From Lavan to Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh: A History of White Supremacy

Today is Kristallnacht which commemorates a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. On one hand it is crazy to realize that is has been 80 years since this happened. In the larger context it is strange to realize that it has only been 80 years and it seems that this day finds it natural home in our collective Jewish calendar already riddled with antisemitism. It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to Antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative?

For me the most interesting example of this happens during Passover. Every year on the Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  Long before Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan who wanted to kill us all.

Given that today is Kristallnacht and the events in Pittsburgh two weeks ago where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue I have grown curious at the long history of Antisemitism. That search brought me back to Chaye Sara, last week’s Torah portion. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ranWhy did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance Lavan is Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface this does not seem so horrible. This is not remotely at the level of many of the other Antisemites from our history.

And than I got to thinking about the meaning of his name.  Lavan means white. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Recently my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are white just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi these Whites Supremacists and Lavan are both in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and the Rabbis’ reading of Lavan might argue that their hatred and violence is legitimate or even virtuous. We see from it origins White Supremacy is just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

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Looking for a Place to Rest: A Meditation in Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting

As a Rabbi, a Jewish professional, and a father, this past week has been difficult both personally and professionally.  After a long and intense week, I am ready for a peaceful Shabbat at home. Or at least I thought I was, until a colleague asked me how I was going to talk about the events of  last Shabbat with my children. Shabbat has always been a meaningful practice for connecting as a family and with the Jewish people. Last Shabbat, however, during what should have been a peaceful celebration of the creation of the world, 11 members of the larger Jewish family were taken from us, and their worlds violently destroyed. My colleague’s inquiry raised questions in me: Will Shabbat ever feel the same for our family, and for the larger Jewish community? In the wake of what has happened, how do we find comfort in Shabbat this week and in the future? I suspect other people share the same concerns.

I realized that I needed to go back to the foundation and think about all of the aspects of what has made Shabbat meaningful to me. One idea that has comforted me this week has been singing the chorus to Yom Shabbaton, which is one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot– songs. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing in the chorus:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent

On one level, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Seven days after the dove was first sent from the ark to check if the flood was gone, it found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden in the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful far too often, the Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast sea of chaos. While the world still needs to be rebuilt, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope. In seeing how many Americans of every creed and color have shown up to support the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I find hope – a safe place to land and rest before we begin the work to rebuild our broken world.  

We can also interpret the  chorus as a reference to the Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove. Throughout time, we have been forced to move from place to place due to cruelty, oppression,and violence at the hands of others. Like the dove, we desperately seek a place to rest. While America has always been a relatively safe haven for the Jewish people, the events of Pittsburgh this past Shabbat force us to recognize that the long history of anti-Semitism – and its existence in contemporary America – is far from over.

Throughout history, gathering to observe Shabbat has been a revolutionary act, a public affirmation of our ideals of peace, life, and community in the face of oppressors who’d deny us all three. It may seem contradictory, but in creating a weekly space to find rest despite the events in the world around us, we actively reject anti-Semitism and bigotry. By gathering together to observe Shabbat, we connect to the shared cultural history in which Jews have observed Shabbat throughout challenging and difficult times, and physically reaffirm our commitment to Jewish values.    

“Birds in Flight”, photo of stone cut from my parents’ home

In both interpretations of the chorus, Shabbat manifests not only as a weekly time, but as a sacred space as well. Shabbat is not just an aspiration, but a destination. All I can do – and all any of us can do – is fill the space of Shabbat with love, peace, and hope for my nuclear family, my larger Jewish family, and the world. My plan for this Shabbat is to hug my children a little tighter, invite others to join us in this holy space, and share this song of hope with the world.

-cross-posted FJC blog

Opened Her Eyes: Some Insight on How See

There are so many other important stories in Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, that we often overlook the riveting story of Hagar and Yishmael in the desert. There we read:

When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. (Genesis 21:15-19)

What is going on here for Hagar? At first blush she seems incredibly absent as a parent when they are in a crisis. How could she ignore her child in need?

Looking for interpretations of this moment I came across John Gadsby Chapman‘s 1830 painting Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert. 

Image result for Hagar and Ishmael Fainting in the Desert

Here Hagar just seems annoyed by their predicament. Chapman seems to capture this in Hagar’s teen angst in an eye roll. It is noteworthy in the Torah Hagar is crying, but God is responding to Yishmael’s voice. Following Chapman’s reading this could be understood as God’s critique of her being callous to the needs of Yishamael. While she is crying God is modelling empathy and saying I will respond to his needs and not your crying. God is redirecting her as a parent.

