Friday, December 17, 2010

Saying What You Mean, and Meaning What You Say

I don't know if you caught this item in the news this week...but it seems that the Nixon Presidential Library and the National Archives declassified another batch of transcripts from Nixon's infamous Oval Office taping system.  The New York Times reported it in this story.

Initially, the media's focus on this week's release was on Nixon and his already well-documented use of ethnic stereotypes and slurs (including evidence of anti-Semitism).

But many leaders in the Jewish community have been focused, instead, on a quote that is almost buried in the aforementioned New York Times story about the tape release.  That article notes that:
An indication of Nixon’s complex relationship with Jews came the afternoon Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit on March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.

But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Wait a second....did Kissinger - the Jewish Secretary of State and Holocaust escapee - just go on the record as indicating that he wouldn't care if the USSR sought to kill Soviet Jews in an act of genocide?

What in the world are we supposed to make of that statement?

It certainly doesn't add up.  Kissinger has long been honored by American Jewish organizations for formulating the Nixon Administration's pro-Israel stance (connected, for example, with the 1973 Yom Kippur War) to insure Israel's survival.

How do we reconcile Kissinger's well-respected and well-earned reputation with these disgusting comments?

Abraham Foxman, who leads the Anti-Defamation League, has gone on the record by defending Kissinger.  Foxman's piece is well worth reading.  He basically makes two important points about the Nixon Administration: (1) for sure many, including Nixon, were anti-Semitic and bigoted.  But they were also fixated on a realpolitik approach to foreign affairs - and, through that lens - they believed that the US had a significant responsibility to defend Israel (because it was in America's national security interests).  Foxman goes on to argue that (2) given the rampant anti-Semitism that we know to have existed in the Nixon White House, it is not realistic for us to expect that Kissinger would be free to entirely express his own views on Jewish-related issues.  Foxman believes that Kissinger - like some of us (?) - found his workplace to be hostile to Jews, and did whatever he had to do to not bring further attention upon himself and his Jewishness.  That could explain the almost anti-Jewish attitude that is reflected in the quote above.

This story isn't just important because of the historical and political questions that it raises.  The story is also relevant because it raises a basic ethical question: IS IT WRONG TO SAY/THINK ONE THING, BUT ULTIMATELY DO ANOTHER?

Consider the question for a moment.

Pure and simple hypocrisy is always easy to identify.  That would be if someone comes along and says that they love Jews.  And then a few days later: that individual enacts a policy at his business which prevents Jews from being hired.

We would all agree that that kind of (oversimplified!) two facedness is clearly wrong - a violation of our Jewish and secular ethical standards.

But the Kissinger story is an inversion of that example: where the speaker says terrible things about someone/something else, but his actions are actually a fine example of 'doing the right thing'!  Is that also hypocrisy, or is it justified?

What about in our own lives?

Can you think of situations where you were with other people and you felt pressure to 'talk the talk' with them, by using the kinds of language that others were using, or offensive terms (or jokes) that others were using/making?  And what does it mean to do that when you know - deep down - that those things are wrong and violate your own personal system of ethics?  Do you justify it by saying to yourself that they're just words....but that your actions represent the real you - the person who would never actually objectify a woman, or harass someone who was gay (to draw on two male stereotypes here)?

I think that there are competing Jewish values at play here, which makes this situation so difficult to navigate.

On the one hand, Judaism absolutely believes that our words are powerful: that they have the ability to hurt people, deeply - just as they have the ability to heal and help.  What we say matters, no matter what the circumstance.

And on the other hand, Judaism is certainly realistic.  There are times when it is okay to lie/be hypocritical a little, when it comes to preserving either our own lives, or the feelings of others. question to you: WHAT DO YOU THINK?  Is Kissinger two-faced, or is he just a complicated person like so many of us?  Is it wrong when we do the same kind of thing that he did - by saying one thing, but doing another?

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.  Join the conversation by posting a comment in the box below.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Dignity of Difference


Well...Hanukkah has come and gone, which means that Christmas is right around the corner.

I imagine that we all navigate through the month of December differently.  For those of us who grew up in a home with a non-Jewish parent - or for those who are currently in a relationship with a non-Jewish partner, then Christmas is/was perhaps an annual family tradition - either in your home, or in the home of your grandparents (or other family members).  Or maybe you have a close friend who celebrates Christmas, and you're often invited to join them as they mark their holiday season.

Maybe you just enjoy this season - because of the lovely lights, the stirring music, and the message of peace and hope that surrounds us.

Or: maybe you're like me, and you have a hard time getting through the month of December.  Not because of the stresses of shopping (see last week's posting!), or family...but because of the existential angst that I experience every year around this time.

(Okay: let's be honest.  I'm a recovering neurotic East Coast Jew.  I've got existential angst about pretty much everything, not just being a Jew around Christmas!)

Be that as it may, my honest confession is that I struggle with my own Jewishness during this time of year - because this is the one time of the year when I really feel different from the rest of the community that I live in. 

And since no one likes to stick out like a "sore thumb" (at least I don't), I've typically seen this angst as a bad thing...something I wish I could get rid of.

Well...the good news for me, and anyone else out there who struggles with this as that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Vayigash) addresses this existential dilemma.

The portion presents us with the epilogue of the Joseph narrative.  He formally reconciles with his brothers, and they immediately make plans to bring their father Jacob and the rest of the clan from Israel to Egypt to weather the rest of the famine.

In our portion, Joseph gives his brothers VERY PARTICULAR instructions about what they should say to Pharaoh, upon arriving in Egypt (see Gen. 46:31-34).  He tells them that they should identify themselves as shepherds, knowing that Egyptians object to the practice.  Joseph correctly predicts that the Egyptians will want to make sure that Joseph's family lives separately - outside of any Egyptian settlement.  And so it is that the family is "sequestered" in Goshen - the Jewish designated ghetto of Egypt (so to speak).


Chiddushei HaRim (a 19th century Chasidic source) remarks that Joseph was "establishing a pattern for his successors to follow in every generation: […] Neither emulate their [non-Jews’] ways nor mingle with them socially.  […] Knowing that the animal-worshipping Egyptians detested shepherds, Joseph had them introduce themselves as herdsmen.  Thus, Pharaoh would shun them and let them settle in the relative isolation of Goshen" (cited in Artscroll Chumash).

Our tradition validates Joseph's inclination to keep his family separate from the Egyptians.  He is, in effect, role-modelling a certain kind of behavior for all future Jewish communities: that it's safer if we never mixed with those who were different from us.

Now - to be sure - there is something problematic and offensive (to us) about the way that Chiddushei HaRim frames its comments.  Don't mix with them socially?!  Except for the ultra-Orthodox, all Jews have basically let that one fall by the wayside over the last 200 years.  Diversity is something that Western society celebrates today.  There is value in having friends and neighbors that are different from us.

But what are the limits to this approach?

The image of the melting pot (shameless plug for one of my favorite restaurants) is useful here.  We often cite the melting pot as an example of America's greatness.  That America's magic is derived, in part, from the unique blend of populations who have come here to call this land home.  The cultures of those populations have been mixed together here...and voila!  Presenting: American-ness.

But if you think carefully about the cooking metaphor, you will realize that individual ingredients typically "disappear" into a recipe.  To be sure, they contribute a unique taste or consistency.  But - when the cooking is over and the food is ready to be eaten, most of the individual ingredients are no longer in tact.  They have been absorbed into the larger dish.

That is the danger of assimilating.  If we strive to be more like the larger whole, we run the risk of losing ourselves - the essence of what makes us special, or unique.

And so it is with this December season.  The social pressure to "fit in" and "do Christmas" so that we can look more like our neighbors - and, indeed, be more like our neighbors - is all well and good, until our Jewishness: the undefined essence of who we are as a people, religion, culture, ethnicity, etc....begins to disappear.

