Friday, September 28, 2018

An American Rabbi's Quest for Wholeness in Jewish Antwerp - a Universal Search Through a Jewish Lens

I share vignettes of Jewish Antwerp, one in particular, that offer teachings for making our way through brokenness, through the summer season of mourning in the Jewish calendar. It was during the Three Weeks that lead to Tisha B’Av, day of mourning and destruction in which we are meant to reflect on ways and deeds that join us to each other and that, God forbid, separate us from each other. The rabbis identified sinat chinam/wanton hatred of one for another as the cause of the churban, the destruction of the Second Temple and the source of exile, exile from the Land, from each other, from ourselves.

I have a complex relationship with Antwerp. It is one of my favorite cities, drawn to both of its worlds, the Jewish quarter and the “Belgian.” Long before a connection of place that comes through my Belgian-born wife, Mieke, I was drawn to the city, traveling there as a young person to explore my own roots, to feel the aura of my grandparents. My grandparents lived there for several years while on the journey that would eventually bring them to the United States. I feel a deep churning of Holocaust connections to Antwerp. The largest number of Belgian Jews who did not survive the Shoah, were from Antwerp. Two who have become beloved to me, of whom I often speak and write, were from Antwerp. Rachel Mandel recta Kwadrat and Israel Isaak Lipshitz were married in a secret ceremony in the Belgian transit camp, the Kazerne Dossin.   They were married by Rabbi Michoel Lustig who was imprisoned with them, reaching out to comfort and to hold even there, a rabbi who celebrated life in the face of death, love in the face of hate. They were married in July, 1943 on the Friday of Torah portion Mattos-Massei (Numbers 30:2-36:13), the Torah portion of the week I had come to Antwerp. Leading into Shabbat on that Friday this year, the Friday of Torah portion Mattos-Massei, I held them in mind and heart on the anniversary of their wedding, knowing that tomorrow would be the anniversary of their deportation to Auschwitz. The second of the two Torah portions of this week, Massei, means journeys, eleh massei b’nei yisrael/these are the journeys of the children of Israel. On that Shabbos, along with remembering my father, who had recently died, I said Kaddish for these three in the in the little synagogue that I attend in the small beach town of Knokke on the Belgian North Sea coast, there among many Jews from Antwerp.

As Mieke and I wandered the streets of the Jewish quarter, we stopped several times to ask people for directions, sometimes young Chassidic men hurrying along by bicycle or on foot, or stopping once in a kosher market and speaking with a young Chassidic woman at the cashier’s counter.      In each case, we spoke Hebrew, directions carefully spelled out, taking care to point us in the right direction. In response to my grateful expression of appreciation, our various guides each smiled and said, b’simcha/with joy. A connection was made, people joined along the way of their journeys.

I have long had a favorite Jewish bookstore in Antwerp, Siletsky’s. I knew already last summer that it was about to move. It was packed with shelves from floor to ceiling, with little room to move about, tall ladders on wheels rising up to the top shelves. Old Mr. Siletsky seemed to hold the entire inventory in his head; stroking his long white beard as he paused to think before responding to the requests I would come with each summer for many years now. I found the new location, but it was different. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were gone, and the tall ladders on which to ascend. The jumble, the dust, the magic were all gone, and so too, Mr. Siletsky. Even though I was no more foreign than I had ever been, I felt out of place and uncomfortable in the new store.
I asked the owner about a few books for which I had come to search. He was polite, but offered little by way of concern or desire to help, not like the old bookseller who would ascend to the heights on my behalf. I browsed for a bit, drawn to several s’forim/holy books, caressing a particular prayer book, deciding that it wasn’t the time or setting in which a holy book might be the reminder over time of an emotional connection.

As I thanked the bookseller and turned to leave, a chossid/Chassidic man standing at the counter seemed to mutter something. I heard the bookseller say to him in English, seemingly for my benefit, “be a gentleman.” I turned for a moment, but then continued toward the door and the streets of Jewish Antwerp. Realizing that the man had said something derogatory in my direction, I felt deep pain, struggling with whether to turn around and go back. I continued on my way, carrying a sense of brokenness, trying to remember the cheerful response from those who offered directions on these same streets b’simcha/with joy.

