should lead my life and maximize my human potential. I seek not to discern the future but master the here-and-now. Religion is a roadmap not to some underlying codes hidden in the Bible but my underlying G-dly nature that sits beneath my ambition, selfishness, and egocentrism and strives to come out.
If you want a vulgar forgery of faith there are any number of religious charlatans who, for a couple of bucks, are ready to read your palm. But if you’re an adult then you’re ready for religion as something that attunes you to G-d and humanity’s needs rather than focusing exclusively on your own.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network which seeks to use universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
October 18, 2010 | 1:10 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, sparked controversy last week by declaring in a speech at an Orthodox synagogue that children shouldn’t be “brainwashed” into considering homosexuality acceptable. He later apologized, saying that he supports gay rights but opposes gay marriage. The Rabbi who hosted Mr. Paladino’s speech then retracted his endorsement of the candidate. Likewise, the Jewish Standard in New Jersey recently sparked a community-wide uproar by publishing a gay wedding announcement.
People of faith insist that homosexuality is the most serious of sins because the Bible calls it an abomination. But the word appears approximately 122 times in the Bible. Eating non-kosher food is an abomination (Deut.14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on G-d’s altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1.). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying, and gossip as that which ‘the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him’ (3:32, 16:22).
As an orthodox Rabbi who reveres the Bible I do not deny the Biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. Rather, I simply place it in context. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples come to me for counselling and tell me they have never been attracted to the opposite sex in their entire lives and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home with a mezuzah on the door. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your festive meal with many guests. Put on tefillin and pray to G-d three times day for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out.”
Once, I said to my friend Pat Robertson, whom I have always found engaging and open in our conversations, “Why can’t you simply announce to all gay men and women, ‘Come to Church. Whatever relationship you’re in, G-d wants you to pray. He wants you to give charity. He wants you to lead a G-dly life.” He answered to the effect that homosexuality is too important to overlook, seeing as it poses the most grave risk to the institution of marriage. Other evangelical leaders have told me the same. Homosexuality is the single greatest threat to the family.
But with one of out two heterosexual marriages failing, with seventy percent of the internet dedicated to the degradation of women through pornography, and with a culture that is materially insatiable even as it remains all-too spiritually content, can we straight people say with a straight face that gays are ruining our families? We’ve done a mighty fine job of it ourselves, thank you very much.
The extreme homophobia that is unfortunately to be found among many of my religious brothers and sisters – in many Arab countries being gay is basically a death sentence – stems from an even more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin. The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression, religious and moral. The first tablet discusses religious transgressions between G-d and man such as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, and desecrating the Sabbath. The second tablets contains the moral sins between man and his fellow man, like adultery, theft, and murder.
The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will.
For the record, I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage. But I hardly believe that gay marriage is the end of Western civilization. For me the real killer is the tsunami of divorce and the untold disruption to children as they become yo-yos going from house to house on weekends. The American religious and electoral obsession with all-gay-marriage-all-the-time has lead to a values-vacuum in America where it is near impossible to discuss real solutions to the erosion of family life. For instance, making marital counselling tax-deductible would, I believe, do infinitely more to bolster the crumbling institution of marriage than any opposition to gay relationships. Likewise, promoting a code of gentlemanly conduct for men on American College campuses and negating the prevailing hook-up culture where sex even precedes dating could spark a return to romantic and long-term commitments. Finally, getting more families to sign up for our international ‘Turn Friday Night Into Family Night’ would give children in general, and girls in particular, greater self-esteem as they are focused on by their parents for at least two hours each week without any electronic interference. And children with self-confidence later create stronger adult relationships.
I have countless gay friends whose greatest fear, like so many straight people, is to end up alone. Should we merely throw the book at these people? Does not the same book, the Bible, also say, “It is not good for man to be alone?” And all I’m asking from my religious brethren is this: even as you oppose gay relationships because of your beliefs, please be tortured by your opposition. Understand that when our most deeply held beliefs conflict with our basic humanity, we should feel the tragedy of the conflict, rather than simply find convenient scapegoats upon whom to blame all of America’s ills.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author, most recently, of ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, and is founder of This World: The Values Network, a national organization that promotes universal Jewish values to heal America. Follow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley and at his website: www.shmuley.com