Posted by David Suissa
“Imagine your congregation gathered to witness the first strokes of the Scribe’s quill on new parchment... Feeling a real connection to the shape of the letters, the texture of the parchment, the concentration of the Scribe, holding his quill, preparing to write the name of G-d.”
This is how my friend Rav Shmuel Miller, who passed away suddenly last week during Rosh Hashanah, described on his Web site his lifelong passion for enscribing Hebrew letters on holy scrolls.
He devoted much of his working life to the shape of these letters, the texture of parchment, the holding of a quill, with the concentration of a man always prepared to write the name of the Creator.
I first met Rav Miller when I moved to Pico-Robertson about seven years ago. I had just started writing my column, so I was making the rounds of the different shuls and rabbis of the neighborhood. I had heard from my French buddies about this unusual French-speaking rabbi (his friends affectionately called him “R’bbe Shmuel”), who had a little shul in his backyard.
As I got to know him better, I started to understand why he was so unusual.
For one thing, he looked like he came from another century. He had a glorious, regal look about him. He was tall and always stood up straight, ready to greet you properly. His eyes were dark and soulful, but with a mischievous sparkle. He wore his beard perfectly trimmed, framing a face ready at any moment to light up in laughter.
At home, he often dressed in jelabas and baboushes, much the way I remember my grandfather dressed in Casablanca.
As I wrote in 2007, Rav Miller would have looked right at home on the set of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Although he was an expert in Hebrew letters, he had a lifelong fascination with Arabic and became an expert in that language as well.
His interest in Arabic, he once told me, started because he wanted to study the writings of Maimonides in his original text. This is what I wrote at the time:
“He says this [knowing Arabic] gave him a deeper, ‘more palpable’ understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you ‘apprehend’ or ‘take in.’ It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood.
"Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.”
Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Miller was an intellectual who seemed to know a lot about everything. When he gave classes at my house about the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, he would weave in sources from the Talmud, the Midrash and the prophets, as well as the Zohar.
For years, he was my go-to person for anything Jewish. We would meet early mornings at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Wilshire Boulevard, and I would pepper him with questions on a subject I was writing about. Usually, before I would finish my question, his face would light up with a big “Ah!,” as if to suggest he had a few surprises in store for me.
He also loved music.
On Tuesday nights, a group of hipsters would gather in his home for a kind of spiritual Middle Eastern jam session.
“We would sit in a circle and chant Tehilim until gravity no longer had any effect on us,” is how my friend Maimon Chocron, who played the bendir (north African snare hand drum) during the sessions, described it.
He had a small but intense following. He didn’t get much press, nor did he seek it. His home and shul became a gathering place for the eclectic Jews of Pico-Robertson.
For all the bohemia that surrounded him, there was a precision to everything Rav Miller did. Although there were stretches in his life where he experienced hardships, both personally and financially, his dignity never suffered. His thoughts and movements were always refined and meticulous, just as when he held his quill to shape letters on holy scrolls.
These scrolls are now read in countless synagogues on Shabbat, every time a Torah is opened. The letters in those scrolls are his personal legacy to our community.
His life itself, you might say, was a like a holy scroll. It had the Old-World texture of parchment, the sharpness of brilliant ink, and the permanence of great ideas.
In his distinguished, regal way, he spent a lifetime preparing to meet God.
11.26.13 at 2:44 pm | There are plenty of good reasons to dislike the. . .
10.1.13 at 3:32 pm | “It’s as dangerous as the break-up of the. . .
9.22.13 at 12:31 pm | It appears that Rabbi John Rosove is excluding. . .
9.10.13 at 8:09 pm | “Imagine your congregation gathered to witness. . .
9.8.13 at 8:07 am | As President Barack Obama looks in over his head. . .
9.1.13 at 8:23 pm | The U.S. Congress must reject President Barack. . .
