Tuesday, October 25, 2011

RESPONSES TO HOLOCAUST: PARASHAT NO’ACH 5772/2011


THE WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT NO’ACH 5772/2011 

RESPONSES TO HOLOCAUST

Noah, the farmer, planted a vineyard. And he drank the wine, and became drunk; and he was naked within his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers who were [standing] outside. And Shem and Yefet took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went in backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done to him. And he said: cursed be Canaan; he shall be a servant of servants unto his brothers. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant. God enlarge, Yefet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.(Genesis 9:20–27).

The conclusion of the Noah narrative is tragic. Having been described as being righteous and unblemished in his generation, and having alone been spared with his family from death in the deluge on account of his great piety and rectitude, Noah’s first act following the flood was to plant a vine and to succumb to drunkenness.

More tragic still is the rabbinic interpretation of the reaction of Noah to his son Ham’s attitude to the nakedness of his father during his drunken stupor. Noah curses his youngest son viciously for his disrespectful behavior. Clearly, the sages believed that Noah’s extreme reaction to Ham's behavior reflected something far more heinous than merely looking at his naked body. Such an act of disrespect may well have provoked indignation. But it could hardly, in itself, have justified the terrible curse that Noah uttered against Ham. It is for this reason that the sages suggest that Ham was guilty of an unspeakable act.

Rashi, citing the sages, suggests that Ham did more than simply gaze upon the nakedness of the hapless Noah. According to one view, he castrated him (sirso). According to another, he had homosexual intercourse with him.(riv’o).

The rabbinic imagination appears to have run wild in elaborating on the Noah narratives. It is, however, a truism that the more fantastic a midrash, the more profound the truth it conceals. I should like to suggest that the midrashim cited by Rashi convey a very profound truth. They represent the rabbinic view of human responses to holocaust.

The flood had caused destruction of almost indescribable magnitude. Apart from one human family and the animals that had been herded onto the ark, no human or animal life survived.  Everything was destroyed.  We can well imagine the horrified reaction of that single human family to the utter devastation they witnessed after the flood.  Nothing familiar remained.  Their friends were dead.  Their civilization was washed away.  Countless dreams had been dashed; countless projects were to be forever unfulfilled.  Whatever humankind had built on earth was utterly destroyed.  Cosmos had become chaos.

We can best understand the rabbinic musings about the sin of Ham against the background of this destruction, desolation and despair.  According to both views cited by Rashi, Ham’s behavior was a response to his personal experience of holocaust. 

According to the view that Ham’s sin was castrating of his father (sirso), Ham’s reaction to holocaust was his conviction that it would be grievously wrong to bring children into a world that was vulnerable to death, desolation and destruction. 

This kind of thinking was fairly common among survivors of Hitler’s holocaust.  Decent men and women, who had witnessed the murder of beloved husbands, wives, parents and innocent children, determined that there was no place for another generation of potential victims in a world that could tolerate a Hitler, and a world in which little children could be mercilessly exterminated.  Better, they thought, that there should be no new life at all than life devalued, dehumanized and cruelly snuffed out.

The second rabbinic elaboration on Ham’s sin was that he had been guilty not only of a forbidden homosexual relationship, but also of incest with his father.  It was as if all taboos had been rejected, as if it no longer made sense to exercise restraints of any kind, as if there were no legitimate limits to indulging the pleasures of the flesh, as if instant gratification were all that made sense in an insane existence.

This, too, is a common response to holocaust.  In the face of death and destruction, surrounded with inescapable evidence of the meaningless of life, it makes no sense to many people to restrict their enjoyment of life’s fleeting pleasures.  Understood in this light, this rabbinic interpretation of Ham’s behavior is simply a recasting of the classical adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

In a sense, the two interpretations of Ham’s response to holocaust are not much different.  Each denies that life has meaning.  Each is life negating. 

Happily, there is a third response to holocaust—that of Ham’s brothers.  They refused to let go of principle in the face of hopelessness.  They adhere to standards of decent social conduct in the face of death and destruction.  In a word, they affirm life even in the deepest depths of the valley of the shadow of death.

To be sure, each of the brothers affirmed life in his own way.  Yefet, the father of aesthetics, insisted that beauty and harmony can exist even in a world that is defined by destruction and death.  Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people, asserted that we affirm life by insisting on decency, justice, and civilized moral standards.  Even though human kind is vulnerable, and the future is always uncertain, the present moment must be invested with meaning.  In this, Shem predates Viktor Frankl, who taught that man’s search for meaning alone enables survival in even the most dehumanizing situations.

