Monday, February 22, 2016

The Meaning of Monotheism???

23 years ago shortly after arriving in Portland I attended my first Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting.  There Lois Shenker reported on the first evaluation by the students of the Introduction to Judaism course of which she had only the previous year become its first administrator.  Among the accolades for the course overall, several students reported disappointment that the subjects of God and dietary laws were conspicuously missing.  I looked around the room for comments.  Dietary laws is one thing, but 18 weeks as an introduction to Judaism and not one presentation of the Jewish view of God!!??  Only Rabbi Stampfer opined that in truth all 18 classes were about God.  Nice try, but that was a cop out.

The solution? A 19th class would be added to the curriculum devoted exclusively to the subject of God and Theology.  Since I was the newest addition to the group, that became my class and over the next 23 years I have taught that session almost every semester.

Each God and Theology class I ask an obvious question, namely "what makes monotheism different?"  How might one explain what the difference in outlook is between a monotheist and someone whose belief system includes many gods?  It sounds like a simple question, but rarely do I get a courageous student to venture an idea.

Truly the question can be answered in several ways, and I offer but one.  I tell the students that when I explore the subject with elementary age children, I ask them, "If you want to stay up late one night, do you know which parent to ask?"  They all do.  They all know which parent is more likely to say yes.  Thus having two parents is a recipe for potential chaos.  They might answer differently.  Imagine not two parents, but hundreds of authority figures...That's why often one parent (often the father) will say, "Go ask your mother". I ask the students why in the Iliad do all the combatants pray to different gods, hoping that their god will bring victory?

A polytheistic outlook is one that conceives of the world as basically a chaotic place, a capricious place, while a monotheistic view is one of perceived order, some would add even if that order is illusive to us.  A single God reigns supreme.  That God as conceived by the Torah and Jewish thought has no myth, i.e. that God has no life similar to human beings as we find in mythological traditions.  The Hebrew God does not fall in love, nor carry out vendettas against other divine beings, etc.

But are all monotheisms the same?  When Jews, Christians and Muslims proclaim that they are monotheists, do they all mean the same or similar ideas.  The answer is both yes and no.  There are certainly large areas of similarity between the three faiths as well as differences.  And certainly there are not only difference between the faiths, but within each of the faith traditions.

That became the central issue prompting/forcing Larycia Hawkins to resign her post as assistant professorship at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near Chicago. In taking a courageous stance against Islamophobia, Ms. Hawkins had posted a photograph of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab with the caption: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims, because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."  That posting led to an uproar prompting a negotiated withdrawal.

This controversy became the subject of this week's religion article that appears each week in Saturday's New York Times: Are all monotheisms equal?   Several theologians were asked their opinion.  The most erudite, I thought, was that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Britain.  He asked, do we worship the same god, but in different ways, or does the fact that we worship god in different ways mean that we worship different gods?  Even the conception of the same Abraham is thought of differently by Jews, Christians and Muslims. So yes, and no.

A few years ago it was reported that the government of Malaysia outlawed the use of the name Allah by Christians to refer to their God.  However in Malaysia and many other predominantly Muslim countries Allah is the generic term for God employed not only by Muslims, but by Christians and Jews as well.  For Muslims Allah is the proper name of their God.  For other monotheists, Allah had become the term used when speaking of their own God.

What an interesting world!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hopes and Dreams for Israel

In the midst of a crazy American election,
As Obama and Netanyahu clearly dispise each other,
While Israel is presently governed by the most right-wing government in its history,

What's a liberal Zionist to think?

Among the many efforts to put love for contemporary Israel into words (by no means an easy task),  I find the recently published statement signed by several hundred Reform rabbis from throughout the Diaspora and Israel valiant. 

The only hope for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is determined progress toward creating two independent states for two peoples.  Not mentioned in this statement, but no less of concern are the current efforts by the present Israeli government to stigmatize and silence the voices of the vast array of liberal Israeli groups.  As Zionists we have always taken great pride in the government protected open and vibrant interaction between all interest groups.  That must not be stymied.

The Statement: 

"We declare our commitment to the survival of the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic country.

"We are committed to the vision of the Jewish state living in peace with its neighbors while promoting the principles of justice, equality and civil and human rights; a vision of the prophets of Israel as was proclaimed in Israel's Declaration of Independence.

"We are dismayed by the inability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to advance the process of reconciliation and peace.

"We condemn those Palestinians who have engaged in incitement and acts of terrorism, inflicting injury and death on innocent Israelis.

"We believe that the occupation of territories in the West Bank, the control over daily life, the ongoing expropriation of Palestinian lands, the harrassment of civilians and the suffocation of communal life for nearly five decades have created an ethically devastating commentary on the Zionist narrative.

"We therefore call upon the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to create a conducive climate for the advancement of the peace process.

"We call upon the Palestinians to make every effort to prevent violence and increase good will among our two peoples.  And we call upon the Israeli government to freeze all settlement building and expansion activity and to declare a readiness to end the occupation of the West Bank and that this be done while both sides engage in peace negotiations based on principles of territorial compromise and the establishment of security arrangements suitable to the needs of two independent states."

Ted Cruz Endorsements

Is this relevant or not?  Must a candidate denounce or at least distance themselves from the hateful statements of those political or religious leaders who endorse his/her candidacy?  Here's a pretty hateful, seemingly blatantly anti-Semitic welcomed Cruz endorser.  A Cruz Man

Come on Ted.  Show us you don't buy this kind of hateful nonsense.  Take a stand.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Presidential Visit to Mosque Controversial??

