Oh, Jerusalem!

Image: The City of Jerusalem. (walterssk/Pixabay)

There’s a faded poster in my living room. It was a campaign poster for Shinui [“Change”] a secular Israeli political party that ran in the 2002 elections. It reads, in Hebrew:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

It is a play on Psalm 137:5:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

Psalm 137, perhaps more than any other, expresses the Jewish longing for the much-contested real estate we call Jerusalem. I love that poster because it expresses to me the complexity of Israeli society, the layers of history and tradition and modernity.

Ever since the beginning of the Iron Age, and maybe even before that, people have been fighting over the place called Uru-shalim (the Amarna texts, 1330 BCE,) Beth-Shalem, Yerushalaim (ירושלם‎), and Ierousalēm (Ιερουσαλήμ, in the Greek New Testament.)

Genesis calls it Shalem, the city of King Melchizedek (based on Genesis 14:18) and Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son in Genesis 22. Psalm 76 refers to it as Salem, a name which the Puritans borrowed when they founded a certain infamous town in Massachusetts. Some texts refer to it as Zion, after Har Tziyyon, the hill upon which the Temple Mount stands.

The locals called it Jebus until King David captured it and made it his capital, so sometimes people refer to it even today as the City of David.

After the Romans flattened it in the 2nd century CE, they renamed it Aelia Capitolina after the family of Herod (Aelia) and they built a temple to Jupiter to replace the Jewish Temple. They were certain that would be the last anyone would hear of the Jews.

The modern Arabic name of the city is القدس al-Quds, which derives from the Semitic root Q-D-S, meaning “Holy,” because for Muslims, too, it is a holy city. Mohammed is believed to have visited in the year 610, and to have made a journey to heaven from the al-masjid-Al-Aqsa, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, atop the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The Ottomans called the city al-Quds aš-Šarīf, and it was in their possession for centuries.

Then there are the Christians, for whom Jerusalem was the scene for the theophany of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre encompasses several of the sites in the drama. Some Christians believe that in years to come Jerusalem will be the stage for the Second Coming. Many Christians live in the city today, and like the Jews and the Muslims, there are many holy sites, many sacred markers there for them.

Make no mistake, with the exception of the Romans, who probably loathed the place and everyone in it, the city is a holy and a beloved place. It is the most-contested scrap of real estate in the world.

I lived there for a year, the best and worst year of my life.

Jerusalem wrings the heart. It tests the soul. It drives some people crazy: there is an actual diagnosis called “Jerusalem syndrome” in which perfectly sane people come to visit the city and then suffer from delusions of being a Biblical character or of having some special destiny. I know that I lived there only 12 months and I was changed forever by it. It will never release its hold on me.

So when I heard about the pronouncement by President Trump that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I trembled. So many people are so invested in that place, and his pronouncement only spoke to the Israelis. It was bound to cause trouble, because for many years now, there has been an assumption that West Jerusalem will be the capital of a Jewish state (in fact, it functions as such already) and that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state. What Trump seems to have been saying, whether he realized it or not, is that he is giving up on the two-state solution, and that the fate of the Palestinian residents is of no concern to him.

I tell my students that anyone who talks about the Middle East and begins, “It’s very simple” should be disregarded out of hand. There is nothing simple about that place — and that goes double and triple for Jerusalem. I care very much for the Jerusalemites I know, both Israeli and Palestinian, and I hate to think of them in the midst of violence.

I worry that the President doesn’t understand that the situation is complex and delicate. I worry that he thinks he can be a broker between the two sides but only speak to one. I worry that he fails to realize that there are not just two sides, but dozens of different stakeholders in the city of Jerusalem, and that they could easily be at each others’ throats, because that holy city, that dear place, has a tendency to bring out extremes.

In the meantime, I will pray Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for[a] Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.


If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

Compassion or Indifference? The Choice is Ours.

Image: Protestors in Denver hold up a sign: “Dreamers will be deported – What will YOU do?” Photo by Astrid Galvan, Associated Press.

One Hebrew word for mercy is rakhum (rah-KHUM.) It is closely related to the word for womb, richam (ree-KHAM.)

One of the oddest things about becoming a mother, for me, was finding out that even after someone has cut the umbilical cord, I remained connected to my children. There are very real ways in which the spiritual challenge of parenthood for me has been to accept that Aaron and Jim are no longer physically a part of me. When they were little, I took pride in everything good they did, and when they did something bad, I felt like I had done whatever it was.

That sense of connection to a parent keeps babies alive. Little babies would not survive if some adult did not put their needs first. One clever way our biology does that is by making mom a bit confused about where she leaves off and the new person begins. By the time she’s sorted it out, they are quite big and capable of foraging for themselves!

But back to rakhum: it is a quality that the Torah identifies as an attribute of the Holy One. During the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of Psalm 103 again and again in various forms:

.רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְהוָה;    אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חָסֶד

Rachum v’chanun Adonai; erekh apa’im v’rov-chesed.

The LORD is full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. – Psalms 103:8

Remembering the connection to womb, it makes sense: the Holy One created us, and a connection persists, like the connection between a mother and infant.

The opposite of compassion is indifference. Indifference says “You have no connection to me whatsoever.” Indifference does not care what happens to the other being.

The Shoah (Holocaust) brought us terrible lessons about the meaning of indifference. Survivor Elie Wiesel famously said:

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Indifference is a fact of nature. People as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Carl Sagan, and Galileo have all commented on the indifference of nature to human frailty.

Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species, including Americans. – Adlai Stevenson

The storms, earthquakes, and heat wave we have recently seen in the Western Hemisphere are examples of the indifference of nature. Hurricane Harvey didn’t care who drowned or became homeless. Irma had no mercy on the people of Barbuda. The earthquake in Mexico killed dozens of people in a few moments.

I remember the wreck of my own home in the 1989 earthquake in California. Suddenly the things I counted on to be stable (the GROUND! my HOUSE!) were in motion, the china cabinet walking across the floor, the framing making a noise like a scream. Then the whole thing sagged off its foundation, and to this day I am grateful that none of us were badly hurt.

The earthquake didn’t care about us. It was a fact of nature.

This week we have also seen human indifference, something more horrifying than any storm or earthquake. The Trump Administration saw fit to put an abrupt end to DACA, Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals. The President claimed to feel for the young people whose lives were suddenly thrown into chaos, but blamed the Congress. Like Pontius Pilate in the New Testament, he simply washed his hands. The Attorney General made it clear that he didn’t care about DACA youth (“Dreamers”) and didn’t want them here. “We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here,” he said, ignoring the fact that none of the DACA youth asked to come; they were brought here without their consent as minors. They know no other home.

The lies that other uncaring people told in the press and in social media were astonishing: that the DACA youth were criminals, that they were here to “get handouts.” No one was admitted to DACA without a careful vetting process. Their records had to be squeaky clean. They had to be pursuing education. They were not eligible for benefits like Social Security, even though they had to pay Social Security taxes. The people who repeated those lies did not care enough to fact-check them: they were indifferent.

This is how evil works. It may claim to be practical, or logical, or even to care, but when you look at its works, what you will see is indifference.

In Parashat Ki Tetzei, we read:

If you see the ox of your fellow citizen gone astray; do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow citizen.  If your fellow citizen does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow citizen claims it; then shall you give it back to him… and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow citizen loses and you find; you can not remain indifferent. – Deuteronomy 22:1-3

Torah teaches us to care even about lost livestock. How much the moreso must we care about young people who have been put in a difficult situation by forces beyond their control?

Rakhum, mercy, is reckoned a virtue in Jewish tradition. We are human beings, not mindless forces of nature like earthquakes and hurricanes. As such, we have a duty in Torah to treat those we encounter with kindness. Maimonides teaches that even when we have nothing to give, we must speak kindly to the hungry person who asks us for food.

I hope and pray that the Congress will see fit to correct the evil that the executive branch has done. I have written to my Senators and representative; I will continue to write and call until this matter is resolved. I hope my readers will too.

Enough With the Diagnoses!

