The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?
The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.
There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.
I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)
Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?
These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.
“Are we there yet?!!!” I recall saying this as a child, later enduring it from my kids. With this call from the car’s back seat we announced that we were unhappily bored.
We had only our own creativity to entertain ourselves. We learned a lot from those experiences. We were accustomed to being responsible for ourselves when we were bored.
Today, it is more difficult for kids and adults to endure or enjoy time to just be. Walk down a city street and watch people looking at their screens. Sit in a restaurant and notice how many people are looking at their screens and not their companions. It’s not uncommon for teens to text each other even while sitting together. The screen is the new addictive drug, messing with our minds.
A colleague shared that the first thing he does when he wakes up is to sit up to read email on his iPad. Some of us keep our smart phones bedside. We don’t want to miss anything, heaven forbid! Yet, ironically, through social media, we’ve become more isolated.
“Many of us reflexively grab our phones at the first hint of boredom throughout the day,” reports NPR. They cite a recent study documenting, “mobile consumers now spend an average of 2 hours and 57 minutes each day on mobile devices.”
Our screen addiction comes with interpersonal and personal consequences. WNYC radio host Manoush Zomorodi wondered, “Are we packing our minds too full? What might we be losing out on by texting, tweeting and email-checking those moments away?” She began a project called, “Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art Of Spacing Out.”
Concerned that we are losing vital thinking capacity, Zomorodi did some research. She found that that we “get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored.”
Psychologist Sandi Mann tracked people transitioning from boredom to creative activity. They “came up with their most novel ideas when they did the most boring task of all — which was reading the phone book.” Mann is now an activist to recover boredom in our lives.
When our minds can freely wander, daydream and connect with subconscious thoughts, creative connections emerge. Boredom paves the way for “autobiographical planning” or goal setting; essential to productive thinking. The “Bored and Brilliant” project was created to engage us in the cause. I signed up – admittedly with trepidation – to use their app to track my time spent on smart phone and tablet for one week. Starting on February 2, participants will be given a daily challenge for a week, and results will be tracked.
I’m reminded of the noise of the classical Jewish study house where learning and insight flows from conversation. Or the traditional synagogue, where cacophonous sound punctuates communal singing. Jews think and pray interactively, communally, and with personal meditation woven in between. Maybe it’s time to pray, learn, and just be. Maybe frightening, but absolutely liberating.
After watching The Interview I recalled a particular Purim shpiel (a comic dramatization) from nearly 30 years ago. It was a parody of one of our rabbinical school classes, silly as a Purim shpiel should be. I played the role of our beloved teacher, and my acting was so bad and the script so funny that I collapsed into giggles long before it was over.
Purim captures the opposites of joyous humor and gripping fear in response to painful realities. The villain Haman nearly succeeded in fulfilling his mission to wipe out the Jews of Persia. The buffoon of a king, Ahashuerus, is the paradigm of a dangerous ruler, too self-absorbed to pay much caring attention to his people.
In Jewish tradition we are bidden to behave respectfully to rulers we may not like. You never know what they can do to you if you don’t show them respect. We came by this fear honestly. Power in the hands of the misguided or the cruel can cause so much suffering.
The flip side of the instruction to show respect to those in power is that we sometimes need to expose their ineptitude or evil designs. The tool of parody, as on Purim, can express these concerns with nuance. Perhaps that’s why I giggled my way through that Purim shpiel years ago – there was nothing but love for our teacher, so the parody lacked a negative zing. But a parody that critiques a despot issues a call to action: Don’t let this happen!
I spent the first 20 minutes wishing I were watching bad Purim shpiels instead – anything would have been better than the sophomoric antics of Rogen and Franco. The constant gratuitous sexual references and “f…ing” everything wasn’t entertaining. But we stuck with it out of curiosity. We were glad we did.
Thankfully, the humor improved by mid-movie. But more importantly, the message became clear. The film is a full-voiced critique of a dangerous, cruel buffoon of a ruler, Kim Jong-un. The deprivation, starvation and repression of the North Korean people are no laughing matter, and nor are the regime’s nuclear bombs. This film draws our attention to problems that we are too overwhelmed to notice, especially with so many other world problems. How could we possibly have any impact on helping the suffering people of North Korea?
Maybe we can’t. But we can respond by living our values. Jewish tradition is ever hopeful, asserting that goodness will ultimately prevail. If The Interview reminds us to actively sustain American democracy, in a compassionate society that cares for all people, its painful humor will have been worthwhile.
This Thanksgiving, I felt so grateful for the presence of beloved family. Yet I was also mindful of a friend’s recent comment on the need to have sympathy for those who did not have family with whom to share the holiday. Whether by geography, strained or broken relationships, illness and loss, many could not share the holiday with families.
Others endured the indignity of not being able to afford a Thanksgiving meal. Suffering at home on the holiday, or visiting soup kitchens, it can’t be easy to be outsiders in a culture that seems to elevate “things” over people.
The holiday season has crept earlier, beginning around Halloween. That means that for two months the season of “sharing” can be painful for many people.
Isn’t it ironic that the holiday of “thanks” is celebrated with feasts where abundant food is consumed and discarded? Where is the connection of thankfulness to gluttony? What does this mean for our souls?
The greater irony is that the season of “giving” begins on the holiday of “thanks,” as feasting quickly gives way to shopping. It has become a season celebrating conspicuous consumption.
Enter #GivingTuesday, designated for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping feasts.
Founded in 2012 by leaders at New York’s 92nd Street Y, #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back. Its common purpose is: “to celebrate generosity and to give.” It brings together charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world.
How can we give generously? Many of us will write checks to charities at year’s end. These tzedakah dollars are essential to countless organizations doing so much good in the world.
Yet, as important as that giving is, it is not enough. The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing. By getting involved, we can make a difference in people’s lives while living our values.
Doing good becomes a natural habit through experience. There are many hands-on ways to give. The Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs will participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in the United States. For one week, participants will limit their food budget to the average food stamp (SNAP) benefit. The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest is holding a “Community Challah Bake” to benefit hundreds through Jewish Family Service and local food pantries.
It is important to contribute generously to sustain social justice, learning and religious organizations. But this week, we can commence the season of “giving” with mindfulness of our values and commitment to nurture generous living. True giving won’t be found at stores. It requires a heart-opening to the needs of others, and a commitment to make a difference.
I’ll be at the Challah Bake on Tuesday. How will you get involved?
I wore a white eyelet dress for my 1971 bat mitzvah. My mom bought it at a discount shop on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side while visiting my grandparents there. First, it was my mom’s dress, purchased for my brother’s bar mitzvah two years earlier. I made it mine by changing the color of the bow.
I was not embarrassed to wear a hand-me-down; I didn’t expect more.
When my kids became bar/bat mitzvah, expectations were different. For some girls there would be a new dress for the service and another for the celebration, and more dresses for each celebration they attended, many of which were similar to lavish weddings.
Our family consciously chose a different path. We worked to honor bar/bat mitzvah’s celebration of Jewish learning and values. It was not easy, but it was right for us, and we were not at all embarrassed.
But recently I did feel a tinge of embarrassment when my husband told me about a conversation with a colleague who asked his advice for her middle school-aged daughter. Her immigrant family was encountering bar/bat mitzvah for the first time. She didn’t know what it was about or what she should do. What kind of gift was customary? Did she really need to buy a new dress for her daughter each time, as she’d heard?
My husband advised her to give modest gifts unless they were close friends, and not feel pressured into buying multiple dresses. It pained me that this sacred event, celebrating a universal life passage, boiled down to this: money, clothes and fancy parties.
What does this mean to us as Jews? With so much of Jewish religious life focused on bar/bat mitzvah, what happens to the transformative power of Jewish living for all ages?
I wish that my husband’s colleague had been exposed to different questions: How does being Jewish enhance our humanity? How does Jewish belonging root our lives in compassionate community? How do Jewish values give purpose to our lives and meaning to our existence?
Think of what we could accomplish if bar/bat mitzvah were celebrated, not with gifts, but with tzedakah funds to feed the hungry. What if our resources helped send kids to Jewish camps where fun Jewish experiences create lifetime memories for meaningful Jewish living? What if we invested in innovative Jewish learning for all ages, so that Jewish knowledge can continue to transform lives? What if we structured the “event” on learning and meaning?
This critique is not new or unique. But with the growing number of Jews disconnecting from synagogues, alarm bells should be sounding. It is time for change. If we celebrate and laud families that make values-based choices, we can support each other in shaping Jewish life passages that would make our ancestors proud – along with us. That’s a real hand-me-down!
It’s the great communal experience of the Jewish people. We fill halls and sanctuaries and homes in eager anticipation. Some came simply because they are Jews or married to Jews; this is what we do on the High Holidays. Some came for the camaraderie; it feels good to be with our people. Some came to be with family, some came to be with friends and communities, a touchstone of connection whether frequent or occasional. Some came to pour out their hearts in prayer, connect with traditions and values, and with the Holy One of Blessing.
