My politics and commitment to social justice are bound up with Judaism.
When the Levitical priests demanded that we reserve the corners of our planted fields for the poor to come, unfettered and unembarrassed, to take what they need, that was no suggestion. So, too, was it Law that we were told that we must take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan. These instructions illuminate for me a wide range of contemporary issues, including our gnawing gender pay imbalance.
Women are half our workforce and still earn $.77 to each dollar men take home in equivalent positions.
The New York Times this morning reports that in an effort to revive a late 2010 anti-discrimination bill killed by Senate Republicans, the update of the generations-old Equal Pay Act has been reintroduced. It would protect employees from retaliation for sharing salary information with one another. It would also require companies to show that salary/wage differences are job- and not gender-based.
Every understanding of the Law that I have, including all that I have learned in Torah class from my Orthodox rabbi, tells me that the Justice that the Law demands that we continually seek, requires me to urge all of you to make your voices heard and get this bill passed, and swiftly.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard rabbis and teachers ask “What’s the most important Jewish holiday?” It’s a trick question, of course; their answer is Shabbat. However, sometimes I think about the question as a straight question, a reference to annual holidays. My own candidate is Pesach, which I doubt is the answer you’d get from very many people. Here’s my rationale:
Pesach teaches us empathy, which may be the most central characteristic of Judaism. The answer to the Four Questions begins with “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.” We are constantly reminded that we were slaves and strangers and so we are responsible for treating slaves and strangers as we would want to be treated. We welcome whomever is hungry to come and eat. This is not about our fate but about our ethics; the approach to responsibility here is on its own terms, not on what kind of year we can expect as a result of our conduct.
Pesach teaches us that empathy must be applied universally. We are taught a very graphic lesson from an early age by spilling wine during the plagues: Suffering is a bad thing no matter who suffers, including our enemies.
Pesach teaches us about being grateful to God. We thank God a lot during every service but nowhere is it drilled into us so repetitively as to border on the comic or in such a catchy fashion as in Dayenu.
Pesach teaches us that involvement in Judaism starts as early as possible. This is the only holiday where the youngest capable person takes center stage, in this case to ask what my family called the fir kashes, or the Four Questions. Children are involved in the search for chumetz, children are involved in either hiding or finding the afikomen.
Pesach is the only holiday that is too important to delegate. This is not a holiday that is centered around the synagogue but around the home. We don’t hand this one off to rabbis; there is no passivity here. We are obligated to tell the story to our children, to each other, and to ourselves. It is also a very widely observed holiday; Jews who don’t observe Purim, Sukkot or Shavuot (and frequently don’t know what Shavuot celebrates) typically attend at least one seder. This is probably because this holiday wasn’t delegated while they were growing up.
As a comparative exercise I realize this is somewhat pointless (we’re not about to choose a single annual holiday to observe), but I think that understanding just how central Pesach is to our identity as Jews will affect how we celebrate it.
Islamic leaders, seeking to motivate would be suicide bombers, inducing them to commit murder in the name of Allah, have been quoting Islamic sources, which promise 72 virgins in Paradise to those who kill and are killed in Jihad.
Many Muslims, especially those exposed to Western culture, are aware of the jokes and the ridicule that the 72 virgins legend has brought upon them and upon their brother believers. Consequently, they blame the Jews for spreading the myth in an attempt to downgrade the image of the Islamic “freedom fighters.”
Despite the disclaimer by some Muslims, the truth is very clear. The 72 Virgins notion has its origins in the Qur’an.
Although the holy book does not specify the number as 72, it does say that those who fight in the way of Allah and are killed will be given a great reward. It goes on to stipulate that Muslims will be awarded with women in Islamic heaven.
It even describes their physical attributes — large eyes (Q 56:22) and big, firm, round “swelling breasts” that are not inclined to sagging (Q 78:33). The Qur’an refers to these virgins as houri, companions of equal age, but the highly-flavored emphasis of their bodily characteristics, including their virginity, gave rise to many hadiths and other Islamic writings.
Hadith 2687 is where the number 72 is mentioned. “The smallest reward for the people of Heaven is an abode where there are 80 thousand servants and 72 houri, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as wide as the distance from al-Jabiyyah to San’a.”
Qur’anic commentator Al-Suyuti (died 1505) and Orthodox Muslim theologians such as al Ghazali (died 1111 CE) and Al-Ash’ari (died 935 CE) graphically elaborated sensual pleasures attributed to Muslims in paradise.
On the whole, the Qur’an and the hadiths are filled with sexual fantasies that Muslim men are awarded when they reach Islamic heaven. Anas bin Malik, an Islamic scholar, claimed that “The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were 11 in number… The Prophet was given the strength of 30 (men).” Muhammad (hadith 24) apparently claimed that devout Muslims would be given the sexual strength of 100 persons upon their arrival in Heaven. (This is apparently more than what was attributed to the prophet himself).
The sexual obsession by Muslim men as conveyed by Islamic writings, takes its cue from the founder of the religion. The description depicts him as a sexual predator.
Being consistent with its sexual obsession and predatory practices, the Qur’an permits pedophilia (sura 65:4). It also discusses rape in detail. It lets you know that men can rape female slaves and captives (Q 23:6), even in front of their husbands (Q 4:24). Other writings advise that when having sex with captives, it’s better if you don’t pull out at the end (Sahih Bukhari 3:46:718).
It’s no wonder that 72 Virgins in Paradise are a fundamental piece of Islamic culture. Sex, sex abuse, pedophilia and enslavement of women take central stage within that religion. Encouraging martyrdom by pointing to sexual rewards in heaven is a natural corollary of that tradition.
Although the Qur’an may not be as specific, it nevertheless, offers many clues, which subsequent inscriptions reinforced, interpreted, and broadened.
I have written this article in response to many questions I had been asked by book club members who’d read my book 72 Virgins. In that book, I did not discuss the roots of that evil thinking. Instead, I told a story, a thriller about a group of Jihadi terrorists and their quest for martyrdom. The story builds on the Jihadists’ motivation for targeting so many innocents and exploiting the victims’ massacre as a stepping-stone to their dream of eternal paradise next to Allah’s throne. The real question I’ve tried to answer is not whether Jihadists’ plots will ever cease to emerge. There’s no chance of that. The question the book seeks to answer is — will the next one be stopped before it’s too late?
Most Jews around the world, especially those in the United States, had a lovely meal of haroset, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket and or lamb, roasted potatoes, cabbage, asparagus and maybe some dried fruit for dessert at Monday night’s first Passover seder. But rice and beans? At a seder?
While that may seem foreign and maybe even non-traditional, for those of us who are Sephardic, a Pesach without rice and beans would have Savta (grandmother) turning in her grave.
Just like Ashkenazi Jews, we sit around the seder table. But it’s the leader of the seder, not the wife, who brings the first plates. And he doesn’t just plop them in front of your face.
He holds a plate on the head of each person at the table for a second, a minhag, or custom, to remind us of the heavy burdens we had on our heads when we were slaves in Egypt.
Then a few pieces of matzo are tied up in a napkin and passed around the table, shoulder to shoulder. Each is asked, “Where are you from?” as the matzo is being passed. The traditional reply is, “I am from Egypt.” Then a second question: “Where are you going?” And the answer: “I am going to Yerushalaym.” Then a third question: “Will you come with me?” The answer, of course, is “yes.”
Of course, in all of our traditions, we serve unleavened bread. But who among us really likes to eat matzos? We of the Sephardic tradition have an answer. One you Eastern European Jews might want to adopt.
We serve an unleavened bread called pane azimo (pa-knee ah-zee-moe). It’s made with olive oil, flour, sea salt and matzo meal. Some Sephardic families also toss some corn meal in as well. Of course, there’s no yeast so, like matzo, it doesn’t rise. But unlike matzo, it doesn’t taste like cardboard!
Of course, we use a Haggadah, so the story of the 10 plagues and the softening of Pharaoh’s heart and the escape from bondage – the wandering the desert – all that is the same. But here’s something I bet you’ve never seen unless you’ve been to a Sephardic seder: the leader pours wine into, of all things, a tin can. The tin can is then taken into the yard and the wine is poured into the ground. Then the matriarch of the family says, “May this go to all of our enemies and haters. May they create no suffering for us or themselves. Amen.”
The matriarch then presents the patriarch with a bowl and glass of water. He recites the plagues one-by-one and pours a drop of wine from a special glass each time into the bowl. The matriarch chases the wine with a bit of water. All of this takes place below table level, because we’re not supposed to look at the plagues for the fear of being contaminated.
Without looking, the matriarch takes the bowl to the bathroom and flushes the plagues down the toilet.
The singing of Dayenu, of course, will be familiar to Jews no matter what traditions they otherwise hold. But as we are singing, we take green onions with long stems, which we use to whip the person next to us, and pass them on. The whipping reminds us of the miracle that we were freed from the lash of oppression.
Then charoset, a mixture of apples, dates, nuts, apricot, cinnamon and wine is served, to remind us that, when we were slaves, we had to mix mortar to make the bricks. Then, the traditional four cups of wine.
But here’s a uniquely Sephardic tradition. We all dress in white cotton, and the leader, in this case my rabbi, wears a white caftan, or robe, and a crown, because he plays Pharaoh.
On the eighth night, we close out Passover traditionally with the Mimouna celebration. The synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight. The Torah is then taken from the arch. The Song of Songs is read while everyone dances in the aisles. (Something, I might add, that one rarely does in an Ashkenazi shul!)
We eat pita bread dipped in honey, representing the gluing together of the Jewish nation so that we will never be separated by oppression and slavery again.
But what about the rice and beans, you ask? It’s called kitniyot: rice, legumes, string beans, green peas, lentils, split peas, chick peas, sesame and sunflower seeds. A traditional kosher for Pesach staple. It doesn’t have any specific religious significance, but I promise you one thing. It’s a tasty addition to the seder table that we anticipate eating every year.
Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit, once best known for being the home of Ford Motor Company World Headquarters and the sprawling Ford Rouge Assembly Plant. But it’s now probably better recognized as a community with a substantial Arab population.
Jones is the controversial church pastor who burned a Koran in Florida, then announced it on his website. When word about it spread in Afghanistan, enraged Muslims attacked UN offices, killing 11 people in protest. Even though the UN had nothing at all to do with what Jones did, it was the closest place they could think of where they could find westerners to punish for the Koran burning.
Now Jones wants to take his mission against Islam on the road to Dearborn, where he intends to protest in front of the Islamic center. The prosecutors want an injunction to prevent him from doing so, on the grounds that he will likely spark a riot there.
The Koran burning was, of course, distasteful and irresponsible, given that the U.S. government implored him to not do it because it feared violent responses by some who were offended. Responses that the government told him could put Americans and others in danger.
The lesson was clearly not learned by Jones, who now apparently wants even more fame, or perhaps infamy, by protesting in Dearborn.
While the Koran burning was distasteful, it was clearly protect under the Constitution. So is Jones’ right to protest outside a mosque in Dearborn.
If he is precluded from exercising his First Amendment rights, then who will be next? Nazis who want to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood?
That’s not just an academic question. It actually was once raised.
In 1977, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, then a community heavily populated with Holocaust survivors, a neo-Nazi group announced a march. When the village government sued to prevent the march, the ACLU stepped in and filed a counter-motion claiming that to enjoin the Nazis from marching would be a violation of their First Amendment rights.
The ACLU prevailed in court, but in the end, the Nazis never marched in Skokie.
The thought wannabe Nazis goose-stepping through the neighborhood of people who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust notwithstanding, the court made the right decision. They had the right, that they elected to not exercise, to do just that.
Similar emotions may be evoked if Jones decides to visit Dearborn. But he too, has First Amendment rights.
If we muzzle Nazis and we muzzle Jones, who knows who may be next to be silenced. Maybe Muslims. Maybe Jews.
Until two years ago I hadn’t been a shul member since my bar mitzvah in January, 1964.
Just before that Rosh Hashana, Tamar and I, on what at first seemed like a moment’s spur, joined a Sephardic congregation with simple, lovely, curved and arched Moorish architecture. As all of the Sephardic shuls in America are, ours is what is known as modern-Orthodox. It’s been among the best decisions we’ve made and, on reflection, was likely on the cards for some time.
Despite the fact that we’re secular Jews and while we are egalitarian and progressive in our outlook, Tamar and I have no issue sitting apart during prayer. (During all other activities, such as Torah and Talmud study, men and women here participate together.) The men and women sit apart during prayer, though the mechitza, or barrier between the men’s and women’s section, is slatted, chocolate-colored wood and low enough to be leapt by a lame midget. In fact, while our congregation is serious about Judaism, we’re fairly informal here; men lean over the slatted wood divider to chat. A lot. And in the lobby, men and women hug, hold, kiss. It’s a pretty touchy place, a happy, welcoming place, reflecting the range of cultures from Israel, Spain, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Europe, North and South America.
And over the Ark, these words:
Know Before Whom You Are Standing.
It’s a simple, powerful admonition and more: it’s a profound recognition, even for two Jews who aren’t particularly spiritual. It underscores what we’ve always known, that we answer to an ethic greater than ourselves. Makes sense, as I’ve never thought that I must understand Torah as history in order to know it’s among the world’s greatest sources of wisdom and ethics. There are, of course, other extraordinary moral repositories, but as I’m a Jew, this one, Torah, is mine.
It would take a remarkable poverty of imagination to demand that Torah (or any religious text) be literal history to be deeply meaningful and instructive. And it’d be an even more deplorable lack of creative sensibility to require ‘proof’ of God in order to derive extraordinary lesson and benefit from the Books.
Last night at shul I opened a book of prayers and found, as I find throughout Torah, Talmud, Prophets, Judges, all the texts, the one common thread that thrills me as a Jew more than any other. Leviticus may say it more emphatically than the other texts when it tells Jews that we must never leave the poor, the widow, the ill, the orphan, defenseless and on their own…yet they all say it. Levitical injunctions do not suggest; they absolutely require: they say there simply is no question but that it’s our communal obligation, our personal and collective responsibility to make certain that people in terrible circumstances be helped and raised up and helped again, over and over until they are in positions to care for themselves.
And if there is a God, a God who demands this, then this God simply cannot be demanding this of less than one-tenth of one percent of humanity only: it has to be a universal injunction.
The introduction to the New Year Book of Prayer tells us that at this time, at the New Year, we are to be both celebratory and solemn, we are to, in the words of Nehemiah
“eat…drink…and send portions
to him who has nothing….”
Nehemiah, as all the prophets, demands that Jews understand and act on what justice requires.