Elie Wiesel – From Witness to Lobbyist

Hedy Epstein
Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

When I knew her, university classes did not include semester-long studies of the Holocaust. Holocaust centers and museums were yet to become natural aspects to the way Americans memorialized twentieth-century history.

Hedy lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany. She escaped via the Kindertransport. She spoke often of the last moments with her parents – watching as their figures grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station.

They did not survive.

Hedy went back to Germany after World War II ended – to translate documents and records needed to prosecute the architects of medical experiments (read: crimes) at Dachau. Eventually, she moved to America.

During the mid 1980’s, she visited my classes on the Holocaust at the University of Missouri-Columbia, bringing small remnants of her past with her. I remember that she had a tin cup that relatives used while interned in a Vichy concentration camp.  The cup was used for all liquids, she explained. Eventually my students understood that the cup was used as a toilet as well as a drinking vessel.

She described each tormented aspect of her young life — being forced out of school, the breaking and plundering and torching of Jewish stores and synagogues during Kristallnacht, her father’s internment at Dachau, her parents’ justified fears for her survival, the finality of their murder.

A picture of Hedy Epstein was in The Charlotte Observer just days ago. She was one of hundreds of children of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors to sign an enraged condemnation of the ad Elie Wiesel took out in the New York Times on August 1.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and a towering presence, a prolific author and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, began his ad by referring to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative that rejected child sacrifice, he wrote, should be understood as the start of monotheism and western civilization.

This claim alone is deeply disturbing. It reflects a terrible and astonishing ignorance of the history of the Ancient Near East and Israel that I find hard to associate with Wiesel.

There is much, much worse here than clichés about the origins of civilization. Wiesel compares the deliberate annihilation of one million children by Nazi Germany to the use of children as human shields in the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. But genocide is not the same thing as the long-standing and historical capacity of human beings to make civilians — especially children — pay the terrible costs of war.

I am not minimizing the latter. But equating all things violent with the Holocaust is a horror of our times. Wiesel should know better than to engage in the appropriation of the Holocaust to fight a political battle.

Further, one simply has to wonder how Wiesel manages to exonerate Israel from any guilt whatsoever in the death of Palestinian children. He writes that it is “the terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”

Wait, what? Nothing Israel has ever done has contributed to the debased conditions so many Palestinian children endure? Does Israel bear no responsibility whatsoever for the lack of access to anything from food to water to medical care that has been part and parcel of life for so many Palestinian children? Nothing about the wall or checkpoints influences the lives of Palestinian children and the choices they can make about their future?

Is nothing about the way Prime Minister Netanyahu parlayed the death of three Israeli teens to gain support to, as the Israeli military calls it, “mow the grass” relevant to the choices Palestinian children have?

Wiesel paints the conflict as a “battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Is every aspect of the terrible destruction we have witnessed the product of “civilization” at war with “barbarism”? How could Elie Wiesel produce this simple-minded sound bite?

Barbarism is not simply the product of uncivilized descendants of the ancient world. Ordained rabbis in Israel have openly called for the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people.

I think of Hedy, describing that scene at the station, watching her parents faces as the train pulled away.

The sources of barbaric, brutal, evil behaviors and evil outcomes are many and varied. No one will be served by denying that Jews, too, are capable of them.

Gather Its Spoil

Gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the LORD your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt (Deuteronomy 13:17).

Palestinians walk across the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes in the Shejaiya residential district.
Destroyed buildings and homes in the Palestinian Shejaiya residential district.

I am no longer so comfortable with my own claims.

A little over two years ago, in May of 2012, I posted a piece I called “Walk This Way.” In it, I celebrated the intelligence of a rabbinic tradition that used, I claimed, the halakhic process to extract the best possible interpretation from our texts. I wrote about difficult texts – the ones decreeing the death of a rebellious son (Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and the passage condemning an idolatrous city, one we read in this past week’s Parsha Re’eih (Deuteronomy 13:13-19).

I freely admit that I still admire how the rabbis manage to use the text against itself in both cases. In the end, they make sure that there is no possibility of stoning a rebellious son. They insist that there never was an idolatrous city.

My conclusion?

Let’s face it: There are verses in Torah that would be heartless and incomprehensible and impossible to accept otherwise; we cannot, and will not conceive of putting to death a misbehaving child, and for all we know, those who wrote such verses found themselves subject to immediate reinterpretation in their very own time…

Halakha is a source of ongoing revelation. It has the power to define and redefine Jewish thinking, Jewish practice, Jewish purpose. Because we know that halakha itself invites change for the better, we have, in recent decades, invited women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews to the bimah. We were able to reconsider what was presented to us as the law and to reread the texts in a way that offered new pathways, new halakha.

I would still make this claim: Jews are asked to visit and revisit our texts in order to reinscribe them on our hearts. The reinscription is not literal, nor is it automatic. You can’t be childish about Judaism; you have to take responsibility for what you decide it is and must become.

But in the past weeks, I have had to ask myself if the rabbis’ solution is good enough. Here is the truth: The mere existence of such texts in any time and in any tradition is a dangerous thing.

Vian Dakheel 2Recently, a Kurdish Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, Vian Dakheel, pleaded for her people. She begged her brothers, again and again, she included the slaughter of Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Turkmen and Shabak. She described the butchery, the starvation, the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls.

“Mr. Speaker,” she says, weeping, “We are being butchered under the banner of ‘There is no God but Allah.’”

This example is an “easy” one. We can identify the evil represented by the Islamic State without the slightest hesitation. We can see how the injunction to doom an idolatrous city might translate into the kind of thing we are witnessing now as ISIS slaughters and destroys innocents.

I could also take an easy way into present-day politics in Israel. There are those in that state who openly call for the complete destruction of the Palestinian people. There are extremists I can cite, tactics they advocate I can describe. I can remind you of the murder of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israelis apparently of that ilk.

But what if I were to make this a much more difficult post? What if I were to say that the text about the idolatrous city is a frightening echo not only the extremist positions to be found in Israel but mainstream ones?

Look more closely at this passage in Deuteronomy and the verses that precede it. You will see that one of the most important aspects of the injunctions therein are warning the Israelites against those in their midst that can be declared traitors to YHVH.

Jews who beg other Jews to recognize the rights of Palestinians are regularly, in this country, pilloried and attacked for “betraying” Israel. How many Jews are still afraid to express their doubts after seeing the cost of this latest war – on Palestinian homes and communities, on roads and hospitals, on the elderly, on children?

We cannot so neatly and easily put the blame on Hamas for every aspect of destruction the Palestinians have experienced this past summer, and we know it. Or we should.

We need to name dangerous points of view in Israel in the same way we need to name our dangerous texts. Both present a frightening intransigence and self-righteousness. Intransigence and self-righteousness are killing people.

Dangerous speech, dangerous texts – these things must be outed and condemned, not circumvented or explained away. As the founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said, we have shit to shovel.

Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, for you will be heeding the LORD your God, doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 13:18).

What we write, we create. What we speak has power. What we excuse will haunt us.

What’s Your Workout Plan?

Lazy girlA woman goes to try on wedding dresses. The dress attendant asks: “So what’s your workout plan?”

No joke. Neither is the picture, at left, or the images you will get if you do a search for “workout plans.”  Try it, if you want to get inundated with images of what America thinks are healthy bodies.  Expect, if you have a feminist bone in your body, to find the experience upsetting.

It is, of course, incumbent upon all American brides to lose weight and turn into Kate Moss for the actual ceremony. But does a wedding dress attendant have any business asking such a question to anyone regardless of their proportions? Classify this under “rude” and “intrusive.”

Also: The question is predicated on the prevailing notion that a wedding is all about how the bride looks and that every last one wants – or needs – to lose weight.

Dress size is not relevant, heart-size is.

Just now, I am working with a mother whose child is approaching his bar mitzvah. Her anxieties about finding the right dress for her child’s bar mitzvah strike me as running along rather similar tracks. She has discussed these worries with both my husband and me. Why?

Wretched excess is par for the course at family simchas.

More than a decade ago, my then twelve-year-old son, Erik, and I attended a bar mitzvah that boasted a Caribbean theme. Little umbrellas were everywhere, along with tropical fruit decorations. The décor must have cost thousands of dollars. The family had hired a steel drum band that only knew the first part of Hava Nagila. This led to endless loops of the same opening verse, which led to dance step confusion. What about “uru.. uru achim…”?

I began to rant as soon as we left, listing all the absurd b’nai mitzvah “themes” I had seen in my life. Finally, I imploded.

“Why not the shtetl?” I asked Erik. “Let’s do something that belongs to our history. Poverty and potato soup!”

“Why not Siberia?” he asked. “Solitary confinement!”

“Why not the ghetto?” I rejoined. “Disease and dread!”

Suffice it to say that there was no theme at Erik’s bar mitzvah. There was no band. There was no catering. We had a pot luck.

We did mark the fact that Erik was reading from Parsha Noach by lining up little rubber animals we got from a dollar store on each table in rows of two. Adults played with tiny camels, anteaters, and a few dinosaurs that didn’t make it in time to the ark.

What is the purpose of such ritual celebrations?

A wedding is when two people stand publicly in holy space they have made with one another and for one another. They allow beloved family members and some friends to witness the existence of that space. Witnesses are given a window into a miracle: What (true) love looks like.

You can see the same kind of miracle at a baby naming. You can watch it unfold in the lined faces and graying hair of the couple celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. You can see it in the faces of parents watching their children leyn from a Torah scroll. You will find true love in abundance at funerals.

It is so simple for officiants and family alike: Offer the holy space of the couple’s love, the child’s miraculous (always) birth, the teen’s learning, the gifts the deceased gave to others during his or her life. Provide opportunities for tears and laughter. Understand the power of witnessing.

I interview all the couples I officiate for. During the interview I type about four or five pages of notes – single spaced, no less. I learn their story. They tell me about themselves, about sad and wonderful times, about who they want to be.

Various aspects of the ceremony come from these notes – most importantly, the message I deliver.