Alternatively we could see Hagar in a more understanding way. In Sforno’s 15th Century commentary on “opened her eyes” he writes:

God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had not been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”(Gen. 21:19)

Maybe it was not a miracle at all that Hagar suddenly could see the well that was in front of her the whole time. Rather, Hagar needed some distance from the problem to see the solution. When she got to the balcony she could remove herself from the crisis, regain her bearings, return to her instincts, and only than could she see the well.

In either way of telling this story it is one of reorientation for someone who is lost. Regardless of if you see Hagar as the protagonist or antagonist of this story it is a story about alienation which is profound in that her name means “the alien”. Any way you look at it this is an important story about how we see ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

The Beginning and End of War: A Thought on Lech Lecha

My Opa always used to say, ” Never start a fight, but always end it.” We are not a nation of warriors, but we should never shirk our responsibility to stand for justice. There is no doubt that was the life of Alfred Katz z”l. We see a similar lesson from Avram in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion.There we see a coalition of kings joined together to fight another group of kings.  There we read:

Now, when King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim made war on King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar, all the latter joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea. ( Genesis 14:1-3)

A fugitive brought the news to Avram, who mustered 318 supporters, and pursued the invaders north. Avram and his servants defeated them at night, chased them north of Damascus, and brought back all the people and possessions, including Lot and his possessions. When Avram returned, the king of Sodom came out to meet him and offered him all of the booty. Avram replied:

“I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’ (Genesis 14: 22-23)

While Avram did not start the first war, he did end it.

It is reported in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the first use of a word in the Torah holds it essential meaning. With the war between the kings we have the first use of the word milchamah and the invention of war. From its inception the problem of war is the desire and restitution of property. War is born our of the realities and the perceptions of scarcity.

If this is the start of war, where does it end? How might we live out the prophecy of Isaiah? There are instructed:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Like Avram and Alfred we need to “Never start a fight, but always end it .” To do this we need to ensure that everyone has what they need to survive. We also need to ensure that we fight the culture of scarcity. To truly end war we need to cultivate a culture of abundance. When we do that we will shift from just surviving to truly thriving.

Another blog on this lesson from my Opa

The Nature of Human Nature : Noah and Positive Psychology

As I have written about in the past at the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr. Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up a whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Noach, this week’s Torah portion. There after God flood Noah makes a sacrefice to God and in response God describes humanity. There we read:

The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to God’s self: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21).

While the result of not destroying the world is a good thing, what do we make of God’s assessment of human nature? The idea that we are evil from our youth implies a certain pathology of the human condition. When we are operating from this place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. How else might we understand our Torah portion?

On a related note in regard to the creation of human beings God remarks that we have become divine in nature. There we read, “Behold, man has become one of Us” (Gen. 3:22). When exploring this idea the Midrash says:

Scripture states elsewhere in allusion to this verse: Behold, this only have I found, that God made humanity upright (Eccles. 7:29); that is, the Holy One, blessed be God, who is called righteous and upright, created humanity in God’s own image so that humans might be upright and righteous like God. However, if you should ask: Why did God create the evil inclination, concerning which it is written: The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21)?, you say thereby: Since humanity is evil, who can make humanity good? The Holy One, blessed be God, contends: You make him evil! Why is it that a child of five, six, seven, eight, or nine years of age does not sin, but only after he reaches the age of ten and upward does the evil inclination begin to develop in him? (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 7:1)

This Midrash boldly seems to invert the idea from Noach as to the nature of humanities evil nature. According to this Midrash Human beings are actually born good and it is only later in life that they succumb to the evil inclination and sin. At the same time as a person grows in their practice they can build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free from sin. While fear of sin might be a good deterrent from destruction, we need a foundation of goodness upon which to build thriving lives.  Despite what others say about us or even what we say about ourselves we need to curate a positive understanding of the nature of human nature to help humanity thrive and manifest our divinity.

– Another blog post on Positive Psychology.

