Just got back from hearing the megillah read to open the Purim holiday. Once again I was struck by how much King Achashverosh’s approach is a gross charicature of that which is indeed too often taken by superpowers facing ethnopolitical conflict. He’s approached by one party in a conflict between two feuding minorities (Jews and Agagites), and with no regard to the who’s responsible or who’s endangered (Haman is bent on genocide to maintain his pride), he agrees to a request for help because it comes from a traditional ally (Haman) and it’s in his economic interest (10,000 silver talents). Then, after becoming complicit in the planned slaughter of one side, he switches side based on discovering another personal interest (his Jewish wife Esther) which trumps the old one. He then abetts the gruesome slaughter of the other side (Haman’s extended family) instead.

It’s the kind of story, as the Rabbis recognized long ago, that makes someone want to get drunk.



If you didn’t know better, you might be concerned to learn that Samuel Alito touts his membership in a group which, based on its literature, seems to see the entrance of women and minority students into the academy as a threat to the university – at least if the university is Princeton:

“Currently alumni children comprise 14 percent of each entering class, compared with an 11 percent quota for blacks and Hispanics,” [Concerned Alumni of Princeton] wrote in a 1985 fund-raising letter sent to all Princeton graduates…”Is the issue the percentage of alumni children admitted or the percentage of minorities?” Jonathan Morgan, a conservative undergraduate working with the group, asked its board members that fall in an internal memorandum. “I don’t see the relevance in comparing the two, except in a racist context (i.e. why do we let in so many minorities and not alumni children?),” he continued.

…the group announced in an early fund-raising pamphlet that its goals included a less-liberal faculty and “a more traditional undergraduate population.” A pamphlet for parents suggested that “racial tensions” and loose oversight of campus social life were contributing to a spike in campus crime. A brochure for Princeton alumni warned, “The unannounced goal of the administration, now achieved, of a student population of approximately 40 percent women and minorities will largely vitiate the alumni body of the future.”…When the administration proposed a new system of residential colleges with their own dining halls, Prospect denounced the idea as a potential threat to the system of eating clubs. The magazine charged that, like affirmative action, the plan was “intended to create racial harmony.”

One might be taken aback that in applying for a promotion in the Reagan Administration, Alito offered as a conservative credential his membership in a group which see students from group traditionally excluded from Princeton (like my parents) as “vitiating” the “alumni body.” But lucky for Sam Alito, former Concerned Alumni of Princeton starlet turned conservative superstar Laura Ingraham is on hand to reassure us that any good conservative would see an influx of Blacks, Jews, and women as a threat to higher learning:

“Stop the presses!” she said. “Sam Alito, a conservative, was once a member of a conservative Princeton alumni group.”

Feel better yet?


Democracy for America just e-mailed to announce an on-line petition against Pat Robertson’s fatwa on Hugo Chavez reminding the pastor of the biblical commandment that “Thou shalt not kill.” I’d be all for spreading a little gospel to the everyone’s favorite venal, hateful, antisemitic (didn’t stop the ADL giving him an award for supporting the Israeli occupation) pastor, except for one problem: There is no biblical commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a biblical commandment saying lo tirtzach. But that doesn’t mean “Do not kill” (not reason to dress it up in Old English). It means “Do not murder.” The Torah has lots of words for killing itself, but they don’t show up in the Ten Commandments – they show up at the various points where God affirmatively commands Israelites to kill particular people or peoples.

That’s not to say that opposition to violence itself doesn’t have support in Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s just to say that opposition to killing people across the board has no more grounding in the literal meaning (or p’shat) of the Torah than, say, opposition to aborting fetuses. What the Torah is clearly against is murder – killing unjustly. And the plentiful body of (inter alia) Jewish commentary on what counts as wrongful killing provides plentiful arguments for serious discretion in the use of lethal force. One cluster of examples would be the set of restrictions on the application of the death penalty which rendered it virtually impossible for human beings to carry it out (rules like the traditional prohibition on executing anyone based on a unanimous verdict, because a unanimous verdict suggests that the jury didn’t struggle with the issue hard enough). Needless to say, there are no lack of compelling religious arguments for why murdering a democratically-elected foreign leader in cold blood is something other than a good idea.


Yesterday the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (you may remember them from their too-controversial-for-TV ads last year celebrating non-discrimination in church) made history by passing the first resolution by a Mainline Protestant denomination endorsing equal marriage rights for all couples:

It was both a theological statement and a protest against discrimination, said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the president and general minister of the denomination, which has 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members. “On this July 4, the United Church of Christ has courageously acted to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of gay – of same-gender – couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate those marriages,” Mr. Thomas said at a news conference after the vote by the General Synod.Hector Lopez, a minister from a small Latino church in Southern California, said he was not at first enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. But after officiating at about a dozen such ceremonies in Oregon and seeing the respect and commitment of the couples, he said, “I experienced a passionate conversion.”…His hope, [Thomas] said, is that “we will not run from one another, because if we run from one another we run from Christ.”

Check out the General Synod’s blog here. You can hear the Rev. Chuck Corrie’s sermon on Matthew 11 and the challenge of “discerning God’s will on difficult issues” here.

The UCC’s statement of conscience echoes the one celebrated in this obituary for Rabbi Louis J. Sigel, a driving force behind Teaneck, New Jersey’s voluntary school integration, the first such decision by a township in this country. As the author, paraphrasing Reginald Damerell’s book, writes:

Rabbi Sigel – a Torah and Talmud scholar who primarily considered himself a teacher – calmed a fractious community meeting. A law professor who was a member of Temple Emeth stood and asked why the whole community had to be “disturbed” by a problem that he said black residents had created themselves by moving into one end of town. “The temple’s rabbi, Louis J. Sigel, rose,” Mr. Damerell wrote. “His rich voice carried throughout the auditorium” as he narrated a story from the Talmud about a man who sees a fire in another part of town and asks, “What have I to do with the needs of the community?” “Sigel’s voice rose in emphasis, ‘Such a man destroys the world!'” Mr. Damerell wrote. “Applause exploded through the auditorium.” That set the stage for a resolution from the floor commending the Board of Education “for studying possible ways to prevent de-facto segregation,” the author said. It passed, thus providing the integration side with a victory in its first skirmish. Because of his pro-integration stand, some temple members wanted to oust him, his family later acknowledged, but a large majority supported him.

Recognizing that the bush is burning without being consumed, our tradition teaches, gives us the hope to pursue liberation. But it isn’t realized until we recognize that our liberation is tied up with that of our neighbors – that our homes are not secure as long as theirs are on fire.

Got the chance today to see the National Yiddish Book Library in Amherst, which is really an incredible institution. Perhaps the most interesting find was the epigraph from a Yiddish translation of the collected works of Shakespeare which read, roughly translated:

Translated and improved.

That, I think, is as concise and resonant articulation of the aspirations of Jewish history as any.

Recently I linked an EUMC report demonstrating that the rise is antisemitism in Europe comes from right-wing whites, not left-wing Arabs. Now Jacob considers another report, this one comissioned by the ADL itself, which challenges Abe Foxman view of the world and the subtext of his fundraising appeals:

Antisemitism decreases in Europe; Abe Foxman confused. The JTA’s Toby Axelrod reports on an ADL survey of Europeans that shows a significant decrease in antisemitism. At the same time, anti-Israel feeling increased. Abe Foxman, while hailing European governments that have worked to differentiate Israel from Jews, fails to do so himself and continues to equate the two.

Some thoughts on yesterday’s march:

It was gigantic. I’m not great at estimating crowds, but I’m confident saying there were significantly more folks there than the last rally I attended in DC, