Reclaiming Israel’s Reputation


I’ve started reading David Brog’s excellent new book Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace.

I’ll post a full review later, but the initial paragraphs of the book describe a situation that seems eerily familiar:

“There was a time when Israel could do no wrong. Before 1967, Americans and most other Westerners typically saw Israel as an embattled outpost of democracy heroically defending itself from Arab multitudes determined to destroy it. Israel’s civilians were gutsy. Israel’s soldiers were gallant. Israel’s wars were good.

This myth of the perfect Israel could not last. No nation is so noble and no cause so pure. Israel has committed sins both small and large …

The problem is that the very facts that helped destroy one false narrative are now being used to construct a new one. The myth of the perfect Israel is being replaced by the myth of the evil Israel.”

In more ways than one, America and Israel share common problems and a common destiny. We must support and learn from each other.

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Translating the Bible for Our Era

Aaron Koller, Ben Sommer and Tamar Kamionkowski

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

What difference does a translation make?

If we take the Torah seriously, a lot. Whether we believe it was given by God to Moses, or only that it’s the foundational text of our identity as Jews, we want to get it right.

Most of us today can’t read Hebrew very well. It’s a defect we share with the ancient Jewish community in Alexandria, where scholars translated the Torah into Greek because many Jews knew little or no Hebrew. That produced the Septuagint, the first known Torah translation.

And linguistic translation is only half the battle. Even if we can read Hebrew, we often lack the knowledge required to interpret Biblical passages. We don’t know the historical context, so we miss references to ideas, people, and events that were obvious to people in Biblical times.

Robert Alter gives an excellent analogy in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Imagine, he says, that archaeologists a thousand years in the future find a dozen 20th-century movies that are Westerns. They notice a pattern: in 11 of the films, the heroic sheriff can draw his six-gun faster than anyone else in the movie. In the 12th film, however, the sheriff has a crippled arm. Instead of a six-gun, he uses a rifle he keeps slung over his shoulder.

As 21st-century viewers, we easily recognize the conventional storyline of the first 11 films. We see that the 12th film intentionally departed from it. However, the future archaeologists don’t know about the conventions. Therefore, they posit the existence of an undiscovered source film, Q, from which the first 11 films (Q1 to Q11) were derived. They believe that the 12th film comes from a different cinematic tradition, and perhaps from a different region of Los Angeles.

Like the archaeologists, we often must guess at the conventions in the Biblical text that were obvious to people of that era. Note that in this case, it makes no difference whether God gave the Torah to Moses or it was assembled by human editors. To communicate the message adequately, either source would have used conventions and references familiar to the people of the time.

A good translation won’t solve those problems completely, but it can help by providing notes and alternative phrasings.

Historical change didn’t stop with Biblical times. If anything, it has accelerated. A lot has changed since 1917, when the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) issued its first English translation of the Torah.

  • In 1915 (before 1917, but close enough), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held a White House screening of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was a nationwide box-office hit.
  • In 1920, American women got the right to vote.

Change continued after 1962, when JPS published its second translation of the Torah:

  • In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.
  • In 1969, Yale admitted its first female students; Harvard followed in 1977.
  • In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws against homosexuality; in 2015, it struck down state restrictions on gay marriage.

Translation doesn’t simply match words in different languages. It reflects our culture and assumptions. We shape each translation for our own era, and in turn, we are shaped by it. For the Bible, we need to know how the translation affects the message.

That was one focus of the symposium, “The Future of American Jewish Bible Translation,” held April 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It commemorated the 1917 JPS translation, whose goal was “to combine the Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern.”

In the hundred years since then, the goal hasn’t changed but many other things have. New discoveries have confirmed or challenged our copies of the text. Before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Torah manuscripts dated from the Middle Ages. The Dead Sea Scrolls come from a thousand years earlier.

Similarly, changed social and religious attitudes make us ask new questions about the text. When the text says “man,” does it mean males specifically, or people in general? How should we translate passages that we find morally unsettling?

One approach to troubling passages is “converse translation,” which changes or even reverses the meaning of the original text. It was used as long ago as the Septuagint and ancient Targums (interpretive retellings of the Biblical text). In spite of its historical pedigree, converse translation had few fans at the JPS conference.

“The classical rabbis often read against the text to offer an ethical ideal unsupported by a ‘plain reading’ of the Bible,” said Leonard Greenspoon, one of the conference speakers. However, he added, “Bible translators have a responsibility to call attention to morally difficult passages. Notes can be effective for that.”

(Audio and photos from the symposium are available on the Jewish Publication Society’s YouTube channel.)

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Who Counts? We all do.


I normally don’t review children’s books, but this one’s a keeper.

Who Counts? combines simple, direct storytelling with superb artwork and morally uplifting themes.

Its authors, a rabbi and a professor of Jewish Studies, retell three of Jesus’ parables from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15: the lost sheep, the lost piece of silver, and the lost son.

Though it might seem odd, the book’s use of stories from the Christian New Testament was quite deliberate. It illustrates that whatever else he might have been, Jesus was a Jewish teacher. In their basic attitudes toward life, morality, and priorities, Judaism and Christianity agree more often than not.

The book’s clear prose style, familiar words, and easily-understood morals will appeal to younger children. Its third story (the lost son) is a bit more layered than the first two. It touches lightly on emotional conflicts that many children experience. Thus, it provides a good starting point for supportive and heartfelt conversations between parent and child.

According to the authors, “All three stories are about the importance of making sure that everyone counts … [and] that everyone feels counted, no one is overlooked, discounted. The book is a counting book, in both senses of the term.”

Many social maladies stem from people feeling as if they don’t count. Who Counts? is an excellent, entertaining book to help children grow up into responsible, caring adults.

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Immigration and the Image of God


My new blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Surprisingly – or maybe not – many of our current debates were foreshadowed by ancient rabbinical disputes.

One such foreshadowed debate was our national conundrum about immigration, legal and otherwise.

In his book Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, our Hebrew College professor Art Green recounts an argument between Rabbi Akiva and Simeon ben Azzai:

“What is Judaism’s most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva had a ready answer: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19: 18) is the basic rule of Torah.’ His friend Simeon ben Azzai disagreed. ‘I know a more basic rule than that,’ he said. And he quoted: ‘This is the book of human generations: On the day God created humans, He created them in the image of God (tzelem elohim); male and female He created them, blessing them and calling them humans on the day they were created’ (Gen. 5: 1– 2).”

Ben Azzai found Akiva’s answer about loving our neighbor unconvincing for two reasons.

First, he didn’t see how we could be commanded to love others. He thought of love as a feeling: we either have it or we don’t. Moreover, some people are unlovable, either because they are personally obnoxious or morally evil. To solve that problem, he argued that what’s required is not a feeling, but a recognition that all people are made in the image of God. That basic level of respect is what we owe to everyone.

His second reason followed from the first. If all people are created in the image of God, then it applies whether or not they are our neighbors. We owe all people at least that same basic level of respect. We should not treat people as less than they are merely because they’re unfamiliar to us.

Ben Azzai had the better argument because he based it not on involuntary feelings, but on things we could control. We can recognize the truth that every person is sacred, and we can act consistently with that truth.

However, Akiva also raised an important question: Do we have the same obligations to everyone, or do we have greater obligations to our “neighbor” than to total strangers?

Ben Azzai’s argument does not answer Akiva’s question. He’s right that we should respect all people as embodying the image of God. He’s right that we should consider their welfare important. He’s right that other things being equal, we should avoid harming them and sometimes try to help them.

What about when other things are not equal? Do our “neighbors” have a greater claim on us than other people do?

Moral psychologists have a story called “the trolley dilemma.” A runaway trolley car is about to hit five people, but you can save their lives by pushing one person off a bridge onto the tracks. What should you do?

Most of us recoil in horror at the thought of pushing a person off the bridge, even if it would result in a net saving of four lives. Such cold-blooded utilitarian calculation seems repulsive.

But what if the person on the bridge was a stranger, and the five people on the tracks were your family? Then the decision becomes much tougher – agonizingly so.

In the abstract, the two cases are the same: kill one person to save five people. But in the two cases, the people involved are not the same, and that makes a lot of difference.

The trolley dilemma presents a situation where the costs and benefits are known with certainty. In real life, we rarely have that much certainty. And it balances the welfare of a complete stranger, for whom we have no personal feelings, against the welfare of people we love.

Maybe some of us would kill the stranger in both cases. But for those of us who wouldn’t, it’s a much tougher decision when it could save our family. The point is that even if all people deserve a basic level of respect, our moral intuitions say that some people deserve more.

After that point, our moral intuitions are less helpful. Which people? Why? How much more respect? And what about cases where costs and benefits are uncertain? In most real-life situations, we deal with probabilities, not certainties. We rely on subjective judgments, not only about risks but about values.

Consider the immigration debate. Both sides can probably agree on these facts:

  • Most immigrants pose no physical threat to Americans.
  • Most immigrants are not refugees, but are economic migrants.
  • A tiny minority of immigrants pose a physical threat to Americans.

Beyond that, the debate is no longer about facts. It’s about our moral duty to prospective immigrants, our moral duty to our fellow Americans, and our subjective assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks involved. The last factor is less important than we think, because our assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks is heavily biased by our pre-existing moral feelings.

I don’t have a provable answer, because there isn’t one. People who are equally intelligent, educated, and morally conscientious are on every side of that particular debate.

It’s not quite like the old joke about asking two Jews and getting three answers. In this case, we get a thousand answers, and we find people at each other’s throats about which of the thousand answers is absolutely and totally right. Such disputes are best resolved through the democratic process and, where applicable, through the decentralized decision-making that was a vital feature of the U.S. Constitution.

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God’s Silent Speech — and Ours


My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

What exactly is “the word of God?” And can it teach us about happiness and tolerance?

Jewish Studies scholar Shaul Magid doesn’t address the second question in “The Word of God is No Word at All.” But he gives us some clues.

Magid observes that in the Torah, God’s speech has two main functions: creation and revelation. Interestingly, the Torah refers to creative speech by one word and revelatory speech by another:

“… in the story of creation Gen. 1:1-31, the word ‘va-yomer’ (‘And God said”) appears ten times … this word ‘va-yomer’ [is not addressed to anyone] … it appears, then, that the intransitive nature of the term in creation is not used as a tool of communication, but almost as a vehicle for productivity …”

The Torah uses a different word when God speaks at Sinai:

“… in Ex. 20 with the verse, God spoke all these words, saying I am the Lord your God … here the divine word is not ‘va-yomer’ (God said) as in Genesis, but ‘va-yidaber’ (God spoke) … In the case of revelation there are those who hear, whereas in the former case the utterance is not meant to be heard but to initiate activity.”

And yet, says Magid, the two kinds of speech are connected. Creation is the first moment of existence, but the Torah starts with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet: “Bereshit bara Elohim …” Where did the first letter – “the missing aleph” – go? It went to the first moment of revelation: “’I (Anoki) am LORD your God …” (Ex. 20:2)

Thus, the two kinds of speech link the two dimensions of creation: physical and then moral. Various sages say that both kinds of speech are also silent: one kind of silence creates reality, while the other kind directs action.

What does that have to do with happiness and tolerance?

Speech is a vehicle of thought. On a smaller, mundane scale, we engage in our own kind of silent speech. It creates our perceptions, our emotions, and most crucially, it influences our actions.

Whenever we encounter a new situation, we identify it as one thing or another. For example, is a cup of coffee one thing, or two things?

We can pour the coffee out of the cup, so it’s then clearly a separate thing from the cup and there are two things. But for our goal of drinking coffee, it works better to think of a cup of coffee as one thing. We pick it up, we take a sip, then we put it down. All that cogitation takes place silently: we don’t think, we just drink. And like God’s silent speech in Genesis, our speech isn’t addressed to anyone. It only helps create the reality we see.

The first kind of silent speech leads to the second: our reaction. Someone cuts us off in traffic: we perceive the driver as a vicious interloper and we get angry. We argue with our spouse: we decide that he or she wanted to hurt our feelings, so we scream louder. Donald Trump (or in an alternate reality, Hillary Clinton) is the U.S. president: we decide that the world is doomed, so we retreat from society and we stockpile groceries.

That leads to an important fact: We often can’t control what happens, but we can almost always control how we react to it.

Will we frame the experience in a positive and helpful way, or a negative and destructive way? Will our reactions bring light into our world, or will they darken the world for us and everyone around us?

In a frustrating situation, we can either get upset about it or see it as a test to help us improve ourselves. When someone makes a remark that seems hurtful, we can ask: Are we sure about what it meant? Is there a positive interpretation that fits just as well?

If something happens in the world that seems evil, maybe it is — but that’s not the question we should ask. We can’t do anything about it being evil. The question we should ask is: What can we do, if anything, to improve the situation?

Our silent speech can never be as powerful or important as God’s silent speech. But it can help us do our part as God’s very junior partners to create goodness in the world.

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Keeping the Peace in Troubled Times


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Angry disagreement now dominates our national discourse, with emphasis on the “angry.”

We feel, with William Butler Yeats, that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

I believe that however we define America, whatever principles we think it stands for, it’s worth preserving. So are our families and friendships.

Whether you think that America “was never great” or you yearn for a lost era of innocence and patriotism, no one can deny America’s achievements. No one can deny the ideals that our country has imperfectly tried to follow. People vote with their feet. Middle Eastern migrants don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia, which is closer but won’t take them, anyway. They want to come here. Nigerians don’t think that America is a racist hellhole. To them, it’s the Promised Land.

The good we have achieved, and the good we can still achieve, are things that we don’t want to throw away. America can survive a controversial president. It can’t survive being torn apart.

This is a difficult time for all of us. But we can get through it if we keep our heads and follow some common-sense rules – both personally, and as a country.

Keeping Our Personal Sanity

The personal rules are easier to follow.

First, don’t sever relationships that matter. Our relationships with family and close friends should transcend most disagreements. That also applies to other people we respect, who might have some ideas we find repugnant. If we know they’re good people whom we admire for other reasons, then we shouldn’t close the door on them permanently.

Online or in real life, I never “unfriend” family, close friends, or people I respect. Every family has its Uncle Frank who’s a staunch right-winger and Aunt Sally who’s a staunch left-winger. When they walk through the front door, we should greet them warmly, embrace them, and avoid conversation about their hot-button subjects. We can talk about the kids or the weather. Online, we can mute their posts so we remain friends but don’t have to see their political rants.

Second, forgive hurtful things that people said in heated arguments. If you’re ever in doubt, forgive them anyway. Forgiveness should be our default response. The only people exempt from this rule are those who have never said anything stupid or hurtful. In other words: nobody.

Third, remember that we all sometimes have crazy ideas. Remember that people, including us, tend to base their political beliefs more on emotion than on facts or reasoning. As a result, good people, smart people can believe things that we think are absurd. Don’t abandon them because of it.

Fourth, remember that we all sometimes change our minds. People who bitterly disagree with you today might decide tomorrow that you’re right. Or you might decide that they’re right. The fact that we feel absolutely sure of our own rightness doesn’t guarantee that we’re right, only that we’re sure.

Keeping Our Political Sanity

It might surprise you to learn that we’re not the first generation to suffer this kind of disagreement. In the late 1700s, the United States – referred to in the plural until the mid-20th century — were sharply divided on issues such as religion, local autonomy, and of course – to our shame – slavery.

Does this situation sound familiar?

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

That’s from Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison, published in 1788. The bitter national dissension we see today is an old problem that was solved (as well as it can be) a long time ago. We just forgot the solution.

The American Founders needed to unite the colonies into a single nation in spite of their disagreements. They did it with the last article in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (10th Amendment)

In Federalist Paper #45, Madison explained the meaning:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce …The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

We’ve heard a lot about disagreements between California and other parts of the country, most notably with the Trump White House. It’s what’s got people promoting “Calexit.”