Men Hiding: Genesis, Purim, and Kavanuagh

We just made it through the holiday season and the next holiday is Hanukkah on the distant horizon weeks from now on December 2-10. This is why it is particularly weird that I woke up this morning thinking about Purim which is not until March 20, 2019. It was less strange seeing that we are reading Parshat Bereishit this week. In one of my favorite passages in the Talmud the Rabbis mix the stories of Purim with earlier narratives in the Torah. There we learn:

From where in the Torah, [do I know] Haman? “Is it from (hamin) this tree” (Genesis 3:11). From where in the Torah, [do I know] Esther? “And I will surely hide (astir)” (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Where is Mordecai mentioned in the Torah?… As is written “Flowing myrrh” (Exodus 30:23), which the Targum renders as “Mira Dachia“. ( Chullin 139b)

There is clearly some fun word play going on here, but why is it important that Haman is prefigured in the story of the Garden of Eden? What is that context? There in Genesis we read:
The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of (hamin) the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” ( Genesis 3:9-12)

The scene is set. Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and God is coming to inquire as to what they did. God asks Adam two questions:

  1. Who told you that you were naked?
  2. Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?

We see in Adam’s answer that he ignores the first question ( subject of other writing) and only answers the second question by way of blaming Eve if not God for his eating that which was forbidden. In some mystical way Haman is prefigured in the Torah as the allure of not taking responsibility for what Adam himself did and hanging the blame of others. Just as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is removed from the tree at the start of our narrative, Haman is returned to the gallows he created for Mordecai at the end of the Megilah. There we see humanity is redeemed when Esther, who is hidden, reveals herself. She is the Eve who Mordecai and the rest of her people are proud to follow.

While these parallel images do frame the Eden and Purim stories, what I find most compelling today is the story of men not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming women. In all of the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court he has yet to take responsibility for anything he might have done consciously or unconsciously.  Regardless if Kavanaugh gets the seat or not, this whole situation has cast violence against women up against “being fair to men” that seems to be eerily prefigured by the Megilah. There King Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to come before the king wearing only her a royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials. Upon her refusal he was incensed and did not know what to do so he turned to his advisers. There we read:

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” (Esther 1: 16-20)

In our tragic version of the Megilah we make Dr. Chistine Blasey Ford show up to display her vulnerability to the peoples and the officials on national TV and still question the victim. Hiding behind a sham of an FBI report the advisers and the King are claiming that any concession to veracity Dr Ford’s accusations would lead to “no end of scorn and provocation” and be very bad do men. In a new low for the President and the country Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, casting doubt on her testimony about her alleged sexual assault.

I for one want to thank Dr Ford, our modern-day Vashti, for elegantly, gracefully, and humbly showing up to show us that our elected officials of naked behind their crowns of power. This is a moment for us to reflect and redefine who has power in our kingdom. We need to be bigger than Haman, Adam, Memucan, or our modern-day King Ahasuerus and his officials. Power and gender need not be a zero sum game. And most urgently we see in the Garden of Eden as today, men cannot hide behind a woman. Men need to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions without blaming women. Truly that will be the only way we will uproot scorn and provocation from across the kingdom. Image result for senate confirmation dr ford

 

 

Remembering My Father on Sukkot

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard this year after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case – until now.

As a Jewish camp alum and professional, I typically associate the Sukkah with camp. Camp – like a Sukkah – is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness. Camp is an intentional community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located.

My father did not especially connect with the High Holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way, but he was a deeply spiritual person. And while he was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands.

Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate anew the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

When we think of a Sukkah, we often think of a hut covered in branches. While a Sukkah is a tangible physical structure formed by human hands, it is also connects us to experiences we can’t see or touch in a traditional sense: the history of our people, and our metaphysical relationship with God. It’s a lovely paradox that by entering the enclosed space of the Sukkah, we connect to something outside of ourselves. We’re supposed to cover the Sukkah with branches so we can still see the stars, which can be viewed as a reminder that we can always find light in the world, so long as we don’t close ourselves off from it.

While the Sukkah allows us to enter our historical and religious memories, it is also a place we build to spend time with our families. My father found deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. He was not just building a physical structure; he was building family connections and cherished memories. When I enter a Sukkah, I not only bring the historical memories of the Jewish people with me, but my personal memories of my family as well. When I enter a Sukkah, I can’t help but think of my father and all the joyful times we shared within its walls. He is there with me.

My mourning has intensified this Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is made up of tangible materials that come from the earth, but it also connects us with the mysteries of heaven and the treasured memories of our communal and personal past. And even in the absence of the earthly structure, the light shines on.

May the Memory of James Joseph Orlow z’l

reposted from FJC Blog


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