Thursday, October 28, 2010

Professor Calls for Israel's Destruction

Kaukab Siddique believes the Holocaust was a hoax and that Muslims must rise up to destroy Israel. If this sounds familiar, it's because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has echoed the same sentiment (i.e. deny the first Holocaust while preparing a second). This kind of rhetoric reflects much of what is heard in radical Islamic circles, but what makes this case particularly troubling is that Siddique is a tenured professor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While the university is trying to distance itself from his comments, school administrators claim that they can't do anything about it because he has tenure. They also claim that he has every right to say such things outside of campus. I don't know about them, but controversial speech is one thing and the outright advocation of violence is another. Judge for yourself by watching the full video of his speech during the "Al Quds Day" rally in Washington, DC:

Among other things, he calls on Muslims to fight against Zionism (i.e. Jews, and anyone else who supports Israel). He also talks about sending Israelis back to where they came from. But they mostly came from countries that either persecuted or killed them! In other words, he's calling for the Final Solution. At least towards the end of the video, he kind of gets one thing right: unity is important. However, our unity cannot consist of forcing other Jews to live exactly as we'd like them to; it must always begin by treating one another with dignity. If you ever have the inclination to label Jews with whom you disagree as "enemies," it might help to remember people like this professor. We must focus our efforts on fighting real enemies instead of easily labeling our ideological opponents as such.

This can serve as yet another reminder that if we don't improve intra-Jewish relations under our own volition, circumstances will inevitably develop in which we are forced to recognize that even Jews with whom we don't get along are still our fellow Jews. History keeps repeating itself - the Holocaust, Israel's wars of survival, the recent barrage of radical Islamic terrorist attacks - in every instance, our enemies did not discriminate between different types of Jews, so why on earth do we go out of our way to separate each other (unless the rift is based on objective ethical grounds)? Furthermore, why should we wait for some horrific event to occur before acting upon this message? If we had the same amount of fervor caring for all types of Jews as our enemies have for exterminating us, we would be in much better shape.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Faith, Unity, and Survival

People often use faith and unity as inspirational slogans, but in the case of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, faith and unity actually sustained them. For 69 difficult days, these men not only had to find a source of hope but also a way to deal with one another. They soon figured out that all they had was God and each other, and they made the best of it. Although all the facts of how they survived have yet to be revealed, the youngest of the trapped miners, Jimmy Sanchez, provided an insight into their mindset. In a letter sent up through one of the narrow tubes that served as lifelines before they were rescued, he wrote: "There are actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here."

As an interesting side note, the gematria (numerical equivalent in Hebrew) of ‘לב א (one heart) is 33 - the same as the number of men who were trapped in the mine. Perhaps this can serve as a subtle reminder that when a group of people are able to achieve unity, miraculous events can happen. By working together from deep beneath the earth's surface and having faith in God that they would eventually get out, they beat the odds and survived. Of course, there have been other mining accidents that did not have a happy ending, but that only makes this story even more exceptional. It was an "uplifting" event in every sense of the word:

We, as Jews, are not literally stuck in a hole, but we often put ourselves in a metaphorical one when we don't treat fellow Jews decently. Yet, we can dig ourselves out of it by following a similar approach. Firstly, we'll only improve our predicament when we're able to deal with each other's differences on a consistent basis. Secondly, since good interpersonal conduct is almost impossible to fully master, it will be of infinite benefit to believe that God will help us along the way. By having unconditional faith in God (which can be difficult) and working together as a unique blend of individuals (which is arguably even more difficult), greatness is possible. Once these criteria are met, we will become a people of one heart - just like the Chilean miners.

In other words: trust in God, be good to others, and amazing things will happen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Are You a Political or Religious Ideologue?

With midterm elections approaching in the United States, it's a good time to address one of the biggest impediments to improved interpersonal conduct: the belief that someone's political affiliation and/or religious denomination determines whether they are good or bad.

The majority of Jews are liberal, but a distinct minority are conservative. By the same token, the majority of Jews are secular, but a distinct minority are religious (and for some people, their political affiliation has become their religion). These facts are welcomed by some and considered unfortunate by others. Nevertheless, the most significant question is: do we generally judge each other by our actions or ideology? The answer to this question will determine whether we are rigid ideologues or just regular people with a certain political and religious bent. There are good and bad people of all mainstream political parties, and there are good and bad people of all denominations of Judaism. The moment we judge others solely on whether they have a (D) or (R) next to their name, or if they follow Jewish rituals the same way we do, we have allowed ideology to trump behavior.

If you happen to be engaged in a discussion with someone opposite you on the political or religious spectrum, limit your energy to the topic and never engage in personal attacks (which usually reveals a lack of sound arguments anyway). While all good people should be aggressively fighting objective evil, it's quite possible for two equally decent people to fight for different philosophies on the battlefield of ideas. There is nothing wrong with each of us having our own political opinions and ritual customs, as long as they don't lead us to abandon our most fundamental ethical concern: good interpersonal conduct.

