Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah / death of Bin Laden

Thoughts I shared with my community today by email:

Today is being observed in Israel and throughout the world as Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I have pasted below the comments that I made at the Jersey City Yom HaShoah commemoration yesterday.  Our Learning Center students in grades 4-7 will participate in a Yom HaShoah educational program tomorrow.

Also today, we are focused on the fact that one of the most fearsome people our world has known since Hitler has been killed.  After 9/11, I remember thinking - and sharing with this community - that whereas comparisons between contemporary figures and Hitler are always overblown, in the case of Bin Laden the comparison is not inappropriate.  It seems oddly fitting that he was killed by American special forces not only on the day of Yom HaShoah on the Jewish calendar, but also on the anniversary of the date on the secular calendar when Hitler killed himself.  

Thinking back to those days in Hoboken immediately following 9/11, when we learned of all the terrible ways that this tragedy touched our own community, I can only pray that the survivors of the attacks, and those who continue to mourn loved ones, can take satisfaction that the world is finally rid of Bin Laden.

While I understand the motivation of those who have greeted this news by dancing in the streets, there are some good reasons why I am not among them.   Our world remains precarious, and terrorism remains an ever-present threat.  Some around the world are greeting the news of Bin Laden's death in very troubling ways that show their true colors (see, for example, the statement of the leader of Hamas in Gaza:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110502/wl_mideast_afp/usattacksbinladenpalestinianshamas).  And Jewish tradition counsels us to tread carefully with our emotions when our enemies fall.   (On this last point, I have also pasted below some comments of a more scholarly nature that I wrote today to some colleagues, discussing Judaism's ambivalent perspective on the suffering of enemies, from the perspective of the history of Jewish liturgy.)  I can't feel much joy today, but I feel relieved, and hopeful that we can succeed in building a better world.


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Rabbi Scheinberg's comments at Yom HaShoah Commemoration, May 1, 2011,  Congregation Bnai Jacob in Jersey City


My colleague Rabbi David Ebstein tells this story that takes place in the early 1990’s.

He was developing Jewish educational programs in the Former Soviet Union
immediately after the fall of communism.
He travelled to the city of Minsk, the capital of the new country of Belarus,
and a city with a historic Jewish community that was largely destroyed during the Holocaust.

One of the synagogues in Minsk survived the war, and that’s where Rabbi Ebstein went for services on that Shabbat.

In the midst of the service, an old man walked into the synagogue
and - surprisingly enough - began dancing in the aisles to the melodies of the synagogue service.

He seemed so full of joy and enthusiasm.

Rabbi Ebstein asked him, why are you so happy?”
And the man responded:  "Because I used to be the last Jew on earth.
"

What did he mean?
During the war he escaped to the forests of Belarus….and survived.

After the war he married a woman who was not Jewish, and kept his Jewish identity a secret.
Because he was illiterate, and his village was so isolated, he never met or saw any other Jews.
He thought that the Nazis had annihilated all the Jews,

and he assumed he was the last Jew on earth.

One day, his son, a train conductor, told him that in the great city of Minsk,
his train had driven by a synagogue where Jews prayed.
This man was incredulous. He just had to find out where the synagogue was.
Visiting the synagogue for the first time was like a rebirth for him --

and eventually he moved to Minsk.
He says that whenever he sees Jews praying in the synagogue,

it fills him with tremendous joy,
because it reminds him of how he used to think that he was the last Jew on earth.

Part of our task on Yom HaShoah
is marking the unbearable devastation of our people -
a wound from which we can never fully recover.
But part of our task on Yom HaShoah
is taking note of just how miraculous the rebirth of the Jewish people has been.
The State of Israel was created just 3 years after the liberation of the camps.
In most of the world, Jews live in conditions of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
While in some cases Jewish communities are precarious, and Jews around the world do face real dangers,
there is so much to celebrate about these 65 years since liberation.

Thousands of years ago, the prophet Ezekiel comforted his community of exiles in Babylonia
with a vision of dry bones --
the prophet saw a vision of dry bones reassembling themselves into the shape of human beings,
then miraculously being covered with flesh and coming alive.
And he was told:  these bones represent the people of Israel.
Even though they say
יָֽבְשׁוּ עַצְמוֹתֵינוּ
our bones are dry
וְאָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ:
and our hope is lost,
I will open their graves, and bring them to the land of Israel
יד וְנָֽתַתִּי רוּחִי בָכֶם וִֽחְיִיתֶם
And I will breathe my spirit into you and you shall live.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the Jews say avdah tikvateinu אבדה תקוותינו - our hope is lost -
like the man from Minsk, they think they are the last Jews on earth.
but the words of Hatikvah turn around Ezekiel’s words,
as we say od lo avdah tikvateinu עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו - our hope is not yet lost -

may we express gratitude for our revival
and may we remember always to take delight in every demonstration of our vibrant Jewish future.

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Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on reacting to the suffering of enemies, from the perspective of the history of Jewish liturgy - May 2, 2011

In my opinion, anyone who thinks that this issue is very simple, in one direction or the other, is not considering all the variegated evidence.
Two things to consider, from the history of Jewish liturgy, about how we react at the suffering of enemies / wicked people:

(a)  I was surprised the first time I learned that the prevailing interpretation I had heard about removing drops of wine from the wine cup at the seder when we mention the ten plagues -- that we do so to diminish our full cup of wine and to demonstrate less than full joy at the plagues that afflicted Egypt -- is a relatively late interpretation, found first in the Haggadah commentary of Abravanel (late 15th/early 16th c) and popularized by S.R. Hirsch (19th c).  Earlier (and many later) interpretations regard the wine-pouring as a vengeful gesture or as an imitation of God's 'finger' - etzba elohim hi - in inflicting the plagues.  This reinterpretation can be considered among the many ways that a traditional inclination to vengeance has been blunted in the modern era.  (Another example, among many:   in the blessings after the Haftarah, prevailing practice is to say "ve-la'aluvat nefesh toshi'a bimhera be-yameinu," "May You save the despondent of spirit speedily in our days' -- but this is clearly an example of Christian censorship or self-censorship of the printed liturgy, as manuscripts (and Yemenite siddurim to this day) have the text 've-la'aluvat nefesh tinkom nakam bimhera be-yameinu,'  'May You surely seek vengeance on behalf of the despondent of spirit, speedily in our days.')


(b) And on the other side:  It is striking that the Gemara (RH 33b-34a) draws major conclusions about the sounds of the shofar from the use of the word 'uteyabev' in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), describing the wailing of Sisera's mother as she comes to the realization that her warrior son isn't coming home.   This seems to me to be a remarkable, even over-the-top, demonstration of universalism:  our cries to God on Rosh HaShanah are supposed to resemble, in some way, the cries of a bereaved mother, even though the son she is mourning is our enemy.  The song of Deborah itself shows absolutely no sympathy to Sisera's mother and in fact gloats over her sadness -- but the Gemara appears to encourage us to consider her humanity.   (While some would argue that this verse is only cited for linguistic reasons and it's inappropriate to draw any conclusions about how we should think about Sisera's mother, I would disagree.  Bringing the original context of verses to bear on a sugya that quotes them is absolutely interpretive fair game.)

Bin Laden is clearly in a different category from the Egyptians suffering from the plagues (including many presumably innocent people) and Sisera (who may have been a ruthless warrior but who was a military opponent of the Israelites rather than a terrorist).  But overall, what I feel Jewish tradition is guiding me to feel at a moment like this -- as I feel Jewish tradition often guides me to feel -- is......challenged to at least consider something contrary to my natural inclination.

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