Mikulski: Our Friend

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Melissa Gerr)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
(Melissa Gerr)

Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s surprise announcement on Monday that she would not seek a sixth term in the Senate in 2016 has thrown Maryland politics wide open. But whoever succeeds the much-admired, forceful and energetic Mikulski will find it difficult to break as much ground as the Baltimore native.

The longest-serving woman in Congress, Mikulski in 1986 became the first woman to be popularly elected to the Senate. Later, she became the first woman to join the Democratic leadership and then the longest-serving woman in the Senate.

Mikulski, 78, has been a strong liberal voice on Capitol Hill. As the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee until Republicans took control in January, she oversaw, among other things, U.S. funding to Israel. Last summer, as Israel was fighting the second Gaza war against Hamas, Mikulski’s committee approved $225 million in extra funding to Israel. At that time she wrote, “It’s crucial that Israel has the opportunity to defend itself while others are working on cease-fires or political solutions.”

A daughter of Baltimore’s Polish-Catholic community, Mikulski began her career as a social worker and community organizer, and she never forgot her blue-collar roots. As a politician, she focused on the rights of women, children, seniors, veterans, federal workers and the disadvantaged — never losing focus on her constituents and their local needs. And she has been a reliable and forceful advocate for issues of interest and concern to our Jewish community.

At the news conference where she announced her plan to retire, Mikulski admitted that the line was already forming to succeed her. “Maryland has a lot of talent, and they’ll be telling you about it within the next 10 minutes,” she said, provoking laughter. Reps. Chris Von Hollen, John Delaney and Elijah Cummings, as well as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have already topped handicappers’ lists.

We can only hope that Mikulski’s successor will be as attentive, understanding, strong and reliable on issues relating to Israel and of concern to our community as our dear friend has been. She will most certainly be a tough act to follow.

The Real Wiesel

Three observations about the JT’s Feb. 27 editorial, “Icon Makes Political Statement.”

Note that Eli Wiesel’s full-page ad supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu’s planned speech to Congress that appeared in both The Washington Post and The New York Times was produced and paid for by Shmuley Boteach — the very same Sheldon Adelson-funded reality TV celebrity whose vainglorious mischief-making was unmasked and excoriated in the JT’s Feb. 20 editorial, “All about Shmuley.”

JT readers need to know that Wiesel is a longtime, rock-ribbed Likudnik. For a polished analysis of the retrograde nature of Wiesel’s political views, see Arthur Hertzberg’s “An Open Letter to Elie Wiesel” in The New York Review of Books (Aug. 18, 1988). Further proof of Wiesel’s bracing lack of acumen and insight into character may be found in the fact that Bernie Madoff was his money manager.

Speaking of which, the JT editorial ends by claiming that “as Wiesel himself has taught us, no one is above criticism.” You have to be kidding.

Has the JT forgotten the threats he levied upon playwright Deb Margolin if she proceeded with the Washington, D.C., Theater J drama, “Imagining Madoff,” that she was penning about the relationship between Wiesel and Madoff? The threats drove Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout to write a story entitled, “Shame on Elie Wiesel; he trampled on a playwright’s freedom of speech” (Aug. 13, 2010).

The only explanation for such shameful and bullying behavior is unabashed narcissism, which accounts for Wiesel’s ties with the huckster Boteach.

Countering OPEC’s Power

The national average for a gallon of gasoline is $2.41. For this, drivers can mostly thank the highest level of domestic oil production in four decades — more than 9 million barrels per day.

With American energy production booming, it’s difficult to imagine a return to the shortages that characterized the 1973 Arab oil embargo. But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the rest of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have recently launched a price war to force Americans back to a dependency on foreign energy. They are being aided by an outdated U.S. policy prohibiting the export of domestic crude oil.

The best way for American legislators to combat OPEC’s aggression is to lift this ban. Scrapping this outdated policy will secure American progress toward energy independence.

It’s easy to see why OPEC is scared. Innovative extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have boosted U.S. oil production by 4 million barrels per day in just the last six years. Consequently, U.S. demand for OPEC oil has dropped to its lowest level since the Reagan administration.

OPEC can’t stand to see one of its biggest customers move toward energy independence. But the cartel might not be able to endure the self-inflicted wounds caused by rock-bottom oil prices for very long. Of OPEC’s 12 member countries, only Qatar can balance its budget with prices at $60 per barrel. Six OPEC members need the price to stay above $100 to avoid fiscal ruin.

