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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category



Nazi Policy and Black Victims—Before, During, and After the Holocaust—from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina

May16

by: Edwin Black on May 16th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In recent years, too many in the African American community have expressed a disconnect to Holocaust topics, seeing the genocide of Jews as someone else’s nightmare. After all, African Americans are still struggling to achieve general recognition of the barbarity of the Middle Passage, the inhumanity of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow, and the battle for modern civil rights. For many in that community, the murder of six million Jews and millions of other Europeans happened to other minorities in a faraway place where they had no involvement.

Surviving Herero after their escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German Southwest Africa (modern day Namibia) circa 1907 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

However, a deeper look shows that proto-Nazi ideology before the Third Reich, the wide net of Nazi-era policy, and Hitler’s post-war legacy deeply impacted Africans, Afro-Germans, and African Americans throughout the twentieth century. America’s Black community has a mighty stake in this topic. Understanding the German Reich and the Holocaust is important for Blacks just as it is for other communities, including Roma, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, the gay community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups in addition to Jews. The dots are well known to many scholars – but rarely connected to form a distinct historical nexus for either the Holocaust or the African American communities. This is understandable. The saga behind these connections started decades before the Third Reich came into existence, in a savage episode on another continent that targeted a completely different racial and ethnic group for death and destruction.

But the horrors visited on another defenseless group endured and became a template for the Final Solution. Students of the Holocaust are accustomed to looking backward long before the Third Reich and long after the demise of the Nazi war machine. African Americans should do the same.

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Unrighteous Anger – Queen Vashti and the Erasure of Transgender Women

May13

by: Mischa Haider and Penina Weinberg on May 13th, 2016 | 8 Comments »

Queen Vashti Refuses To Obey Ahasuerus' Command by Gustave Dore

The night after Purim the two of us sat feasting – a queer Hebrew bible scholar and a trans woman activist. The book of Esther was on our minds, as we read Esther every year on Purim, the festival when we celebrate the brave Jewish queen who saves her people from annihilation in Persia. Also on our minds was the “bathroom panic” gripping the nation over the perilous prospect of transgender women using women’s restrooms. To address the threat, state legislatures are being flooded with proposed measures to deny transgender people access to restrooms and facilities in accordance with their authentic gender identity, instead forcing them to use the restroom matching the inaccurate gender assigned to them at birth. To those who may have missed the news, the rallying cry of these bills is “no men in women’s restrooms.” Since the trope that transwomen are actually men is patently absurd, we sought to delve into the mental plumbing of the cisgender men who craft these “bathroom panic” laws. What is it that compels them to enact such draconian measures? What is the source of their unrighteous anger?

There are many parallels in the story of Queen Vashti, as related in Esther. The lesser-known Queen Vashti, who enters the story prior to Queen Esther, is a proud and determined woman. Her strong-willed independence prompts the men in power to erase her existence, much as the enactors of the bathroom bills seek to erase transgender women. Perhaps in exploring Queen Vashti’s defiance and subsequent disappearance, we may illuminate the motivations of the cisgender men legislatively erasing transgender women, and get to the root of their anger.

As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a farcical extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver divans; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, banquets the women in her quarters – the women’s area of the royal house. On a certain day, the king sends his seven eunuchs – sarisim – to bring Vashti before him. Note that the word in the text, sarasim, is often translated as chamberlains, owing to their function at court. However, it is their status as eunuchs that enables them to be admitted to the women’s quarters.

Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. A preliminary clue to the ideology of those who seek to obliterate transgender womanhood may be found in the reaction of the court to this insubordination. In a masterful engraving, the French artist Gustave Doré perfectly illustrates both the refusal and the reaction.

In the engraving, the figure of Vashti stands in the spotlight in an unbowed posture. The expressions and carriage of the men around her suggest fear and anger – arguably arising from their inability to control her. Visualize Doré’s interpretation as we explore the interactions between Vashti’s independence and the enactments of King Ahasuerus and his princes in the text. We will argue that the forced erasure-by-legislation, which certain cisgender men in power today enact against transgender women, is rooted in the same feelings as those illustrated by Doré: the perceived loss of ownership and domination of the women in their intimate circles.

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Why anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – but criticising Israel isn’t

May12

by: Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah on May 12th, 2016 | 28 Comments »

The Labour Party has become embroiled in a row about anti-Semitism. Why the row? After all, the Labour Party is committed to challenging racism and anti-Semitism – which is a particular form of racism. It’s a row because the anti-Semitism in question concerns anti-Zionism – and not everybody in the Labour Party agrees that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. At the heart of the current row, a tweet re-tweeted by Labour MP Naz Shah, which suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States. For those who shared the tweet, it seemed fair comment, given the support of the United States for Israel – and the fact that the second largest Jewish population in the world resides in the United States. Of the 14.2 million Jews living in the world today, six million live in Israel and over five million live in the US.

The tweet was anti-Semitic for at least two reasons. Within living memory, the Jewish communities of Europe were made Judenfrei, ‘Jew-free’, or Judenrein, ‘clean of Jews’, as the Jews who lived in them were systematically deported to ghettos, concentration camps and death camps in Eastern Europe. The ghettos themselves, where hundreds of thousands were penned into walled areas of cities, were simply holding places, from which the Jews were sent on to the death camps. After the defeat of Hitler, those who survived became displaced persons, the majority of whom were collected into camps – most notably on Cyprus – with nowhere to go. To suggest that Israel, which became the principal place of refuge for the Jews who survived the Sho’ah, should be relocated elsewhere suggests either an inane forgetfulness or a shocking indifference to the annihilation of six million Jews – at the time, one third of the world Jewish population – which took place in the space of just six years from the onset of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

The tweet was also anti-Semitic in the context of the way in which, again and again, regardless of the oppression of peoples across the world by numberless nations, Israel is singled out for special condemnation because of its on-going oppression of the Palestinians. Where is the protest against the murder of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan regime? Where is the protest against China’s occupation of Tibet? Why is it that these nations and others like them have not been subject to boycott and disinvestment campaigns? Of course, the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli government must be challenged, and support must be given to the Palestinian people, in their struggle for self-determination, and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine. Equally, the regimes of China and Sri Lanka should also be challenged, and the Tibetans and Tamils should be supported in their struggles for self-determination.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Four: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism

May2

by: George P. Fletcher on May 2nd, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Genesis 1:26.

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS.

Part IV: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism.

There is a romantic story implicit in the way the words s’vara and its related grammatical forms came to be adopted in modern Hebrew.  The tale highlights another ray of influence of God’s Image in contemporary thought.  It is well known that ‘reason’ is a Hellenistic idea – generally absent from Hebrew thought.  This was evident in the drafting of the first criminal code ordinance in Israel/Palestine under the British mandate.  The drafts took a code developed by the nineteenth century scholar Fitzjames Stephen for all the British colonies. When it was translated into Hebrew, the drafters had particular difficulty the word omnipresent in English legal discourse – reasonableness.

The drafter opted for a different idiom in very context.  One of my favorites was: mitkabel al ha-daat – “It presents itself to the mind.”  When I presented a paper at the Hebrew University in the early 1970′s, I focused on this problem of translation.  I was aware that it was difficult to translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Hebrew, largely because of the same divide between Hellenism and Hebraism.  The translators choose the word tvunah which was apparently too sophisticated for use in drafting statutes.

After I presented the paper, my old friend and colleague Shalev Ginossar took me aside and told me of a meeting in the ministry of justice in which they discussed the problem of translation.  They decided at that time to take a word from the Talmud s’vara and introduce it into modern Hebrew.  The word does not exactly mean ‘reason’ but it is as close as you can get.  This is the word that subsequent drafters invoked to capture the English conception of reasonableness.

There was an implication for my own future work.  Fifteen years later, in cooperation between Columbia and the Hartman

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Passover, Parenting and Pardons

May2

by: Kathryn Frey-Balter on May 2nd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

This year, I have exhausted Passover’s eight days writing love letters to President Obama.  My letters all close with the same refrain:  “Let my clients GO!”   Is it a prophecy that Passover’s final day – April 30 – coincides with our clemency deadline?

In 2014 the Justice Department announced an Obama initiative to invite inmates with no significant criminal history, a record of good prison conduct, no history of violence before or during the term of incarceration, who have served over ten years on a federal sentence for a non-violent offense to apply for clemency.

Obama’s clemency project seeks to right the wrong.  Some days it feels more like he’s hiding than seeking.

The more the clemency love is withheld, the more singularly determined we become to part the Red Sea of the Pardon Committee.  It started innocently enough – laws in the 1990s aimed at ending the war on drugs.   The inevitable result however, was the mass incarceration of a generation of young people, mostly of color, and not too many degrees of separation from Egypt’s enslaved Jews.  True, Israelites hadn’t profited from kilo quantities of cocaine, but they also hadn’t been born into slavery: the slavery of being in utero addicted to crack, the slavery of poverty, the slavery of, well, a history of slavery and oppression. 

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New Lessons from the Four Children

May2

by: Jeremy Sher on May 2nd, 2016 | Comments Off

(Source: Arthur Szyk, "The Four Sons")

Let’s turn back to the mysterious, riveting story of the Four Children, which we read every year at the Seder. The four children, or four kinds of children, approach Passover in four different ways, and we are told to respond to them differently, each in their own way: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask a question.

Whereas the most common interpretation may be that the wise child is the favorite, the Rabbinic authors buried a few treasures within this text that call that view into question. The Rabbis cared about people’s feelings and would not typically advocate, for example, cutting someone off from the people without at least processing the likely outcome of that. I don’t think any of the children is a favorite; I think they all have their strengths and flaws. Some of them are surprising.

We all know kids like these: the wise one with all the answers, the wicked one who disrupts everything, the simple one who isn’t sure what’s going on, and the one who is either too little or too simple indeed to form a question. The first point is that these are children — our children. Even when they act out, the Rabbis could not possibly have meant that we are to cut one of them off while smothering another with praise. All four of them are our future. If we want 100% of a future, instead of 75% or less, then we’d better figure out how to reach each one of them, so that when they grow into adults each of them too will be able to say, “This is what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”

The Wise Child

The Wise Child asks: “What are all the rituals, laws and customs which the Eternal One, our God, has commanded you?” You shall respond to him with the rules of Passover, down to the last detail, which is: There is no further eating after the Afikoman.

I always used to assume that the Wise Child was the favorite, the exemplar of how everybody else should ask. That does seem to be the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The child is called wise, which is a compliment, and shows interest in a correct observance.

The Wise Child’s question is a quotation from Torah (Deut. 6:20). Oddly, the recommended response to the Wise Child does not match the commandment given in Deut. 6:21-25 as to what to say. Are we to assume that the Wise Child already knows that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”? Are the Torah’s words too elementary for the Wise Child? Or does the mismatch signal that something deeper is going on?

I am not convinced that the Wise Child is the rabbis’ favorite. (I’ve already tipped my hand; I don’t believe any of the children are favored or disfavored.) The Wise Child is praised for being interested in the laws. But the point of the Seder, as we are told repeatedly, is not what we do or don’t eat after the Afikoman, but that God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, the Wise Child has somewhat missed the point. The rabbinic authors answer in kind, giving an overly specific answer to the Wise Child’s overly specific question.

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How the latest Bernie Sanders Israel Controversy Over Simone Zimmerman Misses the Point

Apr21

by: Liza Behrendt on April 21st, 2016 | 5 Comments »

In the war to silence criticism of Israel, the Palestinian voice is the ultimate target.

Last week, progressives celebrated Senator Bernie Sanders’ appointment of Simone Zimmerman, an activist opposing Israeli occupation, as the Jewish Outreach Coordinator of his presidential campaign. Their celebration would be short.

Right-wing blogs scoured her Facebook page for incriminating information, and institutions purporting to represent the Jewish community demanded she be fired. Just two days later, the Sanders campaign suspended her.