Image: A braying donkey. Paid photo by Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

“Donald Trump is a sociopath / has narcissistic personality disorder / has ADHD / has Alzheimers / has XYZ.” I see it over and over on social media from people with medical credentials (who should know better) and people with no medical credentials (who need to learn better.)

It does not serve any useful purpose to diagnose another person from afar, and for professionals, it is a serious breach of ethics.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what the American Psychiatric Association has to say on the subject.

Now you may say, oh, that only applies to medical professionals!

Judaism also has something to say about this kind of talk, for all Jews. For this we have to use a couple of texts. First:

When a man has in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. – Leviticus 13:2

The Torah is very cautious about illness. On the rare occasion it speaks of it, it demands that an expert make a diagnosis. We in the 21st century don’t regard kohanim (priests) to be experts on disease, but in Biblical Israel they were trained to recognize tzara’at (the skin disease often mistranslated as “leprosy”) and to recognize many internal problems in animals. In this case, people are actually forbidden to diagnose themselves or others; they are commanded to go to the expert.

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

This is the famous prohibition against rechilut [gossip]: Even when our words are true, we are not permitted to talk idly about other people. How much the moreso when we talk about a judgment we are not qualified to make? How much the moreso when it is about a judgment that a qualified expert would not make because it would be unethical for them to do so?

Now you may be saying, “But rabbi! It’s obvious that Mr. Trump has XYZ! Here is the evidence in his tweet or his behavior!” That which is obvious is not necessarily true. An example: An elderly woman becomes forgetful. She gets lost on a walk. Her children are distressed and say, “Oh, it is obvious that Mom is getting Alzheimers!” But when mom falls at home and is taken to the hospital, the diagnosis she receives isn’t Alzheimer’s. It turns out that her medications have been the culprit all along. After her meds are adjusted, she returns to her old self. It may have obvious to her children that she had Alzheimer’s, but their amateur diagnosis was false.

A second problem: Most people who talk about Mr. Trump having “XYZ” disagree with his politics and/or his behavior. We have a habit in our society of using words like “crazy” or “insane” when people behave in ways we don’t like. Sometimes it is an attempt at a benign explanation or excuse (“The shooter must have been mentally disturbed!”) The trouble with these words is that they also reinforce the inverse: they suggest that someone who is mentally ill is likely to be a criminal. In fact, most people with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be dangerous to others. The meme of the “dangerous psycho” perpetuates discrimination against these largely harmless people.

So when I call someone I don’t like, or whose behavior I don’t like, a “mental case,” I am not doing anything about that person’s behavior, I’m just perpetuating a damaging stereotype. That’s not OK.

In the case of a public figure whose words and actions are certainly our business, it’s better to focus on the words or actions themselves.  For instance, it’s perfectly fine – in fact, a civic good! – to point out a lie by citing evidence. It’s constructive to condemn a hurtful or criminal behavior.

Amateur diagnoses of any public official are a waste of time and a waste of valuable public energy. Only a qualified professional who has actually examined a person can make a real diagnosis. A bunch of people on Twitter can go on about how “crazy” someone is or how “he is obviously an example of RPD” but they are just running their keyboards and wasting our time. They are also slandering the vast number of people with illnesses and disorders who mind their own business and hurt no one.

If we are genuinely worried about the incoming administration, we will do better to stick to ethical behavior and actions that will produce results. Some former congressional staffers have put together a very impressive guide to effective action and they have made it available online. That way we can accomplish good and avoid the sin of rechilut.

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ

It has been told to you, O human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

Where is the line?

Image: A country road with dotted lines travels into the mist. Photo by Unsplash / Pixabay.

A thoughtful post from a senior rabbi whose sechel (wisdom) I respect. Rabbi Stephen L. Fuchs is the author of Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I’ve linked to posts on his blog before. I hope you find this as thought-provoking as did I.

To Friends & Family Considering Trump

Image: The White House, photo by skeeze on pixabay.com.

Normally I just go about my business teaching Basic Judaism but today I’d like to write specifically to readers who follow this blog and who may be considering voting for Donald Trump in November. Some of you are related to me by blood or marriage; some of you are old friends. Some of you may be my students.

