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“From Rasha, with love”

 
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The Passover Seders of my early childhood are now increasingly distant, cherished, and sacred memories.

I recall most vividly two critical moments in those annual family holiday observances presided over by my father: the taste of the maror, the bitter herbs, which I approached with a measure of trepidation — and the discussion of the four sons, which I found still more frightening. Specifically, I recall a sense of dark dismay at the Haggadah’s treatment of the wicked son — the rasha.

My father’s “Litvakish” (Lithuanian) pronunciation of that Hebrew term sounded to my uninitiated young ear as if he were saying “Russia.” My father was a civilian employee of the Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, intimately involved, for example, in the Berlin airlift. I had a keen early awareness of “the enemy” — lawless, godless, despotic, and bellicose. The emblem of SAC, a shield showing a powerful armored fist grasping lightning bolts against a clouded sky, hung in my bedroom.

What terrible things could a mere child possibly have done, I wondered timorously during the reading of the four sons. What sins could he have committed to merit being branded with so derogatory and frightful a title — “The Russia” — with all the evil and danger the name of the Soviet Union evoked? How relieved I was each year when my older brother volunteered to read this passage, sparing me its secretly dreaded burden.

It was not long before I was disabused of my misunderstanding of the Hebrew text of the Haggadah. In time, too, Russia’s repression of Jewish life would soften, the Cold War would end, and the Soviet Union would be dismantled. A measure of freedom and democracy and hope would spread throughout the former Soviet States, including Lithuania (the ethnolinguistic source of my youthful liturgical confusion) and Ukraine.

Though both my Hebrew language skills and my understanding of geopolitics have grown considerably more sophisticated since my childhood seder experience, I responded to the recent news of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with an eerily familiar dark dismay.

The rasha of the Passover Haggadah, at least in our traditional reading of that text, defiantly distances himself from the seder’s celebration of freedom: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” he demands. With analogous defiance, the Russia now occupying Crimea insists that the West — and specifically the United States, its erstwhile Cold War foe — has no legitimate interest, no standing to object to its invasion of Ukraine: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” In so doing, today’s Russia — with an emboldened and increasingly despotic Vladimir Putin at its helm — also has rejected freedom, embracing a bellicose lawlessness of unsettling historic resonance. As the Haggadah puts it: L’fi she-hotzi et atzmo min ha-klal — “By excluding himself from the community” of nations… kafar ba-ikar — “he has denied the most basic of principles”… the freedom that is the birthright of all peoples, and the territorial integrity of sovereign nations.

The Haggadah prescribes that we react to the rasha with strength of purpose, explaining in no uncertain terms that our course, our actions, are a principled response to our historic experience: “Because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The Jewish national experience imposes on us an obligation to champion freedom, a moral and spiritual duty that we are not entitled to shirk or to neglect. “Ever since the Exodus, freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent,” insisted German poet (and, alas, Jewish apostate) Heinrich Heine.

As a Jew, my sadness (and outrage) at the invasion of Crimea is compounded by the rich Jewish history of that region. Jewish settlement of Crimea began as early as the first century C.E., purportedly by descendants of the Babylonian exile and deported warriors of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The participation of Jews in Crimean culture is said to have led to the storied conversion to Judaism of the Khazar royal family, and after their example, much of their kingdom in the seventh to 11th centuries. In the 20th century, Crimea was the site of a number of experimental proto-Zionist semi-autonomous agrarian Jewish communities, which were annihilated during the Nazi Holocaust. Greater Ukraine has seen the best and worst of Jewish history: the birth of the Hibbat Zion, Am Olam, and Biluim movements, as well as the massacres under Chmielnicki in the 17th century and at Babi Yar in 1941. S. Y. Agnon, Hayim Nachman Bialik, and Golda Meir all were products of Ukrainian Jewry, as was Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Jewish communal and synagogue life continues in Ukraine to this day.

No less than Jews at their seder tables, Americans also have an obligation, born of our unique history, to champion freedom, and to chart a principled course worthy of that historic mission. A defining element of the American ethos is recognition that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is, America stands for the principle that freedom is not a privilege granted by rulers and government. Freedom is a universal right, an inescapable consequence of our belief in God — “Because of what the Lord did for me.”

The founding principles of the United States, not unlike the founding narrative of the Jewish people rehearsed around seder tables each year, require a meaningful response and strength of purpose when freedom is threatened by tyrants and terrorists. The rights with which we are endowed by our Creator come with equally divine corollary obligations. The cost of meeting those obligations, it is true, at times may be bitter. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the maror — the bitter herbs we dutifully taste at Passover, as we refrain, temporarily, from our ritual reclining. As a child, I would have preferred to avoid the bitterness altogether. Now I understand. Neither as Americans nor as Jews can we discharge our sacred duties without a willingness to abandon the relaxed posture with which we are accustomed to reveling in our freedom, and when principle so dictates, to face a possibly bitter course.