The message is meant to be a prose poem. Its theme is the holy and unique space that belongs to that couple. I describe the partnership they have created together, the marriage they will make.

Recently, a groom asked me for a copy of my notes. He didn’t care that they might not always be in perfect sentences and well-crafted paragraphs. He wanted the raw stuff of my message. He planned to frame each page and hang them before his wife’s desk. She would raise her eyes from her work and see the stories she had told me about the way he had become her friend, partner, lover, and husband.

I witnessed, from afar, what happened when he gave her this gift. She held up, ever so carefully and slowly, each frame. She scanned the section about her pumpkin sweater, about the way he had his grandmother’s ring resized for her.

What was her workout plan (or his)?

To create a wedding in which they could declare, with love all around them, what their love had become. To invite the small group that was present – to share and to witness the couple’s hope and to relive and revive their own.

You know, I think it worked out.

Torah of Many Gods – No One is Alone

kuntillet ajrud 02bIn the interests of fair disclosure, I am about to demonstrate that the authors of our Torah sometimes went to unusual lengths to cover up our polytheistic tendencies.

To some extent, you would not think the twisted maneuvers I am about to describe would be necessary. After all, if the Israelites hadn’t been wayward worshippers of Baal and the like, our prophets would have been out of a job.

It remains a fact that ancient scribes found various passages troubling, and they messed with them. We know this for a fact. We can identify insertions, deletions, and the like in the service of clarifying (for example) a confusing theological problem. It helps to have, in some cases, various examples of the same text to see what’s going down, but there are also other methods of discovery.

The following lesson will be based on textual comparison, though, just so you don’t think I am one of those people who will post anything that wanders into my dreams and nightmares. I know those people. My students keep quoting them.

The writers of Torah were mostly monolatrous. This is not some form of sexual deviance. Monolatry is a kind of polytheism in which one recognizes the existence of other deities for other people-groups. In the Ancient Near East, deities possess specific geographical territory. Chemosh holds sway in Moab. Marduk hangs out in Babylonia.

Here’s the important part: Your own deity is always the biggest and the bestest on the block.

The name of our national God-dude is YHVH. That’s the name. Not “Elohim” or “Adonai.” Our God has a name, and it is YHVH. To be certain, we are not exactly certain how to pronounce it, but that is the stuff of another blog (though really, you can find that information everywhere –rather like pictures of the humongous statue of Jesus in Brazil).

YHVH shows up in some rather unexpected places in the archeological record. Often, on pots. And not infrequently, given the sample sizes from the eighth century BCE, YHVH is paired with another deity whose name happens to be Asherah.

Long, long ago, in the Canaanite culture that helped give birth to Israelite culture (some historians say the Israelites were actually just Canaanites with a new look), the pantheon of deities was headed up by El Elyon, also known simply as “El.” He bossed around a number of lesser deities. Among them were Ba’al and Asherah and, it would seem, for some ancient Israelites, YHVH.

Check out Kuntillet Ajrud, an archeological site occupied between the ninth and eight centuries BCE. The site has yielded a number of inscriptions to El, Ba’al, Asherah, and YHVH. Here as elsewhere, YHVH is paired with “his” Asherah (in other texts, she is referred to as his “consort”). YHVH, for some ancient Israelites, had a wife.

Now, the text in question. Here it is, in three textual forms:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Masoretic Text (MT) Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Septuagint (LXX)
 [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.[9] For YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the divine beings (literally, “sons of god[s]”).[9] For the YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his inherited portion. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)divided the nations,when he separated the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.[9] And his people Jacob became the portion of the YHVH, Israel was the line of his Inheritance.

“Sons of men” are people groups. Who is “Jacob”? Jacob is not used just to refer to the character of our Torah, but to the whole people of Israel. Same thing for the Septuagint’s use of the name Israel. The names Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably for the Israelite nation in ancient texts. See, for example, the point at which the seer Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelite nation though he is hired to curse them:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5).

Still, no matter how you shake it, the Masoretic Text is weird. El Elyon apparently fixes the boundaries of people according to the, um, sons of Israel. Wait, what?Torah names an awful lot of people groups – we don’t ALL descend from Jacob’s loins. Let’s see: Ishmaelites, Moabites, Kenites, and so on and so forth. Weirder: the text says YHVH is given Jacob as a people group, as a “portion” of all humankind. But all humankind is from Israel/Jacob.

Scholars have long since decided that the DSS is giving us the older version of this story, in which El Elyon (that Canaanite head honcho, remember?) divided up the peoples according to the subsidiary deities of his pantheon. El Elyon gave Israel/Jacob to YHVH.

The Septuagint is trying to get a more monotheistic read by insert angels for subsidiary deities. The MT is going one better and trying to get the reader to read as though El Elyon is actually the same deity as YHVH. But the rewrite is challenging – almost nonsensical.

The Israelites were not monotheistic. Actually, most Jews today aren’t monotheistic either – not strictly speaking. Neither are Muslims or Christians. All three of us insist that there are other supernatural beings inhabiting the divine world – whether angels or demons of some sort. God is not alone.

But then, no one is.