7.5.13 at 4:21 pm | If you look at the brouhaha ignited at Sinai. . . (5)
9.8.13 at 8:07 am | As President Barack Obama looks in over his head. . . (5)
9.10.13 at 8:09 pm | “Imagine your congregation gathered to witness. . . (4)
July 19, 2013 | 9:30 pm
Posted by David Suissa
In his personal and heartfelt speech yesterday on the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama did a great job explaining why “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Had he stuck to that theme, it would have been a fine speech.
The problem is that he ventured into the tricky area of long-term solutions.
Specifically, he spoke about the need to “bolster and reinforce our African American boys…who need help [and] who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement,” and he asked: “Is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?”
This is where he stumbled. He completely ignored the most important investment in a kid’s life— responsible parenting—and the troubling reality that, according to government statistics, 72 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried mothers.
As reported in The Root, an African-American Web site that is a division of the Washington Post, these are the consequences of fatherless homes:
As the Web site reported, these statistics apply to African-American homes in disproportionate numbers: “Compared with the 72 percent in our [African-American] communities, 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics and 66 percent of Native Americans were born to unwed mothers in 2008, the most recent year for which government figures are available. The rate for the overall U.S. population was 41 percent.”
There is nothing a government can do to substitute for a missing parent.
So, for all his courage in discussing the emotional and historical context of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, when he ventured into "solutions," our president failed to confront the crucial and vexing problem of African-American children born in fatherless homes.
That's too bad. As a responsible parent himself, the president ought to know the immeasureable value of tough love.
I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's saving that message for another day.
July 18, 2013 | 12:47 pm
Posted by David Suissa
I don’t have to tell you what it’s like to be on a packed, nonstop, 14-hour El Al flight to Tel Aviv, but I will anyway.
You know, the usual: Crying babies; a Zionist youth group with plenty of testosterone (all wearing red T-shirts); an Israeli dude who looks like a former commando cheating to the last second to talk on his cell phone before takeoff; flight attendants who spend as much time taking care of the crying babies as the parents; an old lady who tries to peek at my computer screen as I write; the smell of homemade food (stuffed cabbage?); a Charedi man with a look of permanent grouchiness on his face, maybe due to the presence of very short shorts worn by several women within spitting distance of his window seat; a constant flow of human bodies rising up to search overhead compartments, with the neat clacking sound providing a welcome counterpoint to the soundtrack of the crying bambinos; and, well, I could go on.
But what I want to focus your attention on is a loose luggage strap, color black.
As you know, there’s a certain period after takeoff when the fasten seatbelt sign is on and flight attendants are AWOL. That’s the law-- they have to sit. So, if you need anything during that time, you’re on your own.
The grandmother sitting next to me (the one pretending not to look at what I’m writing) needed something. Urgently.
What happened is that she saw a loose luggage strap, color black, doubled up, sticking out of an overhead compartment. Maybe she thought it was a safety hazard. Who knows, maybe she used to be a flight attendant with Pan American Airlines fifty years ago and in her training they talked about how a baby got killed once because a loose strap forced open an overhead compartment during a rough takeoff and the falling luggage missile knocked out the poor bambino. I don’t know.
The point is, that loose strap was giving her the shpilkes.
She whispered to her friend and pointed at it. When she wasn’t peeking at my computer screen, her eyes gravitated back to the stray strap. She made the motion of looking for a flight attendant. I knew she was trying to play it cool—not wanting to make too big a deal out of it.
But her repressed shpilkes act wasn’t fooling me. I have a sharp antenna for Jewish grandmothers with shpilkes. That loose strap was weighing heavily on her mind, that’s for sure. Well, it was weighing on her, that is, until twenty minutes later when a flight attendant noticed the runaway strap and, in a sharp double-clacking motion, put a quick end to the whole saga.
Now the grandmother is sleeping like a baby.
You see, this is one of the occupational hazards of being a columnist and a passionate observer of humanity—especially Jewish humanity—AND having 14 hours to kill on a noisy El Al flight. You end up looking for loose straps.
Even more hazardous, when you also have a weakness for meaningful insights and metaphors, and you haven’t much else to do, you end up staring at that loose strap and asking deep questions like, “Is there meaning in that thing?”