“The hottest place in Hell,” said Dante Alighieri, in an observation framed and displayed in my rabbinic study, “is reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, remain neutral.”

 

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.

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‘Live long and prosper’

The death of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, February 27, at 83, marked the passing of an American icon — indeed, a star of global renown, and a Jewish hero as well.

Nimoy’s accomplishments were many. He was an author, poet, musician, photographer, philanthropist, educator, and director, and of course an actor who played many roles on stage and screen. But he is best known for his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the television series that first aired in 1966. It is a role he reprised in the various sequels, spinoffs, and remakes that appeared after the original series went off the air in 1969.

Nimoy was a Boston native, fluent in Yiddish, whose parents were Orthodox Jews who escaped from the Soviet Union. As he related in various interviews, his background informed his portrayal of the sole alien being on the Starship Enterprise. Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan but was also half-human, making him an alien on Vulcan as well. His status reflects that of immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans who, like Nimoy, grow up in a household, community, and culture that still has one foot in the old world.

 

 

Je suis Charlie?

It says much about the age that we live in that so many of us first learned of the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7th through Twitter, and that the slogan that came to represent much of the international response to the massacre originated as an image tweeted by French artist and music journalist Joachim Roncin, and soon morphed into a hashtag that rose to the top of the day’s trending topics, and has become one of the most popular hashtags in the history of that social network.

I am referring, of course, to Je suis Charlie, or in hashtag form, #jesuischarlie, and its English version, #iamcharlie.

Some followed up on this formula with the variations Je suis Ahmed or Je suis Ahmed Rabet, to acknowledge the Muslim police officer who was so brutally murdered in the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and as a subtle reminder that the terrorists are not representative of Muslims in general. Others added Je suis Juif, meaning I am Jewish, to recall the fact that four hostages were murdered in a kosher supermarket, in addition to the 12 killed at the offices of the Parisian periodical. (Several of them also were Jewish.) Members of the Jewish community in France and abroad were encouraged by the appearance of Je suis Juif signs and hashtags, especially as the slogan was displayed by some French Muslims, although there has also been some criticism that it was not shared widely enough.

 

 

To end terrorism, start with moral clarity

The most often asked question I hear today is “How do we stop radical Islamic terrorism?”

Of course there are no quick, easy solutions but any attempt must start with an absolute commitment to speaking and acting with moral clarity.

How can it be that there are leaders today, including the president of the United States, who simply refuse to use the words “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic jihad”? I am not an expert on Islam, and I have no true sense whether Islam is or is not a religion of peace.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Israel, not Netanyahu, is the ultimate target

There is no world leader more hated by well-meaning liberals in America and Europe than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whereas once the bile was directed at former U.S. president George W. Bush — for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, for identifying radical Islam in both its Shiite and Sunni variations as an existential threat, and for backing Israel — it’s now largely focused on Netanyahu, an alleged “racist” and “war criminal” who just happens to have won a resounding vote of confidence from the Israeli electorate on March 17.

Two New York Times editorials speak to my point rather elegantly. The first, published on March 13, asked whether Turkey could still be considered a reliable NATO ally — concluding, based on the Ankara government’s stance toward international crises from the Islamic State insurgency to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that it can’t. But while the substance of the editorial was basically correct, the lack of any ad hominem attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was notable. “Increasingly authoritarian” was the best the New York Times could manage when it came to describing this boorish thug, who rejoices in conspiracy theories, baits his country’s declining Jewish population even as he assures them that they are safe, and imprisons journalists with the devil-may-care attitude only a dictator can enjoy.

 

 

Dirty dancing

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, please come to your senses

Benjamin Netanyahu is the winner of the most recent election in Israel.

The odds are that he will be asked to build a coalition and continue his premiership. I wish him well. But many are still gargling to get the yucky taste out of their mouth.

Every match-up will have a winner and a loser, whether pitcher versus batter or presidential hopefuls. But if a win is achieved through sneaky tactics or cheap moves, it salts the wound of the loser and mitigates the validity of the winner. That is what happened when the incumbent prime minister made some political statements on the eve of last week’s election.

 

 

Universities punish bigotry — but not anti-Jewish bigotry

A few weeks ago, the University of Oklahoma appropriately responded swiftly and strongly when members of a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, sang anti-black chants that included the “n” word and references to lynching.

The university expelled two students and shut down the entire fraternity chapter, even though not all its members were involved in the incident. Similarly, colleges and universities are cracking down on hostile actions against women. For example, after members of Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted “No means yes” on campus, Yale University banned the fraternity for five years.

Yes, these responses were tough, but they sent an important message not only to the wrongdoers and the university community, but also to society at large: that bigotry against African-Americans and women is repugnant and intolerable, and there will be harsh consequences for those who engage in it.

 

 
 
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