Holy Days preparations were reflected in the Jewish and secular press; a lot of expectations and wishes were shared. There were many columns on what rabbis should or should not say on the holidays. Rabbis spent many weeks developing ideas, learning together and refining their craft of High Holiday sermons and prayer. If a complete outsider looked at the Jewish world they would perceive a fairly high level of anxious anticipation. Were we happy or were we worried?
Yes. We were both. But we were also in it together. Together, we laughed and cried and reflected and prayed—using the words of the machzor (holiday prayer book) or not. And we ate some great holiday food, the holidays nourishing our bodies as well as our souls, which, of course, go together! The great gathering connected us to something larger than ourselves.
Today, some of us will build our sukkot (sukkahs) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, five days after Yom Kippur, extending the season of joy, community and Jewish experiences. We may be exhausted, but we are riding the wave of spiritual high straight through to Simchat Torah, 12 days from now.
But most of us will settle back into our routines, perhaps relieved that it is over. The holidays were an island in our secular lives, though hopefully uplifting and meaningful. Whatever the takeaway from the High Holy Days, it gets tucked back into the box called “Jewish” or “religion” that we open only when needed.
Yet, the need for spiritual nourishment and the need to belong remain. The questions of the High Holy Days, “Who am I?, Where am I?” live in our souls all the time. How can these needs be met in meaningful, satisfying, accessible, accommodating ways?
This is a conversation worth continuing. There are lots of great answers to these questions, and now is the time to share them together. Jewish tradition is a path for meaningful spiritual living; a treasure that enriches those who hold it. If it’s out of reach, let’s get there together. This is the good stuff—the day after the holiday, when, filled with possibility, the reboot of our souls begins.
Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.
Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.
This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?
David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”
At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”
We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die. We yearn to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.
Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.” For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.” These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”
The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)
How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday? We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.
Growing up, my favorite day was the annual Israel day parade in Philadelphia. It was a celebration of belonging and identity. We sang Israeli songs with pride, waving our Israeli flags. The crowd converged on Independence Mall, celebrating at the cradle of American democracy. In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Jewish pride was “in,” and it felt completely American.
I never felt unsafe publicly demonstrating Jewish and Zionist pride. Until I experienced an incident as a young rabbi in the small mid-western town where I served, I had never personally encountered anti-Semitism. I was fortunate to grow up in a region and a time where we could be fully American and Jewish.
Jews in America enjoy unprecedented acceptance and empowerment. Yes, pockets of anti-Semitism still occasionally pop up. In 2002, my New Jersey congregation was directly targeted, a frightening experience for all of us. But still, it felt to me that the outbreaks of irrational hatred could be overcome with the friendship and support of our Christian neighbors who would stand with us against hatred, as they did in both of my personal experiences.
I have invested my life in advancing positive Jewish ideas and experiences, shying away from any narrative that rests on the notion of remaining Jewish to defeat 2000 years of hatred. Joyous Jewish pride has remained my driving force.
This summer, my optimism, or call it denial, has been dented. There are very frightening and distressing stories of resurgent and violent anti-Semitism coming out of Europe. This is a serious crisis.
Still, I felt personally separate from that reality. Then last week, I realized that even in here in northern New Jersey, we are not immune. Sadly, the convergence of anti-Israel sentiment and Judeophobia has tipped the scale.
At a recent local “support Israel” rally there was huge police presence, including two county “command center” police trailers and horseback police patrol. This spoke volumes; we could not be safe without their protection. Thankfully, there were no problems. Was it because the event was only strategically announced and not advertised, out of concern for security? Anti-Semitism wearing the mask of Anti-Israel has come to threaten us.
I found myself returning to a recent Moment Magazine symposium, “Anti-Semitism: Where Does it Come from and Why Does it Persist?” (March/April 2014.) It’s helpful, but the desire to understand is insufficient. We must pour our energies into building bridges of relationship and understanding with many groups. First, invest in Jewish internal dialogue, so that concerns about Israel do not infect Jewish unity and strength. Second, our ties with Christian and moderate Muslim neighbors and friends are essential for turning back the tides of hate.
This is no time for hysteria (have you too received emails and seen posts of this nature?) But the veil of denial must also be avoided. The moment to address this crisis is here.
A week after coming home from a month in Israel, my soul remains immersed there. The tension in Israel, charged with fear and worry, can become like a cloak around your shoulders, enveloping you.
After arranging to come home a day earlier than planned, I was lucky to catch one of the last flights out before the temporary shut-down. Some colleagues were significantly delayed—one more stress added to the anxious experience of living in the midst rocket fire. But still, it was nothing compared with the suffering of Israelis living under constant fire in the South, or those whose loved ones were sent to fight in and near Gaza.
When I called the airline to change my ticket, I had a passing and ridiculous superstitious thought—what if I made a decision that put me in harm’s way? In a crisis, especially in the psychological warfare of rocket fire, irrational thoughts happen. I got a grip, emerging with still more sympathy for all the folks living under fire.
But something else remained with me. The airline agent, hearing that I was in Israel, said, “I’d high-tail it out of there right away.” After thanking her for her sympathy, I became protectively defensive of Israel, insisting it was no problem to stay there. My changed plans shouldn’t reflect on Israel, Israelis, or on my personal commitment to being there in support.
With kindness, she replied, “OK, well, keep the faith. No charge for the changed itinerary—after all, you’re in a war zone.” My reaction caught in my throat while I pondered “keeping the faith.” What does that mean in this situation?
We all know the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it’s not so simple. In Israel I heard that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi had told his followers that the IDF didn’t need to defend Israel—if everyone prayed, God would do the work. I was sickened. Didn’t he read the many rabbinic statements about human responsibility in partnership with God in completing the work of creation? Or the ethics taught by our Biblical prophets, often recited in synagogue as haftarah? Our tradition teaches us to repair the world on God’s behalf; empowering us to fight hatred, evil, cruelty, injustice and violence. We have all the tools we need to bring caring, compassion and healing to our world.
I was glad to have been blessed by that airline agent, even though I am guessing my approach to “keeping the faith” isn’t what she meant. It doesn’t matter. When the world feels out of control, there is a very real way to regain agency. Coping with crisis by “keeping the faith” isn’t irrational, superstitious or magical thinking. It’s a way of being, rooted in meaning, transformative and completely empowering.
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I experience the world through Jewish history. I came by it honestly, having been a lifelong avid student of Jewish history. The story drew me in, like learning about my family’s past.
I feel Jewish history like the blood in my veins. So this week I had a chance to retrace a certain Jewish journey, of sorts. While visiting my daughter in Spain, I felt the history of our people there, with visions of the Golden Age when Jews were a thriving community. I heard the names of Jewish communities all over the Iberian peninsula reverberating in my memory, then felt grief and sadness for the fate of those communities under the Inquisition. The fear and hatred wrought by the Inquisitors, the heinous torture they inflicted on suspected Conversos, secret Jews are a great stain on history. The journey of the Jewish people, so marked by our wanderings, was forever changed.
Thankfully, the relationship of the Spanish people to our people has changed, and now the Spanish government is discussing the offering of citizenship to Jews of Spanish origin—even 500+ years since the Inquisition.
I left Spain, boarding a flight to Istanbul, where I had visited several years ago with the warm hospitality of Turkish hosts. In Turkey I felt Jewish history in my bones, in what was once a significant destination for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The Ottoman rulers welcomed Jews and offered safe haven and new homes. Our people owe a great debt to Turkey for the friendship offered at such an important time.
History marches on, and now there are few Jews in Turkey. We Jews continued to wander, eventually finding unprecedented opportunity to settle in our ancient homeland in the late 19th century. Fleeing European persecution yet again, our people established a refuge for all Jews by creating the State of Israel.
So when I boarded my next flight, this time to Tel Aviv, I smiled at the sweep of history. Here we are, a Jewish people with our long-awaited rebirth. Now we can travel and live in Spain, visit and enjoy Turkey, and also walk the paths of our ancestors in Israel. I am warmed by remembering just how remarkable that is.
Israel is the destination from our wanderings. Yes, I will return home to New Jersey next month, but I carry this place with me everywhere. And I wonder, and I worry, will my children, and their peers, growing up in a time when historical memory pales in comparison to the opportunities presented by the global community—will they carry it in their hearts? Our biggest challenge today is to nurture both cultural openness and Jewish pride. The key lies not only in recalling the sufferings of our past, but in experiencing the remarkable. Israel is a complicated and imperfect place, but it is indeed extraordinary. Israel is uniquely a product of Jewish experience and skillful survival. We did this together, and that includes today’s youth too.