Human response to holocaust, insecurity and vulnerability, can be to deny life and human value.  But it can also be to affirm those things, to insist that there is value bringing children into the world and to find transcendent meaning in our allotted time.  This is the Jewish response.  It is the lesson that the sages teach in what, at first blush, appears to be a fantastic and far-fetched selection of midrashim.



PARASHAT BEREISHIT 5772/2011 THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE: GILAD SHALIT AND THE TWO STATE SOLUTION:


THE WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

PARASHAT BEREISHIT 5772/2011

THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE: GILAD SHALIT AND THE TWO STATE SOLUTION

         The conclusion of the first chapter of Genesis and most of the second chapter center on the origins of human life and human destiny. In their message to the Sanhedrin in capital cases, our sages focus on one aspect of this story.  They remind the judges to exercise great care in ensuring that no innocent person be sentenced to death:

         Adam was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single life in Israel is considered by scripture to have destroyed an entire universe; and whoever saves a single Jewish life is considered by scripture to have saved an entire universe. (Sanhedrin 4:4).

         The primary implication of this rabbinic adage is the imperative of pikuach nefesh—the imperative of saving life, that supersedes the observance of Shabbat and even of Yom Kippur.  The ransoming of captives is also subsumed under the imperative of pikuach nefesh:

         The ransoming of captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them.  There is no mitzvah greater than pidyon shivuyim—the ransoming of captives.  Behold, the captive is included among the hungry, thirsty, and naked, and his life is in danger.  One who shuts one’s eyes to the imperative of ransoming captives transgresses the [following] prohibitions: “Do not harden your heart nor close your hand” and “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.”  One who does not ransom the captive has not fulfilled the positive mitzvoth: “Open your hand wide unto him,” and “and your brother shall live with you,” and “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Rambam Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:10).

         Rambam’s uncharacteristically passionate articulation of the imperative of ransoming captives would seem to provide ample justification for the ransoming of Gilad Shalit.  After all, he was held underground, deprived of sunlight for more than five years, and subjected to cruelty beyond description.  Those who held him adhered to a culture of death.  Hassan Nasralla, the spiritual head of Hezbollah, unashamedly declared: “We are going to win, because they love life, and we love death.”  Accordingly, Gilad Shalit was living in the Shadow for five years, deprived of all rights of prisoners under the Geneva Convention.  Undoubtedly, it would seem that his situation is a primary instance of the mitzvah of pidyon shivuyim.

         But this mitzvah is not absolute.  The Talmud legislates that the cost of ransom should not outweigh the benefits:

         One should not redeem captives if the ransom demand is clearly exorbitant.  This is for the common good [tikkun olam].  What is the common good?  It is both on account of pressure on the community [duchka de-tzibura],  and also lest payment of the price w encourage that taking of more hostages. (Gittin 45a).

         The attitude of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg is perhaps the most striking instance of this caveat.  Rabbi Meir was the outstanding leader and decisor of his day and was held captive by the king himself in hope of extorting a huge ransom from the Jewish community.  The Jews of Europe were prepared to raise even the most absurd sum of money but were prevented from doing so by the rabbi, lest kidnapping for ransom become the order of the day. 

Rambam himself paraphrased the term duchka de-tzibura in the following words: lest the enemies pursue them to take them captive (Rambam Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:12).

         The notion of duchka de-tzibura clearly clouds the issue of Gilad Shalit’s ransom.  In this case it is an instance of the cruel arithmetic of death.  The future cost in loss of human life is a terrible part of the equation.  A third of the released terrorists were serving life sentences and had blood on their hands.  Among them were those who had been released in 2003 and 2004.  Following their release, they had again planned or executed terror attacks, claiming some 80 Jewish lives and inflicting injuries that were both physically and psychologically permanently disabling.  Their release implied that life sentences were not to be taken seriously.  They had already threatened to take more hostages and to kill more civilians.

         The process of deciding whether or not to pay the huge price for Shalit’s release could not have been more agonizing.  The two or three dissenters in the cabinet implied that the majority were either delusional or terminally ignorant.  However, in the end, the overwhelming majority voted to pay the price and to accept the risks.

