We have all heard a seen a lot about Christmas for the last month or so. My Christian clergy friends wish that people were talking more about Jesus than Santa during this period of time and I have to say I sympathize with them. Our commerce-driven economy has transformed the Christian holy day into the focal point for an annual spending frenzy that I suspect is the antithesis of much of what Jesus himself taught.
I did catch a glimpse of a curious discussion about Jesus during the last few weeks triggered by Megyn Kelly, a news announcer for Fox News, who asserted, on the air, that Jesus was a white man...
Although Jesus was a historical figure, there are no contemporary images of him . . . but my guess is that he looked much like other people populating the Mediterranean Basin a couple of thousand years ago: dark hair and eyes, a rather swarthy complexion . . . .but his appearance is probably the least important characteristic of the man.
I was, admittedly, not the most enthusiastic student of history in college and rabbinical school, but the one course that did engage me was a course on the history of the Land of Israel during the Second Temple . . . part of which includes Jesus' lifetime.
Judea (as the Land of Israel was called at this time) was a fascinating, cosmopolitan region. Judea, with a few good harbors, was an international hotspot where Europe, Asia and Africa all touched. The region had been ruled by an independent Jewish regime, and was then under Syrian, Greek and Roman rule . . . so there was a myriad of cultural influences woven into the intellectual, economic and theological structures of the time.
The region, especially the beautiful northern area of Israel, the Galilee, was peppered with small towns which held weekly or bi-weekly market days so that farmers from surrounding areas could sell their produce and animals. Those market days also became days for the "pirka," the lesson taught by whichever itinerant scholar/rabbi happened to arrive in town on market day when people were gathered in one spot. Some of these rabbis, who travelled and taught throughout the region, were apparently quite charismatic and developed devoted followings. There were some who felt that the Kohanim, the priestly caste who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem and all connected with the sacrificial cult, were growing too powerful, too unilateral, too uninvolved in the lives of the people. Some who felt this way, promoted the study of Torah from the grassroots and formed the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism we practice to this day. Others criticized the Temple cult and sought a more spiritual path. Jesus was, apparently, one of these charismatic rabbinic figures.
So, thought a Jewish lens, Jesus was a rabbi, preacher and teacher. Quite human. Quite effective. Not of divine origin (or no more of divine origin than any other human being) and not a savior.
Certainly, this man's legacy has inspired a compelling faith. As a Jew, I admire the best of Christianity . . . which I suspect doesn't have much to do with Santa . . . and remain deeply nourished and inspired by my own tradition, rooted in the Torah, anchored by rabbinic teaching, which directs my attention to God more than any human being.
This Shabbat our weekly Torah reading brings us to the very beginning of the second book of the Torah: Sh'mot/Exodus.
We are going to witness and relive some of the greatest moments in our history as we read our way, parasha by parasha, portion by portion, through this second book of Torah.
Right at the beginning of the parasha we see the Israelites referred to, for the very first time, as עם "ahm," "nation". This is in contrast to the Israelites at the end of the book of Breishit/Genesis who were an extended family related through Jacob's progeny. Now, in Sh'mot, the Israelites are a confederation of twelve tribes and are considered by their Egyptian neighbors to be a force to be reckoned with.
We will quickly become engaged in the quagmire and heartbreak of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the evolution of Moses from foundling to prince, from prince to refugee, from refugee to shepherd and from shepherd to national leader and God's collaborator. The sea will part. The Torah will be revealed at Sinai. The Golden Calf will emerge and enrage. The Tabernacle/Mishkan will be constructed in the wilderness and preparations will be made for the establishment of the first stage of Israelite religion: the sacrificial cult.
We will emerge at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, as a people bound to God through the salvation of Israel from Egypt and through the brit, the covenant forged between Israel and God at Sinai. Our lives will be informed by ethical, ritual, spiritual and moral mitzvot/commandments . . . through this second book of Torah we revisit our roots and our core values. By examining our beginnings as a people our appreciation for the wisdom and the richness of our tradition deepens.
Twice a day our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to recite the following verse (part of the compilation from the Psalms we call "ashrei"). As I contemplate the spiritual journey that awaits us in the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, this verse comes to mind:
Ashrei ha'am she'Adonay elohav אשרי העם שה׳ אלהיו
Blessed are the people whose God is Adonay.
There are times when the universe seems to conspire to challenge us: The week people around the world are mourning the quintessential man of integrity, peace, mature judgement and courage, Nelson Mandela, is the week millions of people around the United States are marking the 1st anniversary of the horrific Newtown school massacre.
As the senseless deaths of twenty six-year olds and their teachers sank in, we sensed that there might be a glimmer of hope. Cynically, we noted that at least twenty children of color from disadvantaged homes were victims of gun violence every year in the United States and those "incidents" made barely a ripple on the national stage . . . perhaps the deaths of these twenty white children from privileged Connecticut would shake our nation out of our complacency and spur some serious gun control legislation and enforcement.
In truth, it's a mixed bag: In a number of states, proactive and balanced gun legislation was passed (including in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and California). According to the New York Times (December 10, 2013), 109 new state gun bills became law in the year since the Newtown shootings. 39 of these new bills tighten gun restrictions. 70 of these new bills loosen gun restrictions. 14 of the 39 new bills relate to gun possession and mental health issues (including the creation of a task force here in Rhode Island mandated to review existing laws related to firearms and behavioral issues). 10 of the 39 new laws relate to strengthening or establishing background checks for the purchase of firearms. In Rhode Island, a bill became law in July making it illegal to receive, transport or possess any firearm whose identification has been altered.
The fact that more bills loosened gun restrictions than tightened them is an indication that we as a nation are struggling mightily with this issue. We need to conduct respectful and focussed and informed conversations about the place of firearms in our society.
We do not need fear tactics. We do not need polarizing rhetoric.
And yet, guns and public safety researcher, Timothy Johnson of MediaMatters.org reported today: As the one-year anniversary of the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent is blaming "the self-inflicted scourge of political correctness" for the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.
In his regular column for conspiracy website WND, Nugent wrote on December 11 that unless America followed a series of his policy recommendations -- including arming teachers, eliminating "gun-free zones," and getting "deranged people off the streets" -- "then those precious little 20 children and their six teachers and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary died for nothing."
In the week we are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela--a man who never let himself be swayed by the assumptions and biases of others-- it is anathema to evoke the Holocaust as a support for the loosening of gun control. In a January 24, 2013 press release, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported:
As a self-determining people with our own sovereign country, language, cultural and religious heritage and economic resources, we can take part in any policy or cultural debate without "playing the Holocaust card." We don't need anyone's pity and it is not becoming to assume a pathetic posture.
We also acknowledge that the Jewish people do not hold exclusive rights as victims of Nazi genocide: there is just as solid documentation that the lives of gypsies, homosexuals, those suffering mental illness and political dissidents were just as callously discarded as were the lives of 6 million Jews.
Nonetheless, no one has the right to distort these truths to make political hay. Do you want to defend the status quo in gun possession? Speak with integrity and make your case, don't throw around emotional bombs like "Holocaust" and "Nazi." Do you have confidence that loosening gun restrictions is the responsible next step in our country's civic life? Speak with integrity and make your case with logic, accuracy and integrity: do not take the names and lives of the Newtown victims in vain.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
In other contexts, Nelson Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.