I grew up in Tennessee, in a family of Republicans, and I get it that from the right-wing point of view my liberal opinions seem illogical. I accept that we see things differently. I honor those differences, because I believe that it is in the disagreements that democracy does its best work, pushing and pulling to find the best way for everyone.

I need for you to hear, though, that this election year is scaring the living daylights out of me and many people I love. We are genuinely afraid that a man who admires and is admired by dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un may be elected. We are completely unnerved by the company he keeps. He is coy about white supremacist organizations, refusing to dissociate himself from them. Those organizations promote hatred of people who aren’t white, people who are Jews, people who are different. I am a lesbian Jew and I am not sleeping nights. Linda and I have a great-niece who is transgender, and she is terrified. I’ll let Jessica speak for herself, since she gave me permission:

I hear that Donald Trump is doing even better now that Bernie Sanders has been beaten. I guess a Trump presidency is looking more and more realistic… I hate to say… He may just win this election…

That being said, I researched immigration laws and other things in Canada. I come to find out that it’s a PAIN IN THE ASS to emigrate to Canada if you’re an American without a career and an American at risk for homelessness. It’s almost an impossible task for a poor and no career woman like myself to accomplish. Perhaps Mexico would be a better option? I know a ton of people that live there already.

I hate the feeling of me turning my back on my country of birth but I know without a shadow of a doubt that if Trump wins the election, my entire life as I know it will change for the worst. My civil rights are sure to be targeted (as an LGBT member), my only support for food (of which I cannot afford on my own) will be eliminated, my ability to obtain a good paying job might be an issue, and my sense of safety will be in jeopardy.

Donald Trump is a sharp and deadly guillotine blade that is ready to sever my head from my shoulders. I don’t want to stick around when the blade drops but I am shackled and can’t move.

So, my fellow American citizens, when you vote this season please vote SENSIBLY. Think of others when you vote; consider the needs of people who need help and who cannot make it on their own, consider the people who need an equal chance at success as the successful people had, consider the little person.

If you are thinking to yourself that a “poor and no career woman” has only herself to blame, stop right there. Jessica works hard every day at a job many of us wouldn’t take because she wants to better herself. Transwomen have a terrible time finding an employer willing to hire them even if they “pass.” I have known transwomen with engineering degrees and prior careers who found that everything turned to dust the day they began living as women. So just stop that. Trust me, she’s an upstanding citizen who is doing well in her circumstances.

As I told Jessica when I saw her facebook post, Linda and I are concerned, too. There is a hateful edge to this campaign that scares me in a way that no previous campaign has ever done. Under the Law of Return, Linda and I could move to Israel if life became untenable here as LGBTQ Jews, but we won’t. We are proud Americans, proud Californians, and we aren’t going anywhere, because we love this country and it is our home. If Trump is elected we will stay put and fight to keep America the place where all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are worried, partly because of Mr. Trump, but even more because of his associations and connections, and the violence he has encouraged among his followers. Even George Wallace did not encourage his followers to “beat up” people who disagreed with what he had to say. Even he did not heap scorn on Americans who had been POW’s and on Gold Star parents.

I am begging you, conservative friends, if you care at all about the two of us, think really hard about your vote. I grew up conservative. Trump isn’t any kind of conservative I recognize. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan did not encourage violence at their rallies. They didn’t make fun of disadvantaged people. They sure as heck didn’t admire dictators, and dictators didn’t admire them.

If you can’t stand Hillary, I understand that. I couldn’t stand voting for Senator Ted Cruz. I think if it were between him and Trump as a Democrat, I’d just have to abstain. But that’s it: I’d abstain before I voted for Trump, no matter what party he belonged to. I’m begging you to consider abstaining, or voting for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.

Ultimately your vote is your private business, but when you vote this year, think about those you admire in U.S. history, and compare Mr. Trump’s behavior to theirs.

P.S. – As John Scalzi says on his excellent blog, “The Mallet is out.” Please avoid name-calling in the comments, even if you are quite sure that the person you want to name-call really IS a “doodoo head” or whatever it is. I will delete messages that name-call or make ad hominem attacks.