But what if the federal government had no power to tell the State of California how to run its internal affairs, except for basic human rights and issues affecting the entire country? Then it wouldn’t matter what the president wanted to do. He or she wouldn’t be able to do it. Calexit would be superfluous.

Going back to the Constitution isn’t without cost. Apart from the legal hurdles, it requires a willingness to “live and let live.”

Arbitrary power seems like a great idea when you’re the one who’s got it. But when it’s suddenly in the hands of people with whom you disagree, it’s a lot less appealing. If we don’t want people in Kentucky dictating how people live in California, then we must give up the idea that people in California may dictate to people in Kentucky how they are required to live.

The U.S. Constitution can solve our political problems, if we’ll let it.

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Fighting Racism Starts in the Heart


Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King in 1965.

My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

When we think of relations between Jews and African-Americans, we naturally think of our proudest moments. And we should.

Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side-by-side with Martin Luther King in 1965, helping America to repudiate the racist sins of its past. Jewish activists worked in segregated areas where they risked abuse, beating, and death to win equal rights for African-Americans. Even further back, Jews were central figures in the early decades of the NAACP and other organizations that opposed racism.

However, relations between Jews and African-Americans have not been all sunshine and flowers. Even apart from extremist organizations such as the Nation of Islam, black anti-Semitism has been a problem. In his book What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance, Murray Friedman recounts both the positive and negative sides of that history. A good companion volume, from a black perspective, is Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Friedman wrote that anti-Semitic incidents:

“… have taken place against a background of intensifying mutual recrimination, with charges of Jewish racism and paternalism on the one hand and countercharges of black anti-Semitism and ingratitude on the other.”

That reminded me of a matching passage in Steele’s book about his rage at the feeling of racism and paternalism (from all whites, not just Jews) that Friedman described:

“I had become terrified of the Faustian bargain waiting for me at the doorway to the left: we’ll throw you a bone like affirmative action if you’ll just let us reduce you to your race so we can take moral authority for ‘helping’ you. When they called you a n—– back in the days of segregation, at least they didn’t ask you to be grateful.”

Both books are excellent, but I’d like to address a broader question: Why is it so easy, often almost irresistible, for people in different groups to distrust each other?

To say that it’s because of Yetzer Hara doesn’t really explain it. It just says that we do bad things because we feel like doing bad things. Why do we feel that way?

In this case, at least part of the answer is clear. Whether it’s because of evolution or because God used some of the same design elements, we share our biological nature with lower animals.

Animals of the same species have the same biological “niche:” that is, they need the same kind of food, use the same kind of shelter, and of course, seek mates of their own species. For that reason, they tend to regard non-relatives of the same species as competitors who threaten their well-being.

Conversely, they tend to help and support their relatives, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives to protect them. Based on biologists’ field observation, there’s a formula to predict the probability that an animal will altruistically help another member of its own species:

c < r * b

where c is the survival cost to the altruistic animal (in risk, food, etc.), r is the percent of genes shared because of some family relationship, and b is the benefit to the recipient of the animal’s altruistic act.

How do animals distinguish relatives from non-relatives? They use four main criteria: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. Animals are inclined to help others if the others look like them, act like them, are already familiar, or are in a shared location.

Of course, we are not merely animals. We can think. We can distinguish right from wrong. But our perception of other people is biased by our animal instincts to cooperate with relatives and to feel hostile toward genetic competitors.

Does that mean racism is inevitable? No. But it requires sustained individual effort to defeat it. It cannot be defeated institutionally, once and for all. It must be confronted by each person, one at a time.

The good news is that because we can think, we unconsciously use non-biological cues to tell us who is a relative. For us, “appearance” isn’t just bodily appearance. Our instincts react to other cues that we can deliberately manipulate to increase social harmony. One experiment found that wearing team t-shirts had a stronger effect on people’s behavior than did the race of the people wearing the shirts.

That doesn’t mean the solution to racial tensions is to make everyone wear matching t-shirts. However, we know some of the factors that trigger racial hostility: appearance, behavior, familiarity, and location. By changing some of those factors, we can decrease racism significantly. And that’s good for everyone.

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