Well, of course there is!
(What did you think I’d say?)
I mean, seriously, are we not the people of the loose strap? The people with forever unfinished business? The people who love to catch the smallest mistakes?
Are we not the people with thin skins and stiff necks who’ve learned the hard way to always look over our shoulders—just as that worried grandmother sitting next to me did?
Are we not the people who’ve lived for 5,773 years knowing that we can never be satisfied?
Forget the people of the book-- we are the people of “there’s always something.”
No matter how much we accomplish, no matter how loved and accepted we are, no matter how “good” things look, there’s always something.
A looming threat. An unanswered question. A fear that things may be too good.
Even a threatening loose strap sticking out from an overhead compartment with bambinos sitting just below.
Like I said, when you’re bored, you can find meaning in anything.
But now I have to go. It’s too hard on my neck to type while trying to hide the computer screen from the grandmother sitting next to me who just woke up. I can’t take the chance that she understands English.
In twelve hours, I will touch ground to seek relief for my Israel addiction.
If I see anything else interesting, I’ll let you know.
July 16, 2013 | 3:42 pm
Posted by David Suissa
To hear the national outcry over the George Zimmerman verdict and the countless cries of “racism in this country,” you’d think that black people are killing white people and that white people are killing black people at an extraordinary rate.
It is true that in America, where in many states gun ownership is as pervasive as cable TV, there is an extraordinary amount of gun homicides. There were 11,078 deaths from firearms just in 2010.
But the real shocking thing, as J.J. Goldberg reported this week in the Forward, is that there was very little racial overlap in these deaths.
Specifically, 94% of black victims were killed by blacks, while 86% of white victims were killed by whites.
The raw numbers themselves are depressing. Of the 11,078 victims, 55% were black, although blacks represent about 13% of the national population; while whites, who represent 65% of the national population, accounted for 25% of homicide victims.
There’s no good news in any of this. Gun violence is reprehensible, no matter who dies, and no matter who does the killing. When you compare the U.S. to other countries in the Western world, you realize how our culture of gun violence is one of America’s least attractive traits.
Having said that, it’s one thing to bemoan these tragic deaths and it’s another thing to give them a racial slant-- as if the deaths were not tragic enough.
The loud voices across the country who have been yelling “racism” since the tragic death of Trayvon Martin—presumably because Zimmerman was white— should remember also to yell about the tragedy of thousands of blacks who die at the hands of other blacks. This would surely put a spotlight on an endemic problem that is crying out for smarter solutions.
I realize it’s a lot more dramatic and newsworthy when we have racial killings, but if saying the sober truth leads us to better solutions, then let's yell that truth.
I’m not saying, of course, that racism doesn’t exist in America.
What I’m saying is that this subject is explosive enough that the last thing we need right now is to throw more oil on the fire.
Especially when doing that distracts us from bigger fires.
July 14, 2013 | 10:37 pm
Posted by David Suissa
While the nation's eyes are on the growing demonstrations around the country over the George Zimmerman verdict—a case that had an abundance of reasonable doubt-- an enormous injustice has slipped through the national radar.
This is the impossible story of an African-American woman, Marissa Alexander, a 32-year-old mother of three, who is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Florida jail for the “crime” of firing a warning shot to scare off her threatening and abusive husband.
Yeah, you read that right.
The Alexander case reads like a nightmare of circumstances that you are sure you will soon wake up from. Only you never wake up, because the nightmare is real.
Alexander was convicted a little over a year ago by a Florida jury that ultimately sided with prosecutors in deciding Alexander’s actions were not in self-defense-- even though she didn't hurt a soul.
As reported on the MSNBC Web site, her sentencing fell under the technical guidelines of what’s known in Florida as the “10-20-Life” law, which requires that any crime committed with a gun earns the perpetrator a minimum ten-year sentence.
If the firearm is discharged, the convicted receives a 20-year minimum sentence, and if shots fired from the gun injure or kill anyone, the minimum sentence is 25-years to life.
