Author Archives: Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll

About Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is a newspaper editor and widely published writer on contemporary Judaism.

Ode to the West Wing

Reprinted with permission from Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

A few years back at an inter-religious conference in Jerusalem, I heard a well-known Jewish political pundit, and former Reagan administration official, attempt to argue that the Bible “talks about responsibilities, but not rights”–the demand for “rights” by various aggrieved factions being a particular bugaboo of conservatives.

Unfortunately for him, the next speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, who gently but devastatingly listed a number of “rights” bestowed on various groups and individuals by the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah and Talmud, including the rights guaranteed a bride by the traditional Jewish wedding contract.

To me the exchange was a clear demonstration of the danger of relying on “the Bible” as an expression of the Jewish way, a tendency that is too often but not exclusively seen among Jewish political conservatives.

Torah & Capital Punishment

That’s why it was refreshing to see a popular television drama offer a Jewish perspective on a political issue that captured the depth and nuance of what we call “Torah.” On the NBC series The West Wing, set in a fictional White House, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is under pressure to commute the death sentence of a murderer convicted under federal narcotics law. The inmate’s lawyer begins a last-minute, full-court press on the president’s staff, going so far as to contact the rabbi of White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (the marvelously kvetchy Richard Schiff).

In a Saturday morning scene set in a synagogue, Ziegler is summoned to the White House at the same moment that the rabbi starts a sermon inveighing against the death penalty, saying “vengeance is not the Jewish way.” The next day the rabbi and Ziegler sit in the sanctuary and debate the death penalty, while a female cantor practices a lofty Hebrew song (“do it for the sake of Your Name”).

Ziegler reminds the rabbi that the Bible supports the death penalty: “The commandment says ‘thou shalt not murder,’ not ‘thou shall not kill.'” The rabbi in turn quotes the Bible on the stoning of wayward children, its tolerance for slavery, and the ban on homosexuality. On these issues, like capital punishment, “the Bible is wrong,” says the rabbi, and it is up to each generation to apply–and change–its lessons according to the moral tenor of the times.

Non-Traditional Jewish Identities

Reprinted with permission from the website of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Is there any reason to be Jewish if you don’t believe that Torah is the word of God? I would have thought that this question had long ago been answered in the affirmative until I read a recent book review in The New York Times.

In his review of a new book on Jewish culture, the writer David Klinghoffer takes a dim view of those who experience their Jewishness as consisting of anything other than the divine word revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. “Whatever pragmatists insist to the contrary, it’s hard to see why anyone would embrace a religion if it comes down to us ultimately not from God but from some long-dead Middle Eastern guys,” he writes.

Or, as Klinghoffer argues even more pungently in his own book, The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy, “the defining Jewish criterion must not be blood, or culture, or nationhood, or any of the innumerable substitutes for Judaism that have been proposed by factions among our people-compassion, tolerance, freedom, socialism, Zionism, Holocaust veneration, Jewish self-defense, Jewish unity–but Truth alone.”

jewish identityKlinghoffer’s dismissal of the various ways some 83 percent of North American Jews live their Jewish lives brought me back to a conversation I had in a Jerusalem yeshiva almost three years ago. Wherever the conversation had started, it ended up being about the Jewish contribution to the world, which my classmates equated almost entirely with yeshiva learning.

A proud product of the post-war, suburban baby boom, I grew up in a world that was intensely and proudly Jewish, infused with meaning and connection, despite the distance many of our friends and neighbors put between themselves and the “tradition.” And while I now belong to an Orthodox synagogue and send my kids to an Orthodox day school, my upbringing helped me see the innumerable ways Jews find meaning in their Jewishness–yes, outside the yeshiva, outside the synagogue–even as they maintain the shocking position that no one can know the Truth.