         Why did they do so?  Although the cost-benefit ratio was negative, the affirmation of the infinite value of human life prevailed.  Democratic societies are always vulnerable to barbarism.  Evil always triumphs initially, but human values will triumph only because life is valued more than death. 

         But in the case of Gilad Shalit’s rescue another consideration was in play.  The late Chief Rabbi Goren, who had been chief chaplain of the Israel Defense Force, ruled that the rescue of soldiers represents a unique situation.  The Israel Defense Force is a citizens’ army.  Every family has either a soldier or a close relative of a soldier in its midst.  Every soldier is everybody’s son.  The doctrine of leaving no soldier behind is vital to the morale of an entire nation.  The ransoming of a captured soldier is, therefore, pikuach nefesh of the entire nation.  [Hilchot Milchamah, p. 424].

         Why did I title this devar Torah: Gilad Shalit and the Two State Solution?  What is the connection?  The Arab League and its fellow travelers in the United Nations are clamoring for the two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  This mantra is shamefully hypocritical, since many who call for a two state solution do not even recognize the current State of Israel, and those who do so do not recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state.  For them, the two state solution is, as Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, the final solution of the problem of the Jewish state, in that there will be no Jewish state.  After all Abbas himself has declared that millions of Palestinian refugees will flood what will be the temporary Jewish state, but not called the Jewish state. 

         The release of 2,027 terrorists has finally sidelined Abbas.  It has been interpreted as a Hamas triumph.  Hamas has never wavered from its refusal to recognize Jewish claims to a single inch of what is now Israel, has hurled rockets at its citizens and dispatched suicide bombers into its cities.  The so-called Hamas triumph is the final nail in the fantasy of “the two state solution”. 

         The future is uncertain and unsettling.  But Golda Meir was right.  Peace will come only when our enemies love their children more than they hate us.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

CONSERVING AND ADAPTING: NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH:5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

  NITZAVIM-VAYELEKH

CONSERVING AND ADAPTING


You are all of you standing [atem nitzavim] this day before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives and the stranger that is in the midst of the camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water. (Deut. 29:9-10).

The Hebrew word nitzavim in our text is richly suggestive.  The usual translation  you are standing” does not adequately capture its subtle nuances.  If the text simply meant “you are standing,” it would have read: atem omedim. What, then, does the verb nitzavim convey?