Here’s what allegedly happened, according to a report on the CNN news site:
“Alexander said she was attempting to flee her husband, Rico Gray, on August 1, 2010, when she picked up a handgun and fired a shot into a wall.
“She said her husband had read cell phone text messages that she had written to her ex-husband, got angry and tried to strangle her.
“She said she escaped and ran to the garage, intending to drive away. But, she said, she forgot her keys, so she picked up her gun and went back into the house. She said her husband threatened to kill her, so she fired one shot.
“’I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do,’" she said. "’That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.’"
“Alexander's attorneys tried to use the state law that allows people to use potentially deadly force anywhere they feel reasonably threatened with serious harm or death.
“But a previous judge in the case rejected the request, saying Alexander's decision to go back into the house was not consistent with someone in fear for her safety, according to the Florida Times Union newspaper.
“A jury convicted Alexander in March and Judge James Daniel denied her request for a new trial in April.”
She hurt nobody, and got 20 years.
Like I said, a nightmare.
If the Governor of Florida decides to commute Alexander's sentence or at least help her get a new trial, I have no doubt that the country-- blacks and whites-- would back him up.
Now, where are the demonstrations for Marissa Alexander?
July 13, 2013 | 10:43 pm
Posted by David Suissa
It didn’t take long for publicity hound Al Sharpton to call the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial an “atrocity,” "probably one of the worst situations that I have seen," "a sad day in the country" and "a slap in the face to those that believe in justice in this country."
Had the jury decided differently, presumably Sharpton would have called it “justice.”
I have no idea if Zimmerman is guilty of murder in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, or if he acted in self-defense. I wasn’t there that night. I didn’t even follow the trial. But I am following the reaction to the verdict and, so far, I have to say that much of the reaction, especially the racial slant, is disappointing.
Rich Benjamin of Salon went as far as calling the verdict "a green light for racist vigilantes," while Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times lamented that “Even killers get the benefit of the doubt,” as she "struggled" to see the justice in the verdict.
Meanwhile, as reported on the Breitbart news site, Cristina Silva, a reporter for Associated Press, tweeted this out from her verified Twitter account (before deleting it): "So we can all kill teenagers now? Just checking."
Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun called it "emblematic of the consistent racism and double standard used in the treatment of minority groups or those deemed 'Other' in the U.S. and around the world."
Across the nation, The New York Times reported on the reaction as follows: "Lawmakers, clergy members and demonstrators described the decision not to convict George Zimmerman on any counts in the death of Trayvon Martin as evidence of endemic racism."
Over on the home page of the Huffington Post, below the “Not Guilty” announcement, the editors felt the need to add “But Not Innocent.” (How would they know that?)
Another writer on the Huffpost home page called the verdict “A clarion call for the nation to grapple with racial injustice.”
What's with all these clarion calls? Grappling with racial injustice is perfectly noble, but how about first grappling with the evidence shown at the trial?
Before we rush to judgement with cries of "racism," don't we owe it to ourselves to look calmly at the evidence presented to the jury?
As I see it, the best way to fight racism is by being color blind and sticking to the facts. Anyone who is upset at the Zimmerman verdict should have been significantly more upset at the O.J. Simpson verdict, when Simpson was acquited of murder despite overwhelming evidence against him. This clearly was not the case in the Zimmerman trial, where there was plenty of reasonable doubt about his guilt.
Thus, to accuse the six women of the Zimmerman jury of racism is even less fair than accusing the O.J. jury of reverse racism.
So, what about the evidence?
As a court reporter who followed the trial for the Daily Beast, Jacqui Goddard, wrote: “Despite 39 witness testimonies, the state never quite seemed to convince itself of its own case, let alone jurors, leaving ‘reasonable doubt’ in abundance.”