Through that week, I played out in my mind what I might have said to the man at the bookseller’s counter. I imagined speaking to him in Yiddish, in di mamaloshen/the mother tongue, in order to speak most directly from heart to heart in his language, carefully trying to draw together enough words to express myself. Standing directly in front of him, so have I imagined speaking:

             Mayn fraynd, in di letster Shabbos mir hob gebentched di kummidiker choydesh/my friend, last Shabbos we blessed the coming month, takke, M’nachem Av/indeed, the month of Av the Comforter. Nisht host du gedavent di vertlach, chaverim kol yisroel/did you not pray the precious words, all Israel are friends/joined to one another? Iz dos emes, mayn fraynd, oder sheker/is this truth my friend or a lie? S’iz geshribn, yoh, netzach yisroel lo y’shaker/it is written, yes, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie? Lomir machen dos emes/let us make this truth/ich un du tzu zaynen chaverim/I and you to be friends. Nu, sholem aleichem, mir gayen in sholem itzt/nu, peace be upon you, may we go in peace now.

I pray that my words find their way to another’s heart, whether spoken directly to him or not. Along the streets of Antwerp and in all of its worlds, these are the journeys of the children of Israel, of loved ones remembered, the living and the dead joined as one in God’s hand. We are all one, all Israel and all humanity. During those summer weeks of mourning and remembrance, we are reminded that we are to love each other, to help each other along the thoroughfares of life, bridging time and space and difference b’simcha/with joy.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 21, 2018

Finding Hope In Hard Times

In the past, as in the present, people who occupied positions of political leadership had their own press agents, who were paid handsomely to make their employer look splendid in the eyes of the people and in the historical record. But there were also court reporters who told an unvarnished version of events.
While the former spun straw into gold, the latter chronicled the heavy human price paid for such finery. Take the case of King Solomon, for instance. The question we must ask ourselves as we read the biblical text is not which version of events is true, how do we separate fake news from the truth, but rather, how do we distill hope for the present and the future from this history.

To this very day Solomon is renowned for this legendary wisdom, When he became king, he asked God for the gift of wisdom.Clearly his ambition was to make Israel great again.He assembled a core of press agents to "capture" stories that might detract from his goal and to promote news that would advance his agenda. The royal press agents were so successful in their effort to cast the king in a positive light that the phrase "the wisdom of Solomon" has slipped into common usage.

Reading the biblical text more closely I find that there are lesser known and less celebrated aspects of Solomon's reign that members of the press corps inserted into the historical record. For ease of reading I do not cite chapter and verse in the following. Rather, I invite readers to do their own investigation of biblical texts and draw their own conclusions. The following highlights of Solomon's time as king raise two questions for me. Why were these stories allowed to remain in the sacred text? What lessons might we take from this history.

When King David was approaching death there was more than one candidate to take his place as king. There were no televised presidential debates as we have now, but clearly Solomon was neither the natural choice, nor was he everyone's first choice. There was backstage maneuvering and palace intrigue. Solomon did not have the popular vote, but the Electoral College was on his side. This helps explain why Solomon conducted a palace purge soon after his coronation. Loyalty paved the pathway to the king's inner circle.

Marital fidelity was not one of Solomon's virtues. According to the legend he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the eyes of religious conservatives Solomon's lack of fidelity was his great sin. They did not forgive him.

Solomon had a great edifice complex. He not only built a great Temple for God, he also built a fine palace for himself, and he is credited by the biblical story with erecting many other impressive buildings. There is no record that he named any of the buildings after himself, but he had enough gold and sliver and precious gems that he could easily have done so if he had wanted. He was not lacking in hubris.

King Solomon was a skilled deal-maker. He used the power of his office to build international alliances, and to amass great personal wealth. There was no emoluments clause to fuss with. Legend has it that many rulers from many lands came to him to pay tribute, stay in his hotels, and shower him with favors and gifts of every sort. He was a very wealthy man.

Some would refer to the reign of Solomon as Israel's "Golden Age," but others might call it the "Gilded Age." Forced labor was a fact of life for many, while the few basked in the blessed light of previously unknown prosperity. The chasm between the rich and the rest was deep and wide. And, there was no social safety net for so-called "takers."

Near the end of his reign Solomon reflected on all that he had done, and he wrote the following:

"So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil that I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Eccl 2: 9 - 11, RSV).

      Upon Solomon's death the kingdom was split in two, never to be reunited again.
Yet, to this very day there are many who cherish the hope that perhaps, one day, a new Temple will be erected on the very spot where Solomon's Temple once stood, and there will be a new Golden Age for Israel.

This nationalist dream is not unique to any one nation. Indeed, we live in an age when nationalist ideology is re-asserting itself in many forms and in many places. In some instances this resurgent nationalism borders on idolatry.

Rather than thinking of the reign of Solomon as a Golden Age, I see it as the foreshadowing of a failed state. His policies, practices and priorities left a divided nation that did not have either the will or the resources to heal itself. While Judaism remains a vibrant and vital religious heritage and faith, Israel itself has perhaps never fully recovered from the hubris of Solomon. Other nations, including our own, labor under their own outworn mythologies of exceptionalism.

I ask myself if we are witnessing the making of a failed American state today. Our national debt has reached historic heights, yet the stock market continues to climb ever higher; the social safety net is being shredded in the name of fiscal austerity, yet the defense-homeland security-industrial complex continues to expand; federal oversight and regulatory agencies are stripped of power and personnel, yet the ecological crisis deepens; and, a growing chasm separates the rich from the rest. The list of concerns grows longer if not by the hour then by the day.

         Are golden dreams the only refuge we have for hope?  .

While wrestling with the above, I have been reading Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1997). First published in 1971, it remains a compelling book. In the concluding chapter, Galeano writes: "In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion" (p. 267).

I am inclined to believe that there were reporters in the age of Solomon who were suspicious of wealth and so they seeded the official record with stories of dissent, knowing that in doing so they were sowing seeds of hope for a more open society.

The questions for us, then, are these: Where do we see seeds of hope being planted today? What stories are we telling and celebrating? Perhaps these questions are the true legacy of a wise king who at the end of his days wanted to tell a cautionary tale.

David P. Hansen,
Author and Contributor

Friday, September 14, 2018

Crossing the Bridge to Freedom

I remember well that day, February 11, 1986. I was sitting with a group of colleagues that had formed a religious court, a Beit Din, at the mikveh in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had just served as midwives, if you will, having welcomed several new Jews into our people. Far away, and worlds away, a Jew had been returned to his people. It was the day that Natan (then as Anatoly) Sharansky had crossed from East Germany to West as part of a prisoner exchange, ending the long saga of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Avital, who had campaigned tirelessly for his release, his was the face of Soviet Jewry.

On that day in the winter of 1986, three rabbis sat spellbound, responsibilities completed, listening to the news and sharing what we had read. Beyond the euphoria of one person’s liberation, of a long trek to freedom completed, we kept coming back to one moment, the very final moment of the trek, continuing to imagine it, to replay it, exploring its significance as we might mine a text for meaning. The text in this case was one person’s courageous final act in the face of oppression, one final step toward freedom in which that step became its own affirmation of what it means to be free.

          Sharansky crossed from East Germany to West at the Glienicke Bridge, where at its Berlin terminus of Wannsee, Nazi chiefs affirmed the “Final Solution” in 1942. As he began to walk alone across that bridge to freedom, when we might have expected him to virtually run, to at least walk as directly and quickly as possible to the other side, he did something very different which bewildered all of those who watched, those waiting for him at the other side and all of those watching on televisions around the world. The newly freed prisoner took a long, slow, zigzag course across the bridge. Beyond the deep, existential questions of survival, of faith, of hope that would become the primary questions over time, answers to inspire and challenge, the immediate question was obvious. Asked by newscasters and loved ones, by common folks and famous, by three rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia, the question was the same, asked with incredulity, the answer awaited with baited breath. Why had he walked that zigzag course across the bridge? The answer was as startling as it was simple. The KGB agents who had brought him to the bridge had told him to walk quickly across in a straight line. And so, of course, as his one last act of defiance in the face of his oppressors, turning to the right and turning to the left, he walked in a slow zigzag course across the bridge to freedom.

I haven’t thought of that story for some time and am intrigued that it came to me while reading one verse in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9). Such is the joy of making our way through each year’s Torah cycle, a journey repeated year after year, new insights and associations emerging in the context of a given year’s realities, whether from within ourselves or in the worlds around us. I have never thought of that story before while reading Shoftim, but for some reason it came to me this year. Perhaps it is because the specter of tyranny is afoot in the land, the call to resistance and courage needing models to inspire, joined together in holy disobedience. Perhaps it is because the tensions within the Torah are the tensions with which we live, the tensions we seek to resolve, or not, in seeking our way across the bridge.

The Torah portion opens with a call to appoint judges and officers to insure that justice be done in the land. A call to justice as the way of the nation, there is an underlying recognition that the collective flowering of justice depends on each one’s adherence to doing what is right. The challenge of justice is addressed to each one of us and then to the nation that is the collective formed by all of us, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 17:20). The entire passage at the outset of the portion is in the singular, understood in Chassidic commentary to mean that each of us is to appoint an inner judge to mediate our engagement with the world. Placed within our hearts, or at each portal of the senses, we are to discern from within the way of good or evil. It is from within ourselves that we are to learn the way of self-control, whether with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, our hands, that we channel our desires in the way of doing good and not harm.

