Friday, December 16, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Hanukkah is upon us!  For all of the general Hanukkah information you could ever want or need, click here for my 2009 Hanukkah blog posting.

This year...I've been thinking about the Hanukkah story.  You might remember that the story begins with the evil Antiochus IV (of the "Syrian-Greeks") who is looking to violently foist Hellenism on the Jewish residents of the Land of Israel around 168 BCE.

What is Hellenism?  Try here for one answer.  But my simplified response is that Hellenism was the values, beliefs, and culture of Ancient Greece.  Antiochus, a proud Greek himself, wanted to replicate those values amongst other peoples as well.

The aspect of Hellenism that I want to focus on this week is the one associated with physical beauty.  The Greeks, conscious of aesthetics, sought out people and things that were physically beautiful, and celebrated them.  Greek mathematics was partially organized around the belief that things that were symmetrical were beautiful...or perfect.  This influenced Greek architecture, and art...and even the way that people perceived themselves.  And although every culture has always offered up its own definition of what constitutes physical beauty, there is little question that our society's own ideas about beauty can be traced right on back to ancient Greece.

Beyond the question of what constitutes American beauty today, I find it fascinating that - like the Greeks - we put so much IMPORTANCE on the physical appearance of ourselves and others. 

I don't know if you heard about it...but there was an extraordinary survey published this week about this subject...and according to the survey, 32% of Americans believe that they themselves are stunningly beautiful - giving themselves an 8,9, or 10 on a scale of 1-10!

32%!  Am I the only one that thinks that number is absurdly high?

But here's the best part: we Americans don't just think that we ourselves are beautiful.  We have also deluded ourselves into thinking that we are far more beautiful than everyone else

I say all of this by way of introduction to this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayeishev.  It's the beginning of the Joseph epic (his story takes up all of the rest of the Book of Genesis!).  And, curiously, this week's Torah portion contains the following (unexpected!) description of our famous ancestor: "Joseph was well built and good looking" (Genesis 39:6).  How bizarre!  The Torah does not usually describe our ancestors (especially men) in those kinds of terms.

Interestingly, the history of commentary on this verse sheds light on the Jewish approach to beauty - which, as we might expect given the Maccabean revolt against Hellenism - is notably different from the Greek one.

Rashi (c. 1100 France) criticizes Joseph for spending too much time at the ancient Egyptian version of the spa, especially while he knows that his father Jacob sits at home - inconsolable because he mistakenly believes that Joseph is dead.  Rashi notes that the Torah's statement about Joseph's beauty comes right before Mrs. Potiphar (wife of Joseph's boss) attempts to seduce him.  Rashi suggests that the attempted seduction is God's way of punishing Joseph for being too vain. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of 19th century Germany, reads the text differently.  The vanity suggested in the Torah itself is so preposterous to Hirsch that he cannot acknowledge that Joseph's looks had anything to do with Mrs. Potiphar's attraction to him. Instead, Hirsch insists that Joseph's "splendid spiritual attainments" far outshone his beauty....and those 'attainments' were the catalyst for the attempted seduction.

Whether you agree with Rashi or with Hirsch...our tradition is clear: a value judgement is being made against vanity and the preoccupation with one's own personal physical appearance.  There is a danger, Judaism believes, in concentrating too much on the outside.  If we do so, we make ourselves vulnerable to spoiling the beautiful sparks of our souls that rest within us.

As you gather around the menorah in the coming days, and admire the beauty of the lights....consider this week's Torah portion as well....and be reminded of the pitfalls of physical beauty.  Contrary to the ancient Greeks, we Jews believe that our inner selves are always more precious and beautiful than our outer ones.

Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor: Seventy Years Later

Earlier this week, our country marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The anniversary provides us with the chance to reflect on our national and Jewish values...particularly as they apply to the question of war.

