To Welcome the Stranger

Image: Modern day Bedouin offer us a window into the past. Photo by hbieser on

This article by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is beautiful, and it is made even more so because it is offered in honor of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Rabbi Raj made me welcome years ago when I was a stranger with a “funny accent” in the Bay Area of California. In the process he taught me by example much about what it means to follow in the tradition of Abraham our father.

Rabbi Fuchs, thank you so much for this wonderful and timely teaching!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the…

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What Should I Do if I See Bullying?

Image: “Bully” artwork by John Hain via

How many of us would feel confident intervening if we saw one person yelling slurs at another person? It might be someone harassing a woman in a hijab, or toughs pestering a disabled person, or kids teasing a fat person. What can we do that won’t make matters worse? What can we do to de-escalate the situation?

When someone sees others bullying another person and fails to intervene, it’s called “bystander syndrome.” It is specifically forbidden in Torah, in Leviticus 19:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor – Lev. 19:16

What should we do, especially if we are nervous about intervening? This is something that has troubled me.

A wonderful woman, an artist named Maeril, addresses the solution to bystander syndrome in a cartoon specifically aimed at Islamophobic harassment. Her advice is solidly based in psychology, and its purpose is to de-escalate the situation. It would translate nicely to many other situations, however, and I plan to practice it the next time I see someone being mean to someone else. As with anything else, it will get easier the more often I do it.

I will put the cartoon in its entirety at the bottom of this post, but to summarize the steps:

  1. You see someone harassing a vulnerable person. Go to the person under attack, be as calm and collected and FRIENDLY as you can, and say hello. Sit next to them if you can. Pay no attention to the harasser(s).
  2. Pick a random topic and start chatting. The weather, a TV show, anything – something neutral and easy to ramble about. Continue ignoring the attacker; do not even look at them. They do not exist.
  3. Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves. Offer to escort the person to a safe place, but respect their wishes if they say they just want to leave.

This way of dealing with the situation is based in a psychological concept called “non-complementary behavior” – instead of “fighting fire with fire” we deal with a situation by doing something completely the opposite of the expected script. Think of it as fighting fire with water. In this case, if the attacker is yelling racist slurs at a woman, we sit by her as if nothing unpleasant is going on, and engage in a pleasant conversation, ignoring the screamer. He wanted to feel big and powerful – now he’s totally irrelevant! Even if he temporarily escalates to calling you names too (“slur-lover” etc) if it gets no reaction at all, he will begin to feel like a fool. That’s not what he wanted at all, so he’ll move on.

My pronouns assume that “he” is the bad guy and “she” is the innocent – that matches the cartoon – but harassment can come in any gender. A woman yelling at a transman is equally horrible and yes, he needs your support!

And yes, it may be that the bully won’t move on and someone will have to call the cops. At least in the meantime, the innocent person is not left alone to deal with the torture. And it really is our best shot at getting the creep to go away and leave the person alone.

I know I feel a lot better equipped to be a mensch after seeing this – I hope you do too!


Social Media Inventory, Part 2

Image: A to-do list, and a partially peeled orange. Photo by jedidja via

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Part 1 of the Social Media Inventory is available here.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it says (Esther 2:22): “Esther told the king in Mordechai’s name.” – Pirkei Avot 6:6

Do I credit my sources online, including sources for images? “Cut-and-paste” functions on our computers make it very easy to lift information from one page to use it in our own writing. Crediting the words of others is a Jewish value; failing to do so is stealing. 

We use images on the Internet to convey information in much the same way we do words. Every image has a person behind it: someone took the photo, drew the picture, made the graphic. While images for worship have a different set of rules in Jewish tradition, images that we use to convey information should get the same treatment as words: credit your sources.

The ancient rabbis balanced the need to pass along good information and the need to credit sources by using the format, “So-and-so said…” We can and should do the same.

“You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” – Leviticus 19:16

Do I gossip online? Torah forbids tale-bearing: any talking about others, true or false, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The principle in Jewish tradition is that all things are assumed to be secret unless those involved specifically say otherwise. So all “celebrity gossip” is out the window. The same is true for unnecessary discussion of our neighbors on Facebook or It is as wrong to listen to or read loose talk as it is to spread it around. The standard I apply for myself is: Do I need this information? Or do I simply want it?

