Rabbi Chaninah: Pray for the Government!

Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

Since readers in the United States had their income tax deadline this week, I thought this passage from the Mishnah might be appropriate.

There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?

To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:

R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a

Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.

When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.

If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”

Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

chovynz-Money-Bag-Icon

You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?

First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.

“Jews are all rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.  So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five.  It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish. Some Jews are grindingly poor.

The association of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury – taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.) Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.

However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.

Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.

So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.

One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, that is a central belief for many antisemites.

As for being “obsessed with money,” one might suggest that anyone making such a statement should take a look in the mirror!

Israel & Texts: Online Learning!

LehrhausLogoHave you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?

Registration is open for the Winter session of Intro to the Jewish Experience, “Israel and Texts” and it includes an online option! Class meetings will take place at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 – 9pm (PST) beginning January 14. For those who cannot attend in Berkeley, we offer the option of attending via Adobe Connect, a cloud-based classroom. All meetings are recorded, so that students also have the option of watching the class recordings.

All classes are taught by me except for Jan 21 and 28. I’m honored to welcome Dr. Jehon Grist as our guest lecturer on Israel.

Class schedule:

Jan 14 – Welcome & Introductions:  Jews, Texts, and Shabbat
Jan 21 –Ancient Israel – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Jan 28 –Modern Israel & Zionism  – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Feb 4 – Torah, Tanakh & Midrash
Feb 11 – Beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism
Feb 18 – What is the Talmud?
Feb 25 – Codes, Responsa and Jewish Law
March 11 – Jewish Values, Jewish Ethics

For registration, go to the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog. Class tuition is $105.

Check out Lehrhaus’ other online course offerings this winter and spring.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a unique non-denominational Jewish studies adult school. Every course is open to the general public, and all interested adults are welcome, regardless of age, religion, or ethnicity.

 

 

Washington and the Jews

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.

 

What is the Blood Libel?

An old, terrible lie has resurfaced. 

The video above is part of an interview with Osama Hamdan, head of international relations for Hamas. on the Lebanese Al-Quds TV channel on July 28, 2014.  In it he makes the assertion that Jews have a custom of killing non-Jewish children and using their blood to make Passover matzah. 

The belief that Jews kill people, usually children, and use their blood in rituals or to make matzah is called the Blood Libel. It is a lie. It is a particularly baffling lie in that Jewish dietary law forbids the eating of any blood: blood is drained from animals before butchering, and meat is salted to remove any stray drops of blood. 

The Blood Libel has been around a long time. Apion, a Greek who hated Jews wrote about it in the first century CE.  It then pops up periodically, but the first major European case was in 1144, in Norwich, England. In the Middle Ages, these accusations followed a pattern: a body was found, or a child disappeared, and the Jews were accused of the crime. Elaborate fantasies about the supposed rituals were imagined and written down by the accusers, which then became fodder for the next case. For more detail about it, there is an excellent but heartbreaking article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

The Blood Libel has continued in the modern era. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic document that was distributed by the Russian secret police in 1905. It is a catalogue of all the ancient lies about the Jews, repackaged for the 20th century. Henry Ford distributed it in the United States. It included the Blood Libel as well as other medieval stories about Jews poisoning wells, spreading plague, and so on. It was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. And now, in the 21st century, it continues to circulate on the internet, and it has surfaced in Islamist talking points.

The important thing to know about the Blood Libel is that it is a lie without any kernel of truth. Observant Jews do not eat blood of any kind, ever. All Jews categorically reject human sacrifice. And despite what Mr. Hamdan says, the Blood Libel is not in any of our books. It is only in the books fabricated by sick minds to poison the world against Jews.

I really hate this topic. I hate teaching it and writing about it, but tragic experience has taught us that these lies are extremely dangerous. May the day come, and speedily, when all such horrors are finally behind us.

Who was the Prophetess Huldah?

deuteronomy-scroll
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to do the right thing. He was aware that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, its ten tribes scattered to the four winds. Judah was smaller and weaker. The king believed its best hope for survival lay in its covenant with God.

So he ordered that his officials would audit the funds at the Temple, and then use them to put everything there into perfect order. It had fallen into serious disarray over the 300 years since his ancestor Solomon built it. Hilkiah, the High Priest, was in charge of the work.

Hilkiah found a scroll stashed away in the Temple. He read the scroll, and realized immediately that it might be important. He gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, who took to King Josiah and read it to him.

Josiah was horrified by what he heard in the scroll. He stood, and tore his clothing, and ordered Shaphan to take the scroll immediately to the prophetess Huldah to see if she thought it was genuine. If it was indeed the scroll of the law, the kingdom was in worse trouble than he had known. They were doing everything wrong. Shaphan and Hilkiah took it to her, and this is what she said:

This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’  Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.  Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.”

So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22: 15-20)

Scholars today believe that that scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah used it for a blueprint for his reforms, and the Kingdom of Judah survived for the rest of his reign. Unfortunately his heirs were not good kings. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried the best and the brightest of the people off to exile.
The Temples are long gone, but the Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, is with us to this day. When we read it, let’s remember Huldah: prophet, scholar, and advisor to a king.

What are “the Yoms?”

Declaration of State of Israel 1948
David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948

Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons