Another numbers tie? Well, that’s because we’re starting to read the Book of Numbers, or Sefer Bemidbar in Hebrew, beginning this week with Parashat Bemidbar. Bemidbar literally means “in the desert.” The English name “Numbers” relates to the census of the people described in the opening of the book.
Parashat Behukotai concludes the book of Leviticus. The portion begins with a promise of blessings for the Israelites if they follow God’s ways. This section is then followed by a lengthy and chilling series of curses known as the Tokheha (Reproof). The curses are spelled out in length in the hope that they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by any other means. As this portion is read in synagogue, it is customary for the reader to read through the Tokheha in an undertone, perhaps because its vision of disaster is so frightening–or perhaps in keeping with Leviticus’s commitment to the reality of words, to say something aloud is halfway to making it happen. (Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p. 747). In my tie wardrobe, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” seems to fit the bill perfectly as an emotional reaction to this portion.
Who speaks for the American Jewish community? For years the assumption has been that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was the main voice of the American Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella encompassing some 51 Jewish organizations representing all of the religious streams, defense organizations and other significant American Jewish institutions. Their mission is to produce consensus statements on behalf of American Jews on matters important to us, such as Israel’s security, so that political leaders in our country and opinion leaders have a sense of the pulse of the American Jewish community. During the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that he was inundated by so many Jewish organizations lobbying him on Israel, and he didn’t know who spoke for the Jewish community. Therefore, the Conference of Presidents was formed to streamline contact between the Jewish community and Washington. This model works when there is general consensus. Until there isn’t.
Recently, a deep rift in the Jewish community has been exposed over the Conference of Presidents’ vote to reject a membership application by J Street, the so-called “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby organization. While the vote was secret, news media reported that of the 42 organizations that participated in the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained. J Street needed a two-thirds majority of the Presidents Conference, or 34 of the 51 member groups.
I must confess to some personal ambivalence over this vote. Underscoring my own ambivalence, two organizations within the Conservative Movement in which I’m involved cast opposing votes on the matter. I sit on the board of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, which voted against admitting J Street. The Rabbinical Assembly, on the other hand, voted in favor.
Before I spell out the reasons for my ambivalence, I note that our Torah portion this week, Parashat Behar, is focused as a whole on the Eretz Yisrael, that tract of land that embodies so much emotional, spiritual and religious importance for us as Jews. If Israel did not hold such importance, nobody would be getting worked up over a membership vote in the Presidents’ Conference. The portion describes the practices of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year in which the Land is to lie fallow, and Yovel, the Jubilee, in which all land returns to its original owner, all debts are erased and all slaves are freed. Observance of these laws is meant to remind us that the Land ultimately does not belong to us, but to God. In describing the Jubilee, the text instructs: V’khi timkeru mimkar la’amitecha o kanoh miyad amitecha, al tonu ish et achiv. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another (Leviticus 25: 14).
The Midrash interprets the application of this verse as extending beyond a mere business transaction. Rather, the admonishment al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another,” includes wronging a person with harmful words (Lev. R. 33:1, quoted by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p. 740). This includes reminding a repentant sinner of his or her former misdeeds and asking a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying. In other words, the Torah is concerned not only with economic justice, as vital as it is, but also in promoting civil discourse.
The centrality of promoting healthy speech in our tradition is the source of my ambivalence over the J Street/Conference of Presidents controversy. On one hand, I have deep concerns about J Street. As Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz recently:
“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”
Dershowitz notes further:
“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”
As Dershowitz and others have said, J Street speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It says it’s a Zionist organization, but gives public platforms to those who seek to destroy the concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Given this track record, I understand the sentiment of the majority of Jewish organizations that see J Street as a threat to the consensus-building mission of the Conference of Presidents.
Despite Dershowitz’s compelling case, I am concerned that J Street may actually have won by losing. The negative vote enables J Street to play the victim and boost their agenda to delegitimize the organized Jewish community. Even for those of us who don’t agree with their platform, they have made significant inroads in the Jewish community, especially on college campuses. Like it or not, they are a “Major American Jewish Organization” that is far more influential than many other long-standing members of the Conference of Presidents. J Street is exploiting the vote for fundraising and publicity. It has declared that the vote is proof that the organized Jewish community is tone deaf and doesn’t care about younger Jews who don’t relate to Israel like their parents and grandparents did.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, voted in favor of admission and wrote the following in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week:
“Despite my own personal misgivings about J Street, I advocated for its admission to the Conference precisely because I don’t share its views. There are other members of the Conference whose views are not consonant with my own on matters that are of the greatest concern to me….But in the years that I have participated in its meetings and programs, the Conference has afforded me – and those with whom I differ – a crucial opportunity to move beyond the instinctive demonization of “the other” to a healthier, more reality-based appreciation of the areas of commonality that we share.”
Rabbi Skolnik continues: “That is exactly what should have happened with J Street. Membership in the Conference would have afforded its leadership a crucial opportunity to see the world though the Conference’s eyes, and for the Conference to see the world of Israel advocacy through J Street’s eyes. It would also have sent a much-needed message to the many college students who have found their voice on Israel through J Street that the leadership of the American Jewish community hears them, and values what they have to say, even if it sometimes disagrees. But the Conference of Presidents did not do that, and that was, in my view, most unfortunate.”
We learn in the Torah al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another.” Our tradition understands this as extending to how we talk to and about one another. In this light, I believe it is in the best interest of the Jewish community that those within the organized Jewish community and those who seek to enter find a way to talk to and listen to one another. For J Street this might mean adopting a constructive agenda that does not seek to embarrass American Jewish organizations that have done vital work for decades. For the organized Jewish community, efforts towards greater inclusion might just neutralize the most strident voices they seek to exclude and enhance an umbrella organization committed to Jewish unity. As Israel celebrates 66 years, may we be blessed with renewed vigor to promote civil discourse for the betterment of the Jewish people.
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land, unto all its inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). This verse, immortalized on the Liberty Bell, comes from Parashat Behar and is the theme of this week’s Parashah Tie. The Torah text is describing the Jubilee year in which all slaves are to be freed and all land to return to its original owner. The Torah’s central message in this chapter is that the land ultimately belongs to God, and humans are but strangers and sojourners before God. The founders of the US had this idea in mind in creating a country of universal liberty, though their vision took many years and a bloody Civil War to be fully realized.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA once said: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” Wooden, himself an English teacher by trade, understood the power of sports as a metaphor for life. We turn to sports as participants and spectators in order to reenact the much larger dramas that play out in every aspect of our lives. Recognizing the role spectator sports play in our lives, it is no surprise that the nation has been riveted by the sordid controversy surrounding Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The controversy became public when a recorded conversation allegedly between Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano, was leaked to the media. In the conversation, Sterling goes on a racist rant about black people and voices his dismay that his girlfriend posed for a photograph with Magic Johnson, an African American. As our nation voyeuristically listened in on this conversation, there has been widespread outrage. In response, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a strong condemnation and meted out the harshest punishment at his disposal: a lifetime ban from the NBA.
As this story unfolded, numerous questions have arisen in the public and, I suspect, in many of our minds. Some examples: Why did the girlfriend make this recording to begin with? Why was it leaked? If Sterling had a history of bigoted statements, as is apparently the case, why didn’t the NBA take action long ago? What was it about this private conversation that inflamed our collective emotions? And, is anything really private anymore (the answer to that is, no).
Among all of these questions, the first question to come to my mind after the story broke was, “Is Donald Sterling Jewish?” Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes. He changed his name from Tokowitz. In addition the recorded discussion veers into Israel and the Holocaust. The mistress asks Sterling if black Jews are inferior to white Jews and he says, “a hundred percent.” She then draws an analogy between his racism and the Holocaust.
Stiviano: “Isn’t [racism] wrong? Wasn’t it wrong then? With the Holocaust? And you’re Jewish, you understand discrimination.”
Sterling: “You’re a mental case, you’re really a mental case.”
So, add Donald Sterling to the list of members of our tribe who have discredited our reputation before the community at large.
We need not fret too much, however. Adam Silver, the new Commissioner of the NBA has handled this test of his leadership with decisiveness and grace. Clearly, he is Jewish as well. His forceful statement demonstrated integrity and a commitment to healing. So, while Sterling disgraced our people, Adam Silver scored one for the Jews.
Even in our open American society, it is natural for us as an ethnic and religious minority to maintain our self-consciousness regarding external attitudes toward Jews. The tension we feel between negative and positive perceptions of Jewish people in the public sphere comes right out of this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The portion introduces two parallel concepts: Hillul HaShem, the desecration of God’s name, and Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name. The text tells us: lo tehallelu et shem kodshi venitkadeshti b’tokh b’nei yisrael, ani Adonai mekadishchem. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the Lord who sanctify you (22:32). Hillul HaShem is often defined as performing an act that reflects poorly on you in the eyes of decent human beings. Kiddush HaShem is the opposite, performing an act that reflects well in the eyes of decent human beings.
An example of Hillul HaShem is given at the end of the parasha in discussion of one who blasphemes God: ish ish ki yekallel elohav vnasa chet’o—Anyone who blasphemes God shall bear his guilt. The specific circumstances of the blaspheming are uncertain. Did the person curse God, or pronounce God’s name without due reverence? Commentators note that words are ephemeral but real and have the power to hurt or heal. Using the power of speech to hurt another person is a grave offense. Indeed, Donald Sterling’s mouth has caused plenty of hurt to millions of people; however, according to the Talmud, his actions can be seen as Hillul HaShem.
The Talmud states that there is no greater achievement for a Jew than acting in a way that causes others to praise and respect the God of Israel and the Torah’s ways; and there is no graver sin than acting in a way that causes people to think less of Israel’s God and Israel’s laws (BT Yoma 86a).
It is my hope that our society, and particularly the Jewish community, can move beyond voyeurism and sanctimony and use the national conversation on race to engage in a community Heshbon HaNefesh, a heartfelt introspection regarding our own attitudes towards race. It’s easy for any of us from a distance to listen to a salacious recording and pass judgment on a billionaire slum lord shooting his mouth off. The real question is: To what extent are we confronting racism in our own communities, our families and ourselves? If we tolerate in our own circles language and stereotypes that disparage African Americans and other ethnic groups, then we dehumanize them as “other.” When we fail to repudiate such behavior, we are as guilty as Donald Sterling of Hillul HaShem, desecration of God’s name. Let me be real specific. Let’s all make a pledge that we will not tolerate anyone using the epithet “Shvartze.” We all know what it means and what its intent is. If we think that using a Yiddish code word shields us from shame in the wider world, think again. It is a Hillul HaShem.
We have so many examples in our history of courageous Jews who dedicated themselves to building bridges and forging racial harmony in our society. The quintessential example is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, AL, and saying afterwards, “[M]y feet were praying.” That was a Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of God’s name, par excellence.
The world of sport reveals one’s true character and provides a window into the challenges of life itself. This week, the NBA has put on full display the worst and the best of human character. Let us seize this moment as a learning opportunity to reject Hillul HaShem and embrace Kiddush HaShem. Through our collective efforts, may we have the strength create greater harmony and to sanctify God’s name.
Parashat Emor describes the holidays on the Jewish calendar. While other sections of the Torah describe the holidays, it is in this Torah portion that we read the mitzvah of counting the Omer, the 49 days from the second night of Passover until Shavuot. Believe it or not, you can learn more about counting the omer from Homer Simpson! In the meantime, this tie represents our mitzvah of counting the days from Passover to Shavuot.