Extremism in the Defense of, What?

Thus far, the Republican presidential sweepstakes has resembled a video game, where the contenders shoot each other with invective, and the score is tallied by opinion polls and the size of supporter donations. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s score appeared to be approaching zero last week when he declared he was ending his quest for the presidency.

Retired neurosurgeon and Christian motivational speaker Ben Carson, on the other hand, is rising in both categories. Support apparently increased after he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Asked by host Chuck Todd if he thought Islam was consistent with the Constitution, the Republican candidate said, “No, I don’t.”

Of course, the Constitution contains no religious test for president. Thus, in both its historical context and as measured by common decency, Carson’s statement was bigoted and incorrect. But when viewed in the context of businessman Donald Trump’s continued stirring of the “birther” pot regarding President Barack Obama’s origins, Carson appears to be pandering to a segment of the Republican Party and the conservative camp that is paranoid about Muslims in America. Although we have seen this paranoia before — directed at one time or another to Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Italian, Irish and German immigrants and African-Americans — it remains a disquieting phenomenon and needs to stop.

The stakes in the Republican primaries are high, which may explain some of the commando tactics of the contenders. But those actions have consequences. For example, we have seen some of the themes of the presidential primary competition being played out by hardline conservatives in Congress, including the most recent threat to shut down the government if they cannot cut off funding of Planned Parenthood. While we understand the sentiment of the “pro-life” movement, we question the judgment of promoting a government shutdown over the dispute. Fortunately, it appears that the Republican leadership in Congress is working to craft a bill that will avoid the unnecessary confrontation.

There are those who see the xenophobia of Carson and Trump and the social wars in the halls of Congress as separate phenomena. We don’t. Each has its roots in a political extremism that is affecting political debate, and that’s not good. We realize that extremism makes good press. And in a crowded primary battle, the noisiest and most extreme positions seem to attract the most attention. But at what price?

Each time a major political voice expresses an extreme position, we seem to lose a bit of our humanity. While scaled-back rhetoric may not have the same shock effect, it will help focus the debate and make us all feel a little better about the process, as we address the merits of our differences.

The Pope’s Prescription for Congress

Pope Francis’ visit to Capitol Hill brought much praise and generous applause. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Pope Francis’ visit to Capitol Hill brought much praise and generous applause. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

One of the most widely reported highlights of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was his historic visit to Capitol Hill last Wednesday. In the first-ever address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis tackled several humanitarian subjects that he urged U.S. lawmakers to address. On immigration, he told the  assemblage of some of the highest- ranking officials in our country: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of  foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” That statement generated applause.

The challenge faced by Pope Francis on the immigration issue was significant,  because he was addressing a Congress that offers an immigration policy focused upon the construction of a wall along the  Mexican border. Nonetheless, he urged lawmakers not to “be taken aback” by the numbers of the “thousands of persons [who] travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones. Rather view them as persons,” he said, “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

According to Pope Francis, what stands in the way of congressional action and what causes so much of the unnecessary suspicion and hatred in the world is what he called “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

To some, it seemed inappropriate for a foreign head of state — which, as the leader of the Vatican as well as the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is — to tell the freely elected U.S. Congress how to do its job.  But that is exactly what he did, and he supported his remarks by citing the Book of Exodus, and the Jewish prophet and lawgiver Moses: “Moses provides  us with a good synthesis of your work,” he explained. “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Pope Francis chose to speak truth to power. And he is to be commended for that. In turn, Congress showed deep  respect and genuine delight in its hosting of the immensely popular “people’s pope.” But now that the celebration has subsided, we wait to see whether Congress actually follows the pope’s guidance or simply  satisfies itself with more applause.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of What’s Important Ki Tisa

This week, we read from the Torah portion Ki Tisa.  We read this portion during Sukkot because Sukkot is a celebratory holiday. This portion reminds us of the true meaning of the holiday, which is even more. It reminds us that there are consequences for our actions.

Often on Sukkot, people are joyous and throw parties. They forget that the holiday is for thanking God for the first harvest and celebrating the great gifts that God and our farms have given us. This portion shows us that we should not lose sight of what is truly important.

When the people of Israel created the golden calf, everyone was singing, dancing and partying. They forgot the holiness of Mount Sinai and all that God had done for them. The people lost sight of what was truly important. When Moses arrived and God and Moses saw what the people of Israel had done, they were outraged at the people’s ignorance. The people of Israel were punished for their actions. This story provides a warning for us today.

This portion also discusses God showing Moses God’s back. There is an expression, “You have to see it to believe it.” As Jews, our relationship with God is stronger than that. We do not see God but we still believe in God. Our bond is strong enough that we do not need to see God.

For example, idols are physical things that people pray to because they are unable to believe in a power they cannot see. They cannot understand that some things can go unseen but can still be believed in. However, exceptions can be made. Moses was rewarded for his faith in God. Every now and then, people do need incentives to keep believing. After all, we are only human.  God does not want us to end up like the people who pray to idols. So once in a while, we do need to be reminded why we should believe in God. This was the gift that was given to Moses. He was reminded that God is and always will be there.

This connects to my life because I have a similar relationship with my parents. Once in a while, after I have been doing good things, I get a reward. My parents are trying to tell me that even though they get upset at me at times, they still love me and that I should keep doing what I am doing and doing what is right.

Believing in our parents is similar to believing in God. Just like our parents, God is always there for us also. Both God and our parents can get upset, but both will always love us. Parents are merciful and kind just like God. Happy Sukkot!

Placing Our Trust in God’s Protection Divar Torah

This Shabbat, Hol Ha Moed Sukkot, we read from the Book of Ezekiel. During the holiday of Sukkot, the themes of destruction and renewal occur. The prophets associated the theme of warfare, followed by hope and redemption, with the holiday of Sukkot. They anticipated the day to come when all the nations would witness universal peace.

In today’s Haftarah, it states, “Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness.”

When Sukkot comes, and we celebrate, this is another time we know God’s greatness is with us. The sukkah represents the shelter that our ancestors experienced when they were wandering in the desert. Then and today we place our trust in God’s protection. When we go outside into nature, into the sukkah, anything can happen.

We know that these words, “and I will be exalted and sanctified,” are very important because the rabbis incorporated them into the kaddish prayer that we recite every day. In each service we find the Hatzi Kaddish, which serves as a separation between parts of the service and also the mourner’s Kaddish, which is recited with each service.

The rabbis understood the reason to praise God even in our darkest moments, including when we mourn the death of a loved one. Why would the mourner need to recall God’s greatness at a time of sorrow? Even when we feel vulnerable, the rabbis want us to understand that despite the difficulty and hardships, we realize that God will be there for us
and there will always be goodness in the world.

When there is no more war, when someone puts an end to hunger, when we find a cure for diseases such as Ebola, cancer and others — that will be one  way we know God’s greatness has come to our world. We have to learn to bring God’s presence into our world. We have to be kind to others and respect each other. Through the Torah we learn that it is our job to do mitzvot, such as donating clothes or toys that we aren’t using anymore or recycling paper instead of throwing it away. Those are other ways to bring God into our world.  By helping each other we are partners with God, and in this way we can enhance the world in which we live.

As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope to bring joy to the lives of the children at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. I am collecting books for the patients so when they read the stories, even though they are hospitalized, they can travel far through their imagination.

Holy History or Sacred Seeds? Shabbat Sukkot

The Three Festivals we celebrate are powerful connectors of the Jewish people across time and space. Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot each provide essential connections for us in the world of land and food. But each carries a powerful connection with God through our history as well.