Of the external judges, the priests, the Levites, the judge that will be in those days/ba’yamim ha’hem, meaning in each age, that will be in our own time, we are told that we shall do according to the utterance of the word that they will tell you…; you must do with care all that they will teach you…. There is to be a process of collective discernment, a process of learning that leads to teaching that leads to doing. Then comes the verse that brought to mind that zigzag journey across the Glienicke Bridge, Upon the utterance of the teaching that they will teach you, and upon the judgment that they will say to you, must you base your [own] action; you must not turn aside from the word that they will tell you, [neither] to the right [n]or to the left/lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagido l’cha yamin u’s’mol (Deut. 17:11). Our commentators wrestle to understand what these words mean, the latter ones in particular. There are conflicting views. One suggests that even if it appears to us that left is right and right is left, we should do as instructed. Another view says precisely the opposite; that we should do as told only when left is left and right is right, when our actions do not violate the truth that is before us, the very truth that the Torah itself has planted within us. The commandments are holy and are meant to guide us in the way of truth and justice, of compassion and peace, helping us to see the image of God in each person. Rejecting a ruling concerning the ways of Torah may at times be the greater affirmation of Torah. The rabbis taught that at times we should even violate a negative commandment of the Torah when another person’s honor would be compromised in our heeding of Torah (B’rachot 19b). 
         Ideally to walk hand in hand, in accord with good and righteous teaching, learning and inquiry as the way of discernment, the way of the nation, accepted and affirmed, inner judge and outer judge then to be in harmony.   There are times when the truest way of walking the straight and upright path, at one with Torah, God, and people, is to walk a zigzag course that says no to tyranny. With discernment, courage, and hope, the vision affirmed in the way of our walking, we cross the bridge to freedom.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, September 7, 2018

Believe In Something

I did not intend to watch the funeral service for Senator John McCain, televised by every major media outlet in the country, but the television was on and once I looked at this remarkable event I found it difficult to turn away. So many aspects of the service were so disturbing that I simply have to share my reflections--and give thanks to other journalists and writers who likewise found the spectacle mystifying. Let me count some of the ways.
It seemed to me that Senator McCain planned the caravan across the country from his home in Arizona to Washington, D.C. with Abraham Lincoln in mind. The Lincoln funeral train traveled from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln's funeral train traveled through 180 cities and seven states. One procession was for the President of the United States, the other for a Senator. One person was assassinated, the other died of cancer. The differences between the two men are immense, but I can imagine that in his own mind as he planned his own funeral procession, McCain was thinking of Lincoln. He, McCain, wanted to be remembered and celebrated as a hero who died in service to his country in the tradition of Lincoln, or so I think.

            McCain’s funeral was not held in a federal office building, but in the National Cathedral. I wonder if he attended worship services there on a regular basis. I don’t know. What I do know is that the church-state-military-security alliance was on full public display for all the world to see. At the very least the scene should give Christians pause when they read the story of Jesus’ birth found in the second chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew, or the story of his death, found in Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27. Every empire needs religious legitimation, but are there any limits?
       During the funeral service a great deal was made of McCain’s experience as a POW in Viet Nam. I take nothing away from his bravery, courage and solidarity with other Prisoners of War. But simple honesty demands that we acknowledge that he broke his arm and leg after he ejected from his fighter jet and landed in a lake with something like fifty pounds of equipment on his back. The Vietnamese did not break his arm or his leg. He likely would have died in that lake had the Vietnamese not rescued him and taken him to a hospital where he received the attention and care of skilled doctors and a well-trained medical staff. The simple truth is, the Vietnamese saved his life even though he was flying missions that killed countless numbers of their own people.
Figures vary widely but perhaps as many as 2,000.000 Vietnamese died in what they call the “American War.” The “Viet Nam War,” the U.S. name for the conflict, claimed the lives of over 282,000 U.S soldiers and allies. It is not a chapter in U.S. history to be celebrated.
           As citizens of United States we want, I want, to believe that our nation is defending democracy around the world, protecting the down-trodden and championing the causes of freedom and human dignity. This desire to believe makes the contrast between Senator John McCain and the Nike advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, which was released the day after the McCain funeral I think, all the more remarkable.
              Both men embody in their own way the Nike slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Two visions, two nations. Can a house so divided stand? Deeply troubled by the display of unity between church and state that I saw in the National Cathedral, I remain a “prisoner of hope,” to borrow from the Apostle Paul, for I believe that fundamentally Christians must witness to a gospel of nonviolence. Such a witness changed the world once, and it may do so again.

David P. Hansen
Contributor and Author