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1289-1363), the so-called Ba’al ha-Turim, points out that the word nitzavim is twice used to describe the stance of the Children of Israel in their collective experience in the wilderness.  The first instance describes how they were arrayed at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments:  Va-yityatzvu be-tachtit ha-har.  (Ex.  18:17).  The second time this verb is used is in our text, which describes its ratification. Accordingly, this verb describes the stance of Israel at the initiation of its Covenant with God and also at its final renewal by Moses at the end of his life. 
On its face, the Ba’al ha-Turim’s comment does not resolve the problem. Because the verb nitzavim describes the stance of the Israelites, it would seem that the more commonplace verb omedim could as easily have been used in both contexts.  Why, therefore was the more unusual verb nitzavim chosen?
According to Ramban, the verb nitzavim conveys the sense of omedim u-mezumanim –standing ready.  In contrast with the more static omedim—standing still it projects dynamic tension.  The Children of Israel are portrayed not merely as standing, but as standing by, ready for commitment and action. 
Rabbi Abraham Menachem Porto (Rapoport, d.1596), the author of the Minchah Belulah commentary on the Torah, detects a further nuance in the use the word nitzavim:  The noun form of the verb nitzavim, hityatzvut, conveys the sense of a vigorous standing up for a hotly disputed position. In their confrontation with Moses, Datan and Aviram were described as nitzavim.  In this sense, the word nitzavim means standing up for one’s principles, taking up cudgels in defense of one’s beliefs, demonstrating readiness to fight for one’s ideals just as Datan and Aviram were ready to fight and die for their beliefs—however mistaken those beliefs were.  The verb nitzavim is therefore appropriately used for the Covenant at Sinai and its ratification by a new generation forty years later.  The covenantal community is characterized by its willingness to stand up for the perpetuation of its commitments.
The interpretations of Ramban and the Minchah Belulah are not really dissimilar.  Both convey the notion of standing ready to take a stand and defend sincerely held convictions.
I should like to suggest a third interpretation of the term nitzavim.  The verb omedim describes a physical position.  The verb nitzavim, in contrast, describes an emotional, psychological, or spiritual attitude.  Omedim simply means to stand. Nitzavim means to stand ready, to stand for and to stand firm.  In the context of the acceptance of the Covenant and its subsequent affirmation, it suggests steadfast determination to preserve and conserve.  Those people who are nitzavim personalities resist winds of change that whittle away old certainties and weaken longstanding commitments.  The term nitzavim characterizes the quintessentially Jewish reverence for and commitment to preserve traditional norms and values.
Martin Luther King once declared that the person who stands firmly for nothing will fall for everything. Such an individual is the antithesis of the nitzavim personality type.
Parashat Nitzavim is often read together with Parashat Va-yelekh. They read as point and counterpoint. The opening theme of Nitzavim is, as we have seen, resistance to change, whereas the opening theme of Vayelekh is radical change.
 After a lifetime of inspired leadership, Moses announces that his passing is imminent and that he is to be succeeded by Joshua. The change is dramatic. Moses had been leader extraordinaire. Groomed to become the next Pharaoh, he was a well-trained and experienced military and political leader. Gifted with an innate moral compass, he was simply unable to compromise on absolute ethical ideals for personal gain—even at the cost of a brilliant future in Egypt. Unprecedented in his prophetic powers (he was the only prophet in direct, unbroken communication with God), he was lawgiver and social engineer par excellence. But all that was about to change, and a far less charismatic, far less powerful personality was to lead the Israelites to their destiny.
Point and counterpoint, the juxtaposition of Nitzavim and Vayelekh represents the dialectic tension between stability and change, conservation and progress, past and present/future. Prima facie, the antitheses are irreconcilable. Judaism, however, seizes both horns of the dilemma, remaining committed to the traditions of the past and successfully integrating them into the realia of the present. Ancient precedents shape and determine contemporary legal and ethical positions. The Bible and Talmud, for example, do not explicitly relate to such modern issues as brain death definition or genetic engineering, but using legal precedents in the Codes and the Responsa literature contemporary decisors have ruled on these and a host of other pressing issues.
Jewish practice conserves the old while incorporating it into the new. This is why Jewish law is called halakhah—walking forward. Rav Kook summarized this uniquely Jewish synthesis of the Nitzavim-Vayelekh dichotomy in his memorable dictum: ha-yashan yitchadesh ve- ha-chadash yitkadesh—The old is renewed and the new in sanctified.
Rav Kook’s formulation is an appropriate goal for every area of our lives—especially in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the season of return-teshuvah. If we are able to return to the ideals we held dear prior to our having become jaded by experience, or that have been dismissed because of disappointments and cynicism, our return will truly represent a healthy renewal of the old and a revitalization of our being. Conversely, if we can also sanctify what is new in our lives, we shall come to personify the Nitzavim-Vayelekh ideal.



Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE UNITED NATIONS ON PALESTINE: MY PIECE IN HUFFINGTON POST

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Dr. Abner Weiss

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The Dangerous Alternate Middle East Reality

Posted: 9/21/11 03:37 PM ET

In the lead-up to the Palestinian application for full membership in the United Nations later this week, we can expect nation after nation to vilify the Jewish state and to walk out when Prime Minister Netanyahu takes the microphone.

Demonization and isolation of Israel are familiar recurring nightmares for Jews, who are long accustomed to being reviled. For being "of their father the Devil," confined to ghettos and mehlas, mercilessly assaulted and expelled from country after country, and systematically exterminated as subhumanuntermenchen. Burgeoning anti-Zionism is the same anti-Semitic nightmare in contemporary garb.

The major U.N. blocks are among its most vocal exponents, confident of the backing of radicals and the anti-Israel media. Its initial salvo came not too long after the attenuation of collective guilt for failing to stop the Holocaust. At that time it took the form of the infamous "Zionism is racism" canard.

Beginning with Durban I, Israel has again been consistently demonized, delegitimized and subjected to economic and intellectual boycott. Israel is an open, functioning parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing freedom of religion and assembly, and protecting the right of minorities. Nevertheless, it has been portrayed as a racist, apartheid society. In the 1970s I was Chief Rabbi of the Provence of Natal and Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Natal. I was a very visible, vocal and high profile critic of apartheid when opposition to that evil regime was deemed treasonable. I was personally involved in the treason trial of the leadership of the National Union of South Africa Students. I bitterly resent the false and odious comparison.