By contrast, most U.S. producers still make a profit below $60 per barrel.

That’s why, in late November, the governing board of OPEC decided not to cut oil production despite a global surplus of 2 million barrels per day. Instead, OPEC maintained its production levels to push prices down in hopes of driving American firms bankrupt. The cartel believes that American energy firms will break under pressure.

Congress can strengthen our domestic economy while countering these plans. It should lift the ban on crude oil exports. Domestic firms could then sell oil to the many overseas buyers eager to reduce their own energy dependence, thus reducing the power of OPEC to maintain a throttle on U.S. and global oil supplies.

Fortunately, the effort to repeal the ban is gaining traction. Texas congressman Joe Barton has introduced bipartisan legislation to lift it. However, some lawmakers argue that permitting crude exports might contract local oil supplies and push up the price paid by domestic drivers at the pump.

They needn’t worry. In a new report, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office finds that allowing U.S. crude exports will actually save American drivers up to 10 cents per gallon of gasoline. The CBO explains that the price of gas depends “primarily on the world price of crude oil, which would decline slightly once lower-priced U.S. crudes were available in the international market.”

If Congress lifts the ban, crude exports could add 300,000 jobs and $38 billion to the U.S. economy by 2020.

J. Michael Barrett is former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council. He is a principal with Diligent Innovations.

A Different Moses Emerges for All Time Parshat Ki Tisa

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiWhat is the significance of the dazzling radiance of Moses’ face and why did it not attain this shining glow until he received the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, why did Moses break the first tablets?

Yes, he was bitterly disappointed, perhaps even angry, at the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf only 40 days after God’s first revelation on Shavuot; however, these tablets were “the work of God and they were the writing of God.” How could the holiest human being take the holiest object on earth and smash it to smithereens? Was he not adding to Israel’s sin, pouring salt on the wounds of the Almighty (as it were)?

My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, taught that Moses emerges from our portion of Ki Tisa not only as the greatest prophet of the generations, but also as the exalted rebbe of klal yisrael, all of Israel, as Moshe Rabbeinu — Moses the teacher and master of all the generations. This unique transformation of his personality took place on Yom Kippur; it is the sobriquet of rebbe, which occasions the rays of splendor that shone forth from his countenance.

The Midrash on the first verse of the Book of Leviticus, “And [God] called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting,” provokes a remarkable insight.

The biblical word for “called out” in this text is vayiker, a word that suggests a mere chance encounter rather than an actual summoning or calling out of the Divine; indeed, our Masoretic text places a small letter alef at the end of the word. The Midrash explains that it was Moses’ modesty that insisted upon an almost accidental meeting (veyikra) rather than a direct summons.

However, when God completed the writing down of the Five Books, there was a small amount of ink left over from that small alef; the Almighty lovingly placed the surplus of sacred ink on Moses’ forehead, which accounts for the glorious splendor that  emanated from his face.

Allow me to add to this Midrash on the basis of the teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The essence of the second tablets included the Oral Law, the human input of the great Torah sages throughout the generations that had been absent from the first tablets.

Hence, Chapter 34 of our portion opens with God’s command to Moses, “Hew for yourself two stone tablets” — you, Moses, and not Me, God; the first tablets were hewn by God and the commandments were engraved by God, whereas the second tablets were hewn by the human being Moses and the commands were engraved by him. The chapter concludes: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write for yourself these words for on the basis of these words [the Oral Law, the hermeneutic principles and the interpretations of the rabbis of each generation] have I established an [eternal] covenant with Israel.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik maintains that during the 40 days from the beginning of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur, Moses relearned the 613 commandments with the many possibilities of the Oral Law; Moses’ active intellect became the “receiver” for the active intellect of the Divine, having received all of the manifold potential possibilities of the future developments of Torah throughout the generations. This is the meaning of the Talmudic adage that “Every authentic scholar (talmid vatic) who presents a novel teaching is merely recycling Torah from Sinai.”

In this manner, Moses’ personality became totally identified and intertwined with Torah, a sacred combination of the Divine words and the interpretations of Moses. Moses became a living Torah scroll, a “ministering vessel” that can never lose its sanctity.

The Beit Halevi (Rav Yosef Dov Baer Halevi Soloveitchik, the great-grandfather of my teacher) maintains that the special radiance that emanated from Moses’ countenance originated from the concentrated sanctity of Moses’ identity with the many aspects of the Oral Torah that his own generation was not yet ready to hear, but that Moses kept within himself, for later generations. Whenever the inner world of the individual is more than it appears to be on the surface, that inner radiance becomes increasingly pronounced and externally manifest. Moses’ radiant glow was Oral Torah dependent, not at all germane to the first tablets, which contained only the Written Law.

Why did Moses break the first tablets? Moses understood that there was a desperate need for a second set of tablets, born of God’s consummate love and unconditional forgiveness, with an Oral Law that would empower the nation to be God’s partners in the developing Torah. But God had threatened to destroy the nation. Moses breaks the first tablets as a message to God: Just as the tablets are considered to be “ministering vessels” that never lose their sanctity even if broken, so are the Jewish People, knesset yisrael, teachers and students of Torah, “ministering vessels,” who will never lose their sanctity, even if God attempts to break them! The Jewish nation, repositories of the oral teachings, are the heirs to the eternal sanctity of Moses their rebbe.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

This is Friendship?

runyan_josh_otNo sooner had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left the House of Representatives chamber, where, at a joint meeting of Congress, he delivered an impassioned plea for the United States to abandon the present contours of a nuclear deal with Iran, that the White House castigated the remarks and their speaker as “all rhetoric [and] no action.”

There was “literally not one new idea” in the much-anticipated but controversial Tuesday address, a “senior administration official” told CNN. “Not one single concrete alternative.”

The problem is, Netanyahu did offer an alternative. If Iran, whose nuclear ambitions and the restrictions to them are currently being negotiated by the United States and five other powers in Geneva before a fast approaching July 1 deadline, seeks to join the community of nations, Netanyahu said, it must act like a responsible nation. “We don’t have to bet the future of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better.”

In the absence of a present deal — one which the prime minister called a “bad deal” — that, according to numerous reports, would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons after 10 years, but would reduce sanctions in the interim, Netanyahu pushed for Congress to assert its authority in ensuring a deal that would change Iran’s behavior. Specifically, he wants Iran to “stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East,” “stop supporting terrorism around the world” and “stop threatening to annihilate my country Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”

Hours after the address, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, thousands of citizen lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which had just concluded its annual Policy Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center less than two miles away, descended on Capitol Hill to drive Netanyahu’s message home in meetings with legislators.

To say that Israel and the United States are at an impasse would be an understatement.

Essentially, what the Obama administration’s viewpoint boils down to is that Israel’s government and the pro-Israel community should give it the benefit of the doubt in the secret Geneva negotiations, because that’s what friends do.

“The bottom line is simple,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the AIPAC crowd Monday evening. “We have Israel’s back, come hell or high water.”

Netanyahu, who, it must be emphasized, is facing a tough re-election fight and will face voters on March 17, says he sees things differently. He came to Washington, he told Congress and AIPAC, because he was faced with little choice: Though he values the friendship of the United States and its president, he does not trust the negotiations to either prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or to protect Israel’s security.

Where that leaves us, Jewish Americans and American Israelis, is in uncharted waters. We can take it as a given that the United States believes it has Israel’s best interests at heart, and we can all agree that the specter of a nuclear Iran is an image too horrific to contemplate. Whose diplomatic vision is correct nobody truly knows.

This much, however, is certain: For all the talk of friendship, the last few weeks have been anything but friendly. All of our leaders must do more to bring us all back from the brink.

Taking Matters into Our Own Hands

runyan_josh_otThe story of Purim is one of deliverance, of the miraculous change in fortune of a persecuted people who maintained their faith through the most trying of times. That we can celebrate it today is a testament to the Persian Jewish community’s self-sacrifice of more than 2,300 years ago and an inspiration for the millions of Jews around the world fighting their own battles of belief and belonging.