This abundant reasonable doubt played out on some key issues of the case, as Goddard reported:
“They played tape in court of a 911 call from a resident on which a man was heard bellowing for help in the background. It was Martin, they said, putting the young man’s mother on the witness stand to say as much. No it wasn’t, said Zimmerman’s parents, testifying for the defense, along with a host of friends and colleagues; it was their boy George.”
The doubt continued: “Local residents who had glimpsed the men struggling on the ground also gave evidence, but their accounts differed as to whether Zimmerman was on top of Martin, or vice versa.
“Then there was the gunshot itself. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy said that the gun had been pressed against Martin's chest when it was fired; not so, testified star defense witness Vincent DiMaio, a renowned expert on gunshot wounds. The bullet fired from the Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol passed through the boy’s two sweatshirts in a manner that proved his clothing was hanging two to four inches from his chest, consistent with Zimmerman’s claim that Martin was on top of him at the time, leaning over him in combat.
“A medical examiner for the prosecution told the court that Zimmerman’s injuries were ‘insignificant’ and not symptomatic of him having received a thrashing before he fired the fatal bullet. But DiMaio said the opposite; they were serious, and consistent with the accused’s claim that Martin had pounded his head on the sidewalk.”
No matter which side you're on, that sounds like plenty of reasonable doubt.
“Your assessment is not less important than that of the jurors,” wrote Philip Bump in Atlantic Wire, “but it is less informed.”
As Bump says, “No matter how much of the trial you watched on CNN, those jurors almost certainly saw more of the evidence than you did. They held documents in their hands. They saw what the witnesses—and Zimmerman—were doing while not on camera. They were excluded from hearing evidence that the judge deemed inappropriate or inadmissible. They have been instructed on the specific components of the law. And, most important, they are the only ones who know what arguments are being used to persuade each other to reach a unanimous decision.”
In fact, if we’re going to talk about “injustice” and “atrocities,” that seemed to have happened more on the prosecution side.
Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, an unequivocal champion of fair and equal justice, says the prosecutors should be charged with "prosecutorial misconduct" for suggesting the defendant planned the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
"That is something no prosecutor should be allowed to get away with … to make up a story from whole cloth," Dershowitz told "The Steve Malzberg Show" on Newsmax TV.
"These prosecutors should be disbarred. They have acted absolutely irresponsibly in an utterly un-American fashion."
This irresponsible behavior was especially evident at the end of the trial, when the prosecutors asked the judge to drop the aggravated assault charge and instruct the jury on felony murder committed in the course of child abuse.
“Felony murder is a murder that occurs during a felony," wrote Mark Steyn in the Orange County Register, "and, according to the prosecution's theory du jour, the felony George Zimmerman was engaged in that night was ‘child abuse,’ on the grounds that Trayvon Martin, when he began beating up Zimmerman, was 17-years-old. This will come as news to most casual observers of the case, who've only seen young Trayvon in that beatific photo of him as a 12-year-old.”
Bump of Atlantic Wire calmly concludes: "That you, on your own, decided George Zimmerman's guilt or innocence based on your sense of whether or not he killed Trayvon Martin is fine. It is your opinion. But when those six women [of the jury], exhausted and perhaps frustrated, emerge from their sequestration to announce their verdict, remember that your disagreement is worth little to nothing. You didn't see the case they did. And the case they saw was the only one that matters."
Perhaps the best final words belong to Trayvon Martin family lawyer Benjamin Crump, who said to Washington Post reporter Jonathan Capehart back in February: “We will respect the rule of law…We won’t resort to vigilante justice. We will let vengeance be unto God.”
July 5, 2013 | 4:21 pm
Posted by David Suissa
If you look at the brouhaha ignited at Sinai Temple in the wake of Rabbi David Wolpe’s announcement that he would officiate at same-sex marriages, you won’t get a good idea of what this “debate” is really about.
That’s because incendiary language has clouded the picture.
In an open letter that has spread throughout our community and was covered in the Jewish Journal and The New York Times, an opponent of gay marriage harshly condemned Wolpe’s decision, using heated language such as this:
“Homosexuality is explicitly condemned in Scripture and has been categorically and passionately rejected by all classical Jewish legal and ethical thinkers as a cardinal vice in the same category as incest, murder and idolatry.”