Most of us get the historical connection more easily. After all, our shared history and experience binds us together as we remember what our ancestors did long ago. But just as powerful is our own personal memory of what our own parents and grandparents did: building sukkot at home or synagogue; touching, waving, inhaling lulav and etrog, all the sights, smells and sounds of Pesach Seder preparation; tasting special foods of the various seasons; gazing at lights kindled just for the festival; taking in the taste of wine or juice for Kiddush.

These sensory experiences shape our consciousness and form our Jewish hearts.

The agricultural aspect we appreciate only from an emotional distance. Of course, we are deeply grateful for the food that sustains us and the forces of nature that make that food possible. But, unlike farmers an hour out of Pittsburgh, we don’t check rain charts daily, fret over soil conditions or tear our hair out over grubs or animals that threaten our crops.

In the Jewish year that we have just begun, we who live in cities are much less aware that Sukkot gives thanks for the fall harvest and the beginning of the season of rain. Many don’t realize that Pesach began the spring planting season, and just as few appreciate the spring harvest celebrated at Shavuot.

No, we are bound to the meaning of our history and the experiences we share to cement consciousness of it. At Sukkot we remember how God cared for us 40 years in the wilderness. At Pesach, we highlight our wonderful passage to freedom from slavery. Shavuot commemorates our immortal meeting with God at Mount Sinai to receive Torah.

But historical memory is as fragile as agricultural awareness if it is not relived on a regular basis. I may not realize how amazing it is to have food from the earth precisely because I didn’t grow it. And if I don’t build a sukkah, hold lulav and etrog, wave them in all directions and inhale the powerful aroma of the etrog, then my hold on these connections will grow weaker of time as well.

In many Jewish disputes, we like to take both sides, to say “both/and” instead or “either/or.” We could say that both are essential to Jewish awareness and continued vitality. We need to embrace our connections with the sacred land and God’s presence in history.

In Israel, the early kibbutzim made a conscious decision to embrace the land and not the theology of Jewish history. For us, we connect to our story, not as much God’s bounty from the earth.

But what if we give up both? How can Judaism or the Jewish people continue on without grasping the rituals, practices and experiences that cement our connections as Jews?

It is my fantasy that these words might be read by our faithful readers with interest and concern — while sitting in a sukkah this season.

Moadim l’simcha! May the festivals be for joy!

Repression of the Sublime Parshat Ha’azinu

It was advertised as one symposium at a major psychology conference. It was to be a discussion about memory and forgetfulness. But it turned out to be one of the most intense and instructive days that I have ever witnessed.

The first speaker began by insisting that the fact that we remember things is obvious. What requires explanation, he argued, is why we forget. We are hardwired to recall every event that occurs in our lives. The mechanisms of forgetfulness are a mystery and call for a program of scientific

The second speaker took a position diametrically opposed to the first. He believed that it is only natural that we forget. It is one of nature’s wonders, he maintained, that we remember anything at all.

The third speaker took a middle of the road position. For him, the major challenge to the science of the psychology of memory was not why we remember. Or why we forget. Rather, it was why we remember certain things and forget others. And why we distort even those matters that we do remember, so that our memories are grossly inaccurate and unreliable.

It is the position of this third speaker that has kept my interest over the many years since that conference. And it was just recently, as we commemorated the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, that my interest in this subject was revived.

Very many of my acquaintances were on or near the scene of the collapsed World Trade Center towers on that fateful day. To this day, some have clear recollections of every moment of their experiences. Others claim that they only remember certain vivid episodes, fleeting ones, and can only draw a blank when it comes to the majority of the time they were exposed to the tragic scene.

Some have memories that are as accurate and as clear as the “flashbulb memories” that psychologists have studied as far back as World War II. For others, the memories have been partially, and sometimes substantially, repressed and can no longer be recalled. Their powerful and poignant emotional reactions have wrought havoc with the ability to accurately remember the events of that day.