But the story of Purim is also one of a minority community taking matters into its own hands, of doing what was necessary for its own defense. Seen through the lens of communal empowerment, the story is downright modern: In the fourth century B.C.E., the Jews under King Achashverosh, thanks to the personal entreaty of Queen Esther, were able to reverse a decree of death and take up arms against their enemies; for the last 30 years in Jewish communities around the United States, neighborhood watch programs such as Baltimore’s own branch of Shomrim — moved by the vagaries of crime and overburdened police forces — have similarly taken matters into their own hands, patrolling their blocks, reporting suspicious activity and acting as a liaison to law enforcement.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the extremist actions of these Jewish watch groups’ predecessor, the Jewish Defense League, probably correlated more with the offensive campaigns Achashverosh allowed the Jews under his realm to undertake. But the groups’ motivations are the same — the protection of the Jewish community through the enlistment of its own members in the common defense of all. And while crime has decreased in America thanks to neighborhood watch groups such as Shomrim — crime in neighborhoods served by such organizations was reduced 16 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2008 — many would argue they’re still badly needed.

The recent history of Shomrim, however, is not without blemish. In 2010, a Shomrim member and his brother were charged, and later cleared, of assaulting and kidnapping a black teen who was walking through the neighborhood. Some also criticize certain Shomrim methods, which include posting pictures on Facebook of what the group says are suspicious vehicles driving through Park Heights and Pikesville.

At the end of the day, in patrolling local streets, groups such as Shomrim must also police their own members; they must always be cognizant of the fact that they are not law enforcement officers. Put simply, they are merely neighbors helping others to be good neighbors.

Classical commentators question how it was possible for the Jews of Persia to have been in such a position that allowed an evil man such as Haman to convince the king to order their destruction. They were present at the celebratory feast mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Esther, so it’s reasonable to assume that they were fully assimilated into that society. A common verdict is that they thought of themselves as Persians first and had neglected their shared identity as Jews.

Rabbis today draw comparisons to the Persia of then and the America of today. We are, thankfully, prosperous and hold positions of power in every branch of government. But we still must sometimes take matters into our hands and be the masters of our community’s safety and destiny.


The Stigma of Fame Parshat Tetzaveh

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebPeople are motivated by many things. The search for pleasure is certainly one of the great motivators of human beings. So are the search for power and the search for riches. There are also those among us who seek to be liked by others, to the extent that the search for adulation is their primary motivation in life.

Others, and this is particularly true with religious people, hope for a place in the World to Come. For them, a vision of eternity is a major motivation. Still, others devote their lives to the search for meaning, wisdom or spiritual enlightenment.

For me, while all of the motivations listed above are interesting and deserve study, there is yet another human motivation that is more noteworthy: the search for fame.

We all know individuals who are devoted, sometimes even obsessed, by their urge to become famous. For them, just to be mentioned in a newspaper article or to be glimpsed on television for a fraction of a minute is a powerful reward.

This particular motivation is hard to understand. Fame does not necessarily bring material rewards. Not every famous person is rich, nor is he powerful. Famous people are often not popular people; indeed, they
are often disliked. And there are certainly no spiritual or intellectual achievements that come with fame. Furthermore, fame is notoriously fleeting. Yesterday’s famous person often dwells in oblivion today.

Since the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we have been reading about Moses. Surely he is the most famous person in the Jewish Bible. Yet for him, fame was of no consequence whatsoever. He was not motivated
by a need to make headlines, to be immortalized for all eternity or even to be popular and well-known. He would be the last to be concerned if a weekly Torah portion did not even contain his name.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh, is the only one, since we are introduced to the newborn Moses, in which he is not mentioned by name. Tetzaveh, a Torah portion rich in all sorts of particulars and details, fails to mention Moses.

Long ago, some keen Torah scholar noted this fact and attributed it to a verse in next week’s parshah, Ki Tisa. There, we read of how Moses pleads to God to forgive the Israelites who worship the Golden Calf. He says, “If You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written.”

“Erase me from the book!” I have no need for fame. Insightfully, this keen scholar found Tetzaveh to be the book from which Moses was indeed erased.

I suggest that Moses learned how unimportant fame is from his personal experiences with stigma. For you see, just as fame is no indication at all of the genuine worth of the famous person, so too, negative stigma does not reflect the genuine worth of the stigmatized individual.

One of the most perceptive observers of human relations was a writer named Erving Goffman. Almost 50 years ago, he authored a classic work entitled ”Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.” There, he describes the psychology of stigma and of how society assigns negative labels to people, spoiling or ruining their identities as valuable members of that society.

A person who has suffered from being stigmatized learns how meaningless the opinions are that other people have of him. Should he shed these stigmas and gain the positive opinions of others, he would know full well how meaningless those opinions are.

Moses was a stigmatized individual earlier in his life. Goffman distinguishes three different varieties of stigma, and all three were experienced by the young Moses.