Can online reviews be a form of improper speech? Rabbi Meir Tamari teaches that the rules of speech also apply to talking about businesses, because saying something negative about a business can endanger the livelihood of the owner and everyone who works there.

It is improper speech to post, “Ploni dry-cleaners are thieves.” However, a review about our own experience with specific details could be appropriate, for instance, “I used to take my dry-cleaning to Ploni, but after they twice lost things of mine, I switched to another cleaners.” Posting reviews to Yelp or similar services when angry is not a good practice, because it is easy to step over the line when we are angry. (Rabbi Tamari’s examples are from pre-Internet times before review services were prevalent. I cite his teaching but the examples are mine.) Saying, “I’ve heard that Ploni Cleaners is no good” is irresponsible speech forbidden by Torah.

News is a tricky area, especially since many news services have blurred the line between news and entertainment.  A good citizen should be well-informed. However, some “news” is more “gossip” than “news.” Again, did I need that information to be a good citizen? Or was I just titillated by the headline and could not resist clicking?

He who embarrasses his fellow is as if he has shed blood (killed him). – Bava Metzia 58b

Do I behave online in a way that might cause embarrassment to another? This is related to the issue of gossip. Our tradition equates embarrassing someone with murdering them. All forms of online bullying are therefore completely out of the question. Talk about others frequently has the potential to embarrass. The important thing is to stop and think before we hit send; if there is the possibility for embarrassment, it is better to be silent.

Photography and graphics have potential for embarrassment. Ask before posting a photo of another person. Posting a photo of another person without their knowledge may also carry criminal or civil penalties. When in doubt, don’t.

The month of Elul is a time to take stock of our behavior, to hold it up against our highest ideals. There are areas in these two posts where most of us has some room for improvement; the important thing is to do better in the future.

What have I failed to include in these two posts? What would you add?


Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

Fear and the Jewish Way

Image: Piranhas. Image by Reimand Bertrams, via

It’s beginning to seem like there is always a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. It seems like there is meanness everywhere. CNN reports “BREAKING NEWS” and we brace ourselves for something bad.

Judging from the combo of CNN,, and Twitter, I should be afraid of:

  • Mentally ill men with guns
  • ISIS inspired terrorists with guns, knives, or trucks
  • Cops
  • Donald Trump
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Antisemites
  • Pit bulls
  • Black Lives Matter activists
  • Mosquitos
  • Global Warming
  • Rapists
  • Robbers
  • and Strange People Driving Around the Neighborhood

All of those are in one of my feeds or another just today.

Jewish tradition offers an alternative. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

“But rabbi!” I can hear some of you saying to the computer screen, “Antisemitism! ISIS! Scary men in cars! SPIDERS!!!” And all I can say to that is, “Yes.”

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

It’s the Jewish way. There will always be a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. There will always be someone happy to sell us fear in exchange for advertising revenue or power. It is up to us to choose whom or what we will worship.

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.


Guest Blogger: Action on Racism

Bailey Nichols is a businessperson in Oakland, CA, and my friend. She posted this very practical suggestion on her Facebook page, and I asked if I could repost it here. It’s important that we let our public servants know when we taxpayers and voters are not satisfied with the behavior of the police or any other public servant who represents us. Fussing on social media (or in a blog!) is well and good but it is not action. I’m planning to take Bailey’s suggestion and I hope that my U.S. readers will do so as well.

Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board meets twice a month.

The Mayor of Baton Rouge (the city where Alton Sterling was murdered) is Kip Holden.
(222) 389-5100

Baton Rouge city council contact info

The Mayor of Falcon Heights (the city where Philandro Castile was murdered) is Peter Lindstrom (651) 917-2977

Falcon Heights city government contact info can be found here…

These are just 2 names out of countless others. Behind every person of color murdered by the police there is a network of city, county, and national officials who are sitting idly by, allowing Americans to be killed (by the force employed by the community to protect them) because of the color of their skin. They allow this to happen because of their own racism or complete apathy to the plight of their non-white constituents.

Pick a name, pick a city, let them know that racism is real and unacceptable, apathy is culpability, black lives matter and the whole world is watching.