(For a broad introduction to Jewish law and what constitutes a "just" or permitted war, click here.  And click here for the landmark Reform responsum on the specific question of whether the war in Iraq meets the threshold of a Jewishly permitted war.  That document is all the more pertinent as our country marks the formal conclusion of an American military presence in Iraq over the next few weeks.)

To frame this conversation, I want to refer you to this article, which made the rounds this past week on a number of Jewish websites, written by JJ Goldberg, a prominent writer in the Jewish press.

Goldberg starts the article by insisting that we should not be afraid to use our military strength.  He does this by articulating the two fundamental lessons (that he thinks we need to learn) from Pearl Harbor (and about the related subject of America's pre-Pearl Harbor hesitation to get involved in WWII):

1) "There are times when you can't run away from a fight, when you have to stand and face evil, when nothing will do but to struggle and win."
2) "America is the essential nation.  It is not enough to be a beacon of democracy and freedom: We must be their defender as well.  There is no greatness in solitude, nor honor in indifference."

In other parts of the article, he seems to be implying that he takes this position because of the Jewish loss of six million during the Holocaust.  If the US had gotten involved in the War in Europe earlier...more lives could have been saved.  (Fascinatingly, see Rabbi Daniel Gordis' piece this week from Israel, in which he observes the opposite: while mourning the losses of Pearl Harbor, Gordis also expresses gratitude for it...because it ultimately got the US into the War and prevented the total annihilation of the Jewish people.  Which perspective speaks to you?)

Okay.  Back to J.J. Goldberg.

Remember, as I quoted above, Goldberg begins by seeming to suggest that the ultimate lesson of Pearl Harbor is that the US was too slow in using its force to police the Axis Powers.

But, at the end of the article, Goldberg seems to switch gears!  Writing about the aftermath of WWII, and our long Cold War with the Soviets, Goldberg acknowledges that: "not every foe is pure evil and not every compromise is 1938.  We used to understand that."

To me, that's a statement which argues for much more restraint regarding the use of force.

This question of what constitutes a "kosher" use of force could not be more important or relevant today.  Even as we are withdrawing our troops from Iraq, they remain in Afghanistan.  We remain unsure of a possible future war with Iran, or North Korea.  And even further down the line: China?

We hope and pray for a future filled only with peace.

But sadly, it seems to me that there will still be more wars to be fought, before the era of peace dawns.  And if that is the case, then we American Jews should take this moment to reconsider: Which of Goldberg's approaches resonates more with you, and the Jewish values you hold dear?  The former, which urges us to be fearless when it comes to exercising our military might?  Or the latter, which urges restraint?

What are the conditions that seem "just" to us in using force?  Saving more than X number of lives?  The lives of a certain race?  Or religion?  (Are we more sympathetic to the saving of Jewish lives?)  And how are our thoughts about Israel connected to all of this?  In what cases should America's military be used to protect Israel?  And when not?  And when should Israel use force?  And when not?

There are no easy answers here...only hard questions.  I welcome your thoughts either publicly here on the blog (commenting works best when you are browsing with Internet Explorer) or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 2, 2011

Taking the Blame

There was an important news story that came out of Pakistan a few days ago….though most of us were probably too busy finishing off our turkey leftovers, and beginning our holiday gift shopping, to pay attention to it.

A week ago, American and NATO forces engaged in an operation against Taliban fighters around the infamous and amorphous border than runs between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the process, 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed.

Tensions between our country and Pakistan have been running high since we captured and killed Osama bin Laden in May….without the help of the Pakistanis – because of our concern that they might have been complicit in hiding him over these last few years.

The trouble is that we can’t just wash our hands of Pakistan.  They are an essential and strategic partner in the ongoing war against terror….particularly vis a vis the American military presence in Afghanistan. 

Which brings us back to the unfortunate loss of life that occurred in Pakistan seven days ago.

Washington has been abuzz about whether or not President Obama should publicly apologize to Pakistan for the apparent error.  As best as we can determine, the State Department is in favor of an apology, in the hopes that that would placate Pakistan, and ease the way for continued partnership in the region.

And the Defense Department has advised against such an apology, pending a thorough review of the incident that could take months, or even years, to complete. 

In the meantime, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have issued a joint statement expressing their “deepest condolences” to Pakistan on the loss.

The question is: is that enough?  Or does our president and commander in chief have the responsibility to take the blame, and publicly apologize on America’s behalf?

This is partially a partisan political question. 
But for me, there is also a relevant Jewish question on the table.  What is the inherent value of an apology?  And when should we be offering one?

The question arises, in part, from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeitzei.  The portion includes the saga of the complicated relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law Lavan.  After years and years of living together as an extended family, Jacob finally seeks to cut the cord…and settle down with his children on property that is separate from Lavan’s.  But Jacob’s departure isn’t a simple matter.  Lavan is concerned that Jacob’s departure is tied to some trickery…and he becomes paranoid that Jacob has stolen from him.  Lavan insists on inspecting all that Jacob has, to make sure that none of his stuff is hidden within.

Jacob is naturally insulted that is father-in-law so distrusts him.  He makes a speech in which he passionately reminds Lavan that time and again, he [Jacob] always "took responsibility" (Gen. 31: 39) for any of Lavan's property that was lost under his watch (particularly when he served as a shepherd of Lavan's animals).

The text is attempting to make a profound statement about ethics in general, and about the Jewish qualifications for leadership more specifically.  What happens under our watch is our responsibility.

Jacob is described as a respectable leader, and a praiseworthy individual, because he is someone who is willing to accept responsibility, and take the blame, when things happen.  Even if he did not want or choose for them to happen.  If they happened under his watch, then he knows that the responsibility rests with him.

Our commentators are quite interested in Jacob's use of the phrase I took the blame.  What does it mean in our tradition to accept responsibility for our actions?

Rashi, quoting the first century Torah translator and commentator Onkelos, offers one possible answer: "Onkelos [1st century] alternatively translates this phrase as ‘that which is lacking and missing’ as in ‘Not one person is missing from us.’  Whether something went missing by day or by night, ‘I [replaced that which was missing] by compensating for everything.’"  

According to Rashi, Jacob took responsibility – and we can do the same – by offering up some kind of compensation…something tangible to the party that we wronged.  Not in terms of replacement value – because sometimes the things we take from others are priceless – but because compensation is an act that signifies that we recognize that a loss has happened.  And that even though we can’t go back in time and change the past, we can offer up some sort of restitution that will allow for some healing to take place…so that we can begin to make whole that which had been ruptured in the relationship.

Perhaps it is premature for President Obama to apologize this week to the Pakistani people.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do an investigation to find out exactly what happened, as the Defense Department has suggested.  But if the investigation indicates that the United States military was liable, then…Jewishly-speaking…I would humbly encourage the President to apologize.  The words “I’m sorry” carry tremendous weight.  Especially when they come from the most powerful person in the world, those words carry a certain value…Thus an apology becomes compensation…..It’s not monetary.  But it is a gesture that would indicate to Pakistan and to the world that we made an unfortunate mistake, and that we are prepared to rectify it.  By taking responsibility for it.

These are all lessons that can be easily applied to our personal lives as well.  How often have we felt bad about something that we said or did to someone else, but failed to verbalize it?  Perhaps we were afraid that an apology would make us less powerful, or appear weak.  Or maybe we were just embarrassed.

Our tradition reminds us that feeling bad about something is not enough.  The Talmud notes that "thoughts of the heart – thoughts that have not been articulated out loud – are as if they do not exist" (Kiddushin 49b). 

Words matter.  Saying the words “I’m sorry” makes all the difference in the world.  Even when it not the easy or popular thing to do, our tradition is clear: we have to step up and lead, and be role models…just like our ancestor Jacob was…and take responsibility for our actions.   

May God grant all of us the strength and courage to do so…as we say…Shabbat Shalom.