For me, the message that being different is OKAY...that it is, indeed, necessary to be different in order to maintain the Jewish tradition is somehow comforting.  It gives me the strength and courage to wish others a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holiday, without wishing that it was my holiday as well.


Let me end by recommending an incredible book: The Dignity of Difference by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  In it, he writes that: "Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique.  There are indeed moral universals [...] but they exist to create space for cultural and religious difference: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, and the freedom we need to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.  I will argue that the proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth, one way.   To the contrary: it is that unity creates diversity.  The glory of the created world is its astounding multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of God telling us something we need to know.  That is what I mean by the dignity of difference."

For Sacks, that is a long way of expressing the value that comes from minimizing assimilation and the melting pot phenomenon.  For him (and for me), the more diverse our world remains - the more different we are from one another, than the more possibility there is that we can learn from each other...not by imitating the rituals and practices of those who are different from us, but by respectfully learning about them, and experiencing them as honored guests.

I'm interested in hearing how you navigate December.  Is it easy or hard?  Why?  I hope you'll consider posting your comments publicly (just click here) so that others can join in our conversation.

Wishing you a very meaningful rest of December,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 3, 2010

HANUKKAH 2010: Gifts, Gifts, Gifts

Thanks to the accident of the Jewish calendar, and the situating of Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, we cannot help but observe that the commercialization of Christmas is now (and has been for some time) the central part of our holiday as well.

We marginalize any remembrance of miracles and history.  Even the ethnic/culinary aspects of Hanukkah are overshadowed.  One wonders if American Jews would even light the menorah as much as they do if the giving of gifts wasn't so strongly associated with the ritual.

Now...before you start calling me Scrooge...let me go on the record as saying that I don't have any objection per se to the giving of gifts during Hanukkah.  Who doesn't like to give/receive stuff?  (God knows that our economy would benefit from more gift giving too.)

But even as we exchange gifts with family and friends this year, I would encourage you to consider that there is more than one way to understand the word 'gift.'

As we typically think of the term, a gift is something that is given...a commodified object that someone had to buy, or make.  That gift requires money, and/or time and energy to produce it, and for us to convey it to the person that we are giving it to.  The investment that we make in the gifts that we give has value: that's the reason why it's so critical that we say thank you for what we receive: because whoever gave it to us invested a part of themselves to help make that gift happen.  We should acknowledge that.

There's also a second kind of gift...Here, I think of the term 'gift' as being synonymous with the notion of 'blessing.'  There are things that we have been gifted - that we have been blessed to receive.  And I'm not talking about the latest video game system.  I'm thinking about our health, the abundance of food that most of us (but not all of us) have access to, and the gift of relationships that we enjoy (with friends, significant others, family). 

Now: where you think these gifts came from is a personal matter.  Perhaps you are inclined to give credit to God.  Others invoke the power of Fate or Mother Nature.   The point is that, this week - during Hanukkah, our job is to become a little more humble, and acknowledge that there are forces at play in the universe that can impact us....that we're not always as in control of our lives and our destiny as we would like to think we are.

Hopefully, from that place of humility, we can be moved to a place of gratitude: to a sense of thanksgiving for the gifts that permeate our that we know could be taken from us in an instant.

Imagine how different our country would be if Americans everywhere somehow came to embrace this message.  If, as a society, we were to come to realize that the only gifts that really mattered were the intangible ones: our health, and our sense of security - our sense of rootedness to, and in, the world.  Imagine how different our relationships with one another would be - especially during this time of year.  We would be relieved of the stress of having to find the "perfect" gifts for the people on our lists, and we'd be relieved of the obligation to fake our surprise/joy when someone gives us a gift that wasn't necessarily on the top (or even middle) of our lists.  And instead, our only responsibility would be to ourselves: to foster a sense of gratitude for the things that truly matter in our lives, things that aren't sold online or at the mall. 

Wouldn't that be a miracle worth celebrating?

Wishing you and your's a Happy Hanukkah.