Remembering and forgetting are major themes in our Jewish religious tradition. We are commanded, for example, to remember the Sabbath, to remember the lessons to be drawn from the life of Miriam and not to forget the enmity of Amalek. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu, there are at least two verses that relate to these themes. One reads, “Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation” (Deut. 32:7), and the other states, “You ignored the Rock who gave birth to you, and forgot God who brought you forth” (Ibid. 32:18).

I have always been intrigued by the notion of forgetting God. Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, we were admonished to be careful, lest “our hearts become haughty, and we forget the Lord our God.” I can understand agnostic disbelief, and I can empathize with those who have lost their faith, but I have always found it puzzling to contemplate forgetting God. Either one believes, or one does not believe, but how are we to understand forgetting Him?

Many years ago, I came across the writings of a psychologist named Robert Desoille, and it was in those writings that I’ve discovered a concept that helped me come to grips with the notion of forgetting God.

Desoille coined the phrase “the repression of the sublime.” He argued that we have long been familiar with the idea that we repress urges and memories that are uncomfortable or unpleasant. We repress memories of tragedy, we repress impulses that are shameful or forbidden. It can even be argued that this power of repression is a beneficial one to individuals and society. If individuals would not be able to forget tragedy and loss, they could potentially be forever emotionally paralyzed and unable to move on with their lives. A society whose members act on every hostile impulse, rather than repressing them, would be a society that could not endure for very long.

It was Desoille’s insight that just as we repress negative memories, we also repress positive aspirations. We are afraid to excel. There is a pernicious aspect to us that fears superiority and avoids the full expression of our potential. This is especially true in the area of religion and spirituality, where we dare not express the full force of our faith and, in the process, limit our altruistic tendencies. Perhaps it is the dread of coming too close to the divine. Perhaps it is a false humility that prevents us from asserting our inner spirit. Or perhaps it is simply that we do not wish to appear “holier than thou” to our fellows.

However one understands the reasons for this phenomenon, for me, the concept of “repression of the
sublime” explains the notion of forgetting God. It is as if we have faith in Him but do not have faith
in ourselves to express our faith in him in our relationships and life circumstances. We repress our
sublime potential.

There are many impediments to thorough personal change and self-improvement. Desoille demands that we consider an impediment that never before occurred to us: we are afraid to actualize the inner spiritual potential that we all possess. We are naturally complacent, satisfied with a limited expression of our religious urges. We repress the sublime within us.

As we now have concluded the High Holidays and their truly sublime liturgy, we have allowed our spiritual emotions full range. We have dared to express the religious feelings that welled up within us during the moments of inspiration that we all have surely experienced during this sacred season.

Now is the season during which our faith demands that we loosen the bonds of the repression that limits us, take the risks of more fully expressing our religious convictions and thereby no longer be guilty of “forgetting the God who brought us forth.”

May we be successful in our efforts to free the sublime within us, to act courageously upon our religious convictions and thereby merit the blessings of the Almighty for a happy and sweet new year.

Beth Tfiloh or Beth AIPAC?

Rabbinic huckster Shmuely Boteach — complete with his own bobblehead doll, available for purchase on his own website — self-brands as America’s rabbi. If that is the case, then localite Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg is AIPAC’s rabbi and Beth Tfiloh, the congregation which he serves, should be renamed Beth AIPAC (“Time for Action: AIPAC CEO addresses packed Beth Tfiloh sanctuary,” Sept 11).

Indeed, in light of grossly partisan public comments expressed by Wohlberg, such as “keep J Street off my street,” perhaps it is time that Beth Tfiloh’s tax-exempt status as a house of worship be revisited.

With Zionism, Jews Need a History Lesson

Under the surface of your recent article about a Red Emma’s customer offended by the lack of Zionist books (“MICA Student Admonished for Pro-Israel Views at Coffee Shop,” Sept. 11), there are revealing insights into our community’s psychology. The incident itself seems to be more about this customer’s demand to educate unwilling coffee shop employees with his opinions on Israel. That can only be newsworthy to a community unable to handle dissent.

My experience as an anti-Zionist Jew is that as the American Jewish community has become more hawkish, it has also become more brittle and conspiratorial, reading malevolence into non-events such as this one. Too many of my Jewish and non-Jewish friends have come under (sometimes physical) attack for standing up for Palestinians for me to think this is a limited phenomenon. It is only through meeting like-minded people through groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that I have been able to reconnect with my Judaism.

Jews need to educate themselves on the real history of Zionism — the displacement of Palestinians from 1947 to the present — and the easiest way to start is by listening to criticism.

Slap in the Face to NPT Nations

Saul Edelman’s comments in his Sept. 18 Your Say letter are simply ludicrous. As a grossly distorted parody of my Your Say words (“The Iran Deal: An Outrage, Insult”, Sept. 4), they are reprehensible.

To set the record straight, approximately 190 nations, including Iran and the U.S., are party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The terms of the Iran nuclear agreement that legitimize Iran’s retention of an infrastructure for the development of nuclear weapons are in direct violation of the NPT.

Edelman draws attention to the fact that three or four nations, including Israel, have not signed on to the NPT for their own reasons. That fact is simply irrelevant to the very serious issue of noncompliance by Iran with their NPT commitments. What we have here is an Obama administration that is aiding and abetting a sworn enemy of the United States (Iran) to violate an international treaty that has, until now, withstood the test of time as a pillar of stability in an unstable world. The consequences of this betrayal will be catastrophic as other Middle East nations rush to acquire nuclear weapons to counter the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear-threshold state and demand the same exemptions from their NPT commitments that have been irresponsibly granted to the radical Islamic regime in Iran.

A Missed Opportunity for Healing

I read with interest the “Personal Statement of Apology” made by Rabbi Barry Freundel in the Sept. 11th Balitmore Jewish Times. As a social worker with 30 years of clinical experience, I had hoped the rabbi might have explained, especially to the victims and the Jewish community in which he was revered, what drove him for many years to risk his family life and stature by sexually traumatizing so many women who so deeply trusted him.

Freundel is not the first nor the last person of great stature to abuse his or her power in such a heinous way. I was saddened, frustrated and angry that the statement was so simplistic and seemed especially lacking in self-awareness about his motivations and the indelible mark he has left on the vulnerable women who were his victims. It is not how many times the rabbi apologizes, but rather how he understands what he is apologizing for that makes all the difference.

Here is what he could have shared that would have meaning to those he deceived and abused. First, he could have acknowledged that he sexually abused his victims. Nowhere in the statement did the rabbi describe what he did as sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. He used these women for his own erotic pleasure without their consent. Moreover, he did this repeatedly, over years, continually misusing the power of his position and the trust of his victims for the purpose of taking sexual advantage of them.

Victims of sexual exploitation carry deep shame because they feel they were in part to blame for the abuse. This shame can profoundly affect their ability to trust themselves and others for a lifetime because they somehow “let it happen.” The rabbi could have said, “To all that I have sexually exploited and abused, I know you feel shame, as though you were somehow complicit. I want to take back the shame that you carry. I bathed you in my shame. I used my role in the Jewish community and my authority to take advantage of you. You did nothing to deserve what I did to you.”

Finally, Freundel didn’t expose any personal vulnerability in his public apology. As a perpetrator, he groomed victims over time and set up situations to gain his own prurient pleasure at the victims’ expense.

The rabbi could have used his public apology as an opportunity to reveal what he is beginning to understand about his own life experience that may have led him to sexually prey on others. Such a disclosure would be an indicator that he is
taking real responsibility for his actions and would have educated the religious and larger public community about abuse of power and sexual exploitation.

This kind of personal statement would take real courage and self-awareness.

It could have made a difference in the lives of the women he abused and in furthering the healing process in the Jewish community.

Roz Beroza is a Silver Spring, Md.-based licensed social worker.