This wording is, to say the least, insensitive, especially since the writer surely knows that the very same Scripture calls for the killing of Jewish boys who desecrate the Sabbath (something that has never happened, of course), and that gay rights in modern nations like America and Israel have gone decidedly mainstream.
[Related: The Conservative gay marriage debate]
Furthermore, the letter’s coarse language glosses over the complexities of the issue and does a disservice to those whose support for traditional marriage has nothing to do with demeaning homosexuality.
Gay marriage is a highly sensitive subject, perhaps the most sensitive I’ve encountered in our community. It follows that it must be handled with kid gloves, not with a hammer.
Rabbi Wolpe, when he gave classes on this subject to explain his decision, tried to demonstrate that sensitivity. He wanted everyone to see that there is another side to the debate and he urged his community to respect that other side.
That alone was a major concession, because for most proponents of same-sex marriage, there is no other side to the debate. They see the right to marry someone of the same sex in the same way that they see the right of a black person to marry a white person. When one looks at it that way, what “other side” could there be?
That other side, the one that honors marriage as between a man and a woman, doesn’t need to be — and ought not be — about demeaning gays, biblically or otherwise. It’s a well-known fact today that homosexuality is not a choice, and to show insensitivity to that reality is shortsighted and heartless.
Where there is potential for an honest debate is on the implications for society and to religious freedom of blurring gender differences.
For many people who have serious reservations about same-sex marriage, the issue is not about gay rights versus other civil rights, such as racial equality. The issue is more about the freedom to respect and honor gender differences.
As Jonah Goldberg wrote in National Review Online, “The whole point of the civil-rights movement is that skin color is superficial,” as opposed to gender difference, which is “deep and biological.”
Consequently, many believe that it’s important that we ask this question: What are the possible repercussions of reversing a 2,500-year-old tradition for a new one that would fundamentally blur gender differences? As Rabbi Wolpe acknowledged during one of his classes, “No one really knows where this is going.”
[Related: We have no homosexuals here]
For example, can a gay person take legal action against his or her rabbi if that rabbi refuses, on religious grounds, to perform a same-sex marriage? After all, if one sees gay marriage as a civil right, then why wouldn’t the rabbi be legally vulnerable?
Will people have the right to respectfully express their religious preference for traditional heterosexual marriage without being labeled homophobes or being exposed to legal action? Can a photographer, for example, be sued if he or she refuses, on religious grounds, to work at a same-sex wedding?
If people express a religious preference for Jews marrying Jews — without offending non-Jews — is it OK, or even possible, to express a preference for a man marrying a woman — without offending gays?
Will public schools be legally mandated to teach kids that a same-sex marriage is perfectly equivalent to a traditional marriage — and will that infringe on the religious rights of parents who wish to teach a preference for heterosexual marriage?
These are sensitive questions — and I’m sure there are a few more. The point is to recognize that these questions do exist and represent honest concerns that ought to be discussed and sorted out as we go forward.
Sadly and ironically, in his vitriol condemning Rabbi Wolpe’s decision, the letter writer never brought up these concerns. In the process, he suffocated civil debate and undermined his own cause.
On a human level, there’s little question that this cause can melt any compassionate heart. It’s hard not to be moved by the joy that marriage brings to two souls in love. Love is love. A human union is precious and priceless. One doesn’t have to agree with a rabbi to have empathy for his or her decision to embrace the union of two loving souls, regardless of their gender.
Maybe that explains why this subject is so delicate. We’re dealing not only with complex societal and religious issues and potentially clashing rights, but also with real human beings in the throes of the most compelling emotion: love.
Whichever side of the debate you’re on, don’t fall into the trap of getting coarse and angry and blocking out other views.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of others is a godly act that keeps us human and humble. There are deep emotions and ideas on both sides of this issue. It would be worth our time to open our eyes and hearts and try to understand both of them.