Celebration became outrage. The hashtag #IStandWithSimone trended on social media and thousands signed a petition demanding Zimmerman’s reinstatement. Articles and op-eds condemned Sanders and the Jewish institutions that pressured him, rightfully pointing out that Zimmerman’s politics on Israel represent a generational shift in the U.S. Jewish community. But most of the conversation failed to link Zimmerman with a broader Palestinian-led movement that is systematically silenced, especially those engaging in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel.


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Passover and Earth Day: 10 Plagues of Fossil Fuels

Apr18

by: Dan Brook on April 18th, 2016 | Comments Off

(Source: Eric Kounce)

Creation is being replaced with destruction. As Jews, we are tasked with remembering, conserving, pursuing peace and justice. On this first night of Passover 5776, which is also Earth Day 47, we recount 10 of the plagues of fossil fuels, which are negatively affecting all countries and most species.

1. oil drilling and coal mining
2. fracking
3. gas guzzling
4. subsidizing fossil fuels and oil corporations
5. overuse of plastics
6. wasting energy
7. using a finite resource as if it’s infinite
8. not putting a price on carbon
9. not boldly transitioning to safe, clean, renewable energies
10. condemning our children and their children and future generations to a world of climate chaos

We can no longer be fossil fools for cheap energy with high eco-costs to satisfy greed and the idolatry of profit. We should no longer be enslaved by the pharaohs of environmental destruction and their doomsday cult.

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Fiddler on My Mind

Apr5

by: Roslyn Bernstein on April 5th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Theatre Marquis. Photo: Shael Shapiro

Fiddler on the Roof has been on my mind these days, the plaintive strains of the violinist leading me uptown to the New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), then midtown to experience the current revival of the musical on Broadway starring Danny Burstein, and finally back to the MCNY on March 28th to hear a lively panel on Reimagining Fiddler.

The lights dimmed and the actors who play Tevye’s rebellious daughters, Chava, Tzeitel and Hudel, appeared on stage, belting out Matchmaker, as the warm-up act for a panel moderated by the exhibit’s guest curator, Edna Nahshon, a Professor of Jewish Theater and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The lyrics were perfect, Sheldon Harnick at his best, with clever rhymes—”I’ll bring the veil, you bring the groom, slender and pale”—and puns at the end. The audience smiled when the sisters delivered the line: “Playing with matches a girl can get hurt.”

My memory flashed back to 1965 when I saw the original musical, one year after it opened in 1964, with Zero Mostel commanding the stage. Fiddler broke records and ran for over 3,000 performances.

The big question of the evening: Why was Fiddler such a sensation?

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You are Invited to Beyt Tikkun’s Liberation Seder Saturday eve April 23rd

Mar30

by: Renna Ulvang on March 30th, 2016 | Comments Off

This is Renna Ulvang, a therapist and spiritual counselor, and member of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls since 1999, inviting you to join us for an absolutely remarkable Passover experience (in Berkeley, Ca. Saturday April 23rd from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Our potluck seder at Beyt Tikkun is an incredible experience!

I love it because we not only observe the beautiful rituals of the traditional Passover seder, we go beyond the Haggadah’s invitation to imagine we were slaves in Egypt. We not only identify areas of enslavement within our own selves and lives but also in the lives of all the other human beings in our world.

Our Seder is not only a Jewish story, it is a human story of the possiblity of liberation from oppression. But it cannot happen without our mutual celebration as a community of world-changers, which we are, and which U are. So we are delighted to be able to reach out to you and to ask you to come and share this amazing evening with us.

I love this seder because there is wonderful food, music, readings, rituals, inter-connection, sharing, dancing, and having fun! So say goodbye to boring seders that do not seem relevant, this one IS relevant, today more than ever as the world sometimes seems hopelessly stuck. I love hearing and experiencing the way Rabbi Michael Lerner weaves together our familiar and treasured traditions with a vital, always new and refreshing sense that the world can be changed and transformed.

We welcome non-Jews and first time seder Jews as well!! This is a wonderful, non threatening way to “get into” the energy, meaning and spirituality of Passover!

For more important information (e.g. address, kosher for Passover foods to brings, etc.) please go to: www.tikkun.org/passover5777 ). Please tell your friends who may have never been to a seder or never been to one that spoke to their souls that they too should register and come!!

I hope to see you there!