The first of these conditions, Goffman termed “abominations of the body.” Physical deformities result in such a stigma. Moses had such a physical deformity; he stammered and stuttered.

The second condition, Goffman called “blemishes of individual character.” In the eyes of the world, Moses was a fugitive, a criminal on the run, who was wanted by the pharaoh for the murder of an Egyptian citizen.
Finally, the third source of stigma: “tribal identities.” Moses was a Hebrew, a member of an ostracized minority.

In contemplating what the life of Moses was like in the many decades he spent as a refugee before returning to Egypt as a redeemer, it’s clear that he suffered from a triple stigma: fugitive, stutterer, and Jew.

I suggest that one of the greatest achievements of Moses, our teacher, was his ability to retain a sense of his true identity, of his authentic self-worth, in the face of the odious epithets that were hurled at him.

This is how, in his later life, when fame and prestige became his lot, he was able to retain his self-knowledge and eschew fame. This is what enabled him to say, “Erase me from the book.” This is why he was able to not only tolerate but to value this week’s portion, where his name is not mentioned.

“The man Moses was humbler than all other humans” (Numbers 12:3). The deeper meaning of Moses’ humility was his ability to understand himself enough to remain invulnerable to the trials of stigma and insult, and to
remain equally unaffected by the temptations of glory and fame.

When we refer to Moses as rabbeinu, our teacher, it is not just because he taught us the law. Rather, it is because he told us how to remain impervious to the opinions of others and to value our own integrity and character. Would that we could be his disciples in this teaching.

DFI Keeps the Ball Rolling

Marc Shapiro in his insightful Feb. 20 cover story, “Congregational Evolution,” highlighted The Associated’s efforts in working with three pilot congregations, thanks to a grant from the Kolker-Saxon-Hallock Family Foundation.

This grant has allowed us to select, through an application process, three additional congregations, Beth Israel, Beth El and Chizuk Amuno, to work on engaging their members in a more meaningful way. DFI — the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center, a program of The Associated — is working with all six congregations as well as with the community of Jewish organizations on bringing relational-conversation training to Baltimore. We are grateful that this grant allows us to broaden this effort, chaired by Alan Bernstein, beyond the three pilot synagogues. The notion is “people before program.” Once you get to know an individual and what matters to them, they will be involved in the effort on a grass-roots level.

Jeannie Appleman, community organizer and relational trainer for Join for Justice, is working with the synagogues and will address professionals at the DFI leadership summit luncheon on May 28. In the fall, she will continue working in our broader Jewish community on relational training, changing our organizational culture to be more relevant, meaningful and engaging.

Obama Has Done His Fair Share

I am mystified by the JT’s editorial, “Obama’s Word About Israel” (Jan. 30), in which you stated, “It may well be that, unlike his recent predecessors, [President Barack] Obama will not attempt to make an Israeli-Palestinian accord his legacy.”

On his second day in office, Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell, who had brokered the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He served in this capacity for over two years. In April 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry ended nine months of a peace process that included 100 meetings and the most shuttle diplomacy since Henry Kissinger was secretary of state. It’s safe to say that Obama has done far more than his predecessor.

Owings Mills, Reisterstown Schools Also Need CHAI

I read with interest Melissa Apter’s article, “New Coalition Aims to Strengthen Pikesville Schools” (Jan. 30). Although I applaud CHAI for entering into this partnership, I cannot help but wonder why it has not done the same in the Owings Mills and Reisterstown areas.

The Owings Mills area is the home of several vibrant Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Community Services, Chabad of Owings Mills, Beth Israel Congregation and Har Sinai Congregation. Jewish parents have the same concerns regarding neighborhood schools in this community, evidenced by many seeking “special permission” to attend specific public elementary schools and high schools. We do not want the Jewish Community Center to turn into the Owings Mills Community Center.

CHAI should commit to a similar partnership with schools in this part of Northwest Baltimore County. Without such a commitment, it is likely we will see diminished Jewish life in Owings Mills and Reisterstown over time, just as we have in other communities. The famous saying attributed to Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has been repeated often around the world. It reminds us that we have much to learn from the past. Let’s hope CHAI and the leadership of the Jewish community heed this wisdom. Let’s build partnerships with the schools in Owings Mills and Reisterstown just like the ones being developed in Pikesville.