An ugly manifestation of both politics and religion occurs when people start judging motives instead of actions. We can't come to the point where if my "team" does something, it's well-intentioned and good, and if your "team" does something, it's ill-intentioned and bad. The results of such an outlook are awful. And this leads to another important point: if we demean our ideological opponents, they will naturally want to defend themselves personally, but if we give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are just as pure as our own, they are forced to confront their views. So if you believe that a fellow Jew's political or religious ideas are out of whack, engage in a courteous discussion of the issues - not a demeaning back-and-forth of personal attacks. Otherwise, the debate is meaningless and it's best to avoid confrontation altogether.

Concerning political ideologues, there is an important lesson taught in Pirkei Avot (2:3) about those who run government: "Beware of rulers (i.e. politicians), for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need." If we place too much trust in politicians - even if we happen to agree with them on certain issues - we will ultimately be disappointed. As the famous saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Politicians typically have only one thing in mind: getting re-elected. Therefore, most of them will do whatever it takes to be on the side of what is most popular (or what sounds good in theory, but ends up being disastrous in practice) just so that they can remain in power.

Concerning religious ideologues, there is an instructive story told of the Baal Shem Tov. He was once traveling on the road when he went into a wooden area to recite the afternoon prayer. His disciples were shocked to see him hitting his head against a tree, screaming and crying. Afterwards, they asked him what had happened. He explained that he had seen, with Divine Inspiration, that in the time before the Final Redemption, there would be a multitude of rabbis - and that they would be the ones who would impede the redemption. How is this possible? When rabbis stop following basic ethical guidelines and instead become technical ritualistic adherents. In other words, don't become like those who believe that everyone has to think and live the exact same way. Rise above such an inclination and allow for differences in thought and lifestyle, all while following the basic ethical precepts outlined by the Torah.

It's too bad that we can't determine whether someone is good or bad solely by how liberal or conservative they are, or by how religious or secular they are. It would make life so much easier. But people are much more complex than that. As a result, the only true measure of a person's goodness is overall behavior (something that is often very difficult to know). Vote how you wish and follow a denomination of Judaism that makes sense to you, but never assume that those who vote and observe Judaism differently have bad intentions. Human beings can judge actions, but motives are known to God alone.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corruption = Destruction

Unfortunately, corruption is everywhere. It seems like almost every day there is some politician or religious leader facing such charges. But why exactly is this caliber of crime so evil?

The generation of Noah was filled with what the Torah calls (ironically) Chamas, which is generally translated as violence or corruption. Rashi comments that it specifically refers to theft. This was the straw that broke the camel's back for Noah's generation and why the destructive flood ensued. Nevertheless, it's easy to overlook all the different forms of stealing. For example, the prohibition against theft in the Ten Commandments actually refers to kidnapping. Other forms of robbery include stealing someone's money or property or trust or time - the list goes on - until the ramifications of thievery lead to the worst form of stealing: murder (i.e. robbing another person of their life). In other words, theft is always the final vice that undoes a society because it leads to a lack of respect for other human beings - something that neither God nor civilization can tolerate for very long.

When someone steals from another person, they have taken more than just some physical item - they have also deprived that person of dignity. Just recall your emotions if you have ever been robbed; you probably felt violated and humiliated. Beyond the material damage the criminal has inflicted, they have also caused humiliation to another human being, which Judaism regards as an extremely serious offense comparable to murder. Thus, it becomes easier to understand why the root of a society's downfall is always corruption. Once people have no regard for others and that which belongs to others, society ceases to function.

Another case in point is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People falsely attribute their sexual practices as the primary cause of their destruction, but what actually put them over the edge was greed. God is willing to put up with a lot of human frailty, but once people show absolutely no concern for those around them, a civilization forfeits its right to exist. While it's true that we see a lot of corruption in the world today, it doesn't automatically mean the world is going to be destroyed. The ultimate test for a society is not the evil that is done within it (there are always going to be bad apples), but rather how society reacts to that evil. If it's not considered a big deal, we're in big trouble. But as long as it's regarded as ethically wrong, we'll be alright.

Typically, the first Talmudic lesson taught to Jewish children is from tractate Nezikin, which deals with damages, because we want them to understand the importance of preserving other people's property and, in effect, dignity. Still, the best lessons come from our earliest leaders. For example, Abraham attained rightful ownership of a burying place for Sarah by paying an enormous sum, and Moses kept a detailed record of everything that was donated for the Tabernacle. Contrary to the anti-Semitic stereotype, being dishonest with money is antithetical to Jewish values. Furthermore, if someone has engaged in theft, they must return the stolen item (or pay its monetary value) in order to achieve full repentance. In a larger sense, by restoring the material item, the thief is also restoring honor to the victim, and ultimately restoring God-based ethics to society.

One last piece of information should put this all into perspective. According to the Sages, the first question asked of a person after they die is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" The answer to this question reveals more about a person's character than perhaps anything else. If someone is honest in how they make a living, is generous with what God has given them, and does not take that which God has given to someone else, they are operating their lives along the most fundamental ethical principle: treating others how they would like to be treated. Since this value is the foundation of our existence, staying far away from corruption will also keep us far away from destruction.