But the delegitimization of the Jewish state has gone way beyond rhetoric and invective. Its very existence has come under threat. Located in the midst of Muslim states -- the Dar al Islam (The Realm of Islam) -- Israel is defined as the Dar al Harb (the Realm of the Sword, the not-yet-Muslim).

The Islamic Republic of Iran has threatened it with annihilation, and is developing the means to carry out its genocidal threat. It arms its Hezbollah agents in Lebanon and its Hamas allies in Gaza.

The Hamas leadership refuses to acknowledge and accept the right of Israel to exist. It has hurled many hundreds of rockets on civilian population centers, and has dispatched terror squads and suicide bombers into Israel. In a recent poll of Palestinian opinion -- conducted by Stanley Greenberg, leading pollster for the Democratic Party, in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, and sponsored by the Israel Project, 73 percent agreed with a quote from the Hamas charter on the need to kill all Jews. 

Ominously, two of Israel's most reliable partners for peace have done an about face. To bolster its standing in the Muslim world, the Islamist Turkish government has all but completely severed diplomatic, economic and military relations with the Jewish State. It has threatened to send its warships into Israeli waters to prevent the exploitation of natural gas reserves within those waters, and has thrown its full support behind the rejectionist Hamas leadership.

Equally ominous was the initial inaction of the Egyptian interim government when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked and occupied, and the subsequent comment of the acting Prime Minister that the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel is neither necessarily sacred nor permanent. This raises the specter of a possible Egyptian front in the event of another war -- and of 1948 and 1967 redux.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has claimed many victims. History itself has been its least noticed victim. Jerusalem was the capital of two previous Jewish commonwealths and the site of Judaism's holiest shrine. It has never been the capital of an Arab state, and yet it has not been recognized as the capital of the State of Israel. No other sovereign nation has been denied the right to name its own capital -- not even such rogue states as North Korea and Myanmar.

The fact that the Arabs attacked Israel and were vanquished in 1948, 1967 and 1973, losing land in the process, is irrelevant in the a-historical parallel universe constructed by supporters of the Palestinians and the rejectors of Israel. In contrast, land lost by Jews in those same wars, particularly in East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, is deemed permanently Palestinian. In the alternate Middle Eastern reality, this incongruence has been validated by international forums, and even by the United States. Tony Blair often speaks for the Quartet charged with propelling negotiations leading to the establishment of the State of Palestine. His favorite mantra is: "Justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel." What about the injustice of the solutions urged on Israel, and the insecurity inherent in the 1948 Armistice Line?

Israel accepted the United Nations' two-state solution in 1947, but its rejection by the invading Arab nations has long been conveniently forgotten. A number of Israeli Prime Ministers have reiterated their acceptance of the existence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, but their efforts to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians have largely been discounted. Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Northern Samaria, and the wrenching dislocation of its citizens from their homes, have not been validated. The risks it has taken for peace have been costly, bringing rockets to its cities and terror to its citizens. The Oslo Accords, premised upon the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel in peaceful coexistence, were surely an Israeli validation of Palestinian aspirations. All of this has been of little avail, and has all but been erased from the historical record. 

The Palestinian National Authority has been an elusive partner for peace. During the extensive settlement freeze, it rejected every reasonable compromise. It refused to recognize the Jewish character of the State of Israel, insisted on inundating Israel with millions of Palestinians, on making Israel's holiest Jewish shrines judenrein, and on Israel's acceptance of indefensible borders, no more than eight miles wide at a point closest to the greatest concentration of its citizens. Most recently, it has achieved rapprochement with rejectionist Hamas. It should come as no surprise that the same poll of Palestinian opinion conducted by Stanley Greenberg, revealed that only 34 percent of Palestinians questioned would accept the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a permanent solution to the conflict. And it is still Israel that is blamed for the breakdown of the peace process!

President Abbas is seeking United Nations recognition of Palestine. He has shamelessly declared that international recognition of the Palestinian State will empower him to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for sixty-three years of occupation. Obviously, his end game is the elimination of the sixty-three year old State of Israel. This too should come as no surprise. After all, his people annually observe Israel's repulsion of their invading armies as Nakba, the Catastrophe. 

This is a grave threat to the Jewish state, but Jews have survived every attempt at obliteration in the past and will surely do so again -- whatever may happen in the United Nations.