Last week President Obama visited an American mosque, the first such visit of his presidency.  Many could rightly claim that it was long overdo.  He has visited churches of various denominations and synagogues as well.  One might imagine that his reticence was connected to the "birther" issue, the ridiculous assertion that Obama is covertly a Muslim, a belief held to this day by a sizable percentage of the American electorate.

This visit was more than a social call.  It was to profess from the highest level that Americans of Muslim faith are no less American than anyone else.  It was necessary to make such a dramatic appearance, because of increased attacks on Muslims and mosques, vicious comments in the media, connecting all Muslims with the acts of radical Muslims who have killed and maimed in terrorist acts here and abroad.  We remember that President Bush made a similar important gesture soon after 9/11. He spoke at a local mosque proclaiming to the American people that we must not take revenge for the acts of a few on Muslims who are law abiding American citizens.

I take such visits personally.  Should God forbid Jews and Jewish institutions be under attack because of the radical actions of some of our number, I would hope that our elected officials would stand with us as a community.  And if we were frightened under threat of physical harm, I would hope the American president would do whatever necessary to stand with us.  We have had many times when Jews in various places were threatened.  Sometimes, but all too seldom, it was the king or a nobleman who stood up against the rebels.

In that light I was flabbergasted at the criticism Obama received for this very presidential act.  The first as reported in the New York Times came from Morton Klein, a right-wing fanatic on anything having to do with Israel.  Klein is the perennial president of the Zionist Organization of America, at one time a reasonable voice advocating for the Jewish state.  He claimed that Obama should not visit a mosque, because their leaders criticize Israeli military actions and that such visits only encourage  radicals to hate Americans!! When I consider the source, I discount the critique.

Much more troubling was the criticism of presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio.  He criticized the president claiming that this was just another example of how the president is "always pitting people against each other".  When challenged on his comment Rubio asserted that Obama discriminates against Christians. He was referring to the laws requiring hospitals and secular organizations under church authority to provide insurance coverage for employees for birth control.
Rubio is way off base.  If the Cuban community were under threat he too would expect the president to support law abiding Cuban Americans.


Friday, February 5, 2016

"Israel's Security Chiefs Agree:Separation into two states is in Israel's vital security interest"

Yesterday's New York Times published an impressive full page ad (impressive, because I fully support its powerful message) paid for by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace ( 

It lists 16 of the highest level individuals who have served as a. Chiefs of Staff of the Israel Defense Force, b. Shin Bet (Israel's Domestic Security Agency) Directors and c. Heads of Mossad (Israel's Intelligence Agency).  Each one is presented with a photograph as well as a short quotation of their personal views.  This is highly unusual for these individuals in whom Israel has placed its complete trust to publicly defy the attitude of the Israeli Prime Minister and his government.

For example Shaul Mofaz claims: "Time is not in favor of the state of Israel...The generation of the leaders today should decide.  This year, next year--we have to decide."
Dan Halutz: "The question is whether there is leadership who is willing to go the extra step to maintain a Jewish state, because the alternative is a bi-national state."

Beneath the photos and quotes is a chart, providing the projected population breakdown if no solution is found:
2015  52% Jewish
2020  49% Jewish
2030  44% Jewish

"The only way Israel can remain a Jewish democratic state is if the Palestinians have a demilitarized Palestinian state.  It's time: Two States for Two People

"Son of Saul" the Movie

Was the boy really Saul Auslander's son? We will not know because the powerful film leaves it purposefully unclear. 

The setting is gruesome: Auslander is part of a group known as Sonderkommando, men who oversee the hoards of mostly Jews brought to the ovens at Auschwitz.  They oversee the people being told to undress and enter what the new arrivals are told are showers.  They gather the clothes, remove the naked corpses and wash down the gas chamber in preparation for the next group of unsuspecting prisoners.

Auslander wants to know if any of the groups is from Hungary like himself where he might recognize someone.  Shockingly a teenage boy is discovered still breathing.  A doctor ends his life, but now must perform an autopsy.  The boy appears random, but Auslander calls him his son.  He kidnaps the body before the autopsy and is determined to give it a proper burial, but in order to do this appropriately he is determined to find among the captives a rabbi to recite Kaddish. 

Simultaneously a fellow Sonderkommando Abraham is determined to document what is taking place in the gas chambers and to foment rebellion.  He commissions Saul to get a hidden camera.  Much of the movie is based upon documents that were discovered only in 2005 known as "Testimonies of Auschwitz", actual entries by those engaged in the gassing of Jews and other "undesirables".

During the rebellion. Saul flees carrying the body of his "son" and a prisoner who claimed to be a rabbi.  However Saul soon painfully discovers the "rabbi" is a fraud.  In fleeing the escaped Sonderkommandos cross a river with a strong current.  There Saul loses his grasp of the corpse and he cannot retrieve it.  Resting in an abandoned building, the men make plans to join the Russian forces to fight the Nazis.  A young body, perhaps representing his "son's" spirit peers into the building providing hope to Saul and his buddies.  However the Nazi soldiers are right behind.

"Son of Saul" is difficult to watch because of the subject matter.  However it is an important addition to the Holocaust library, exploring a piece of the horror often overlooked, because it is so very painful.

"Son of Saul" is currently playing at Cinema 21 in Portland.    


I have found ways to occupy my time during these first months of retirement such that I wonder how I was able to get the required obligations done while serving as senior rabbi.  So, while it was my intention to write regularly in this blog to substitute for the communications I used to send out weekly on issues Jewish and political by email to the congregation, I turned my attentions in these past few months in other directions.

I am determined to correct my ways and write as often as I can.  Certainly the topics and thoughts on those topics remain aplenty.  In addition Carol and I will begin a major journey in March and I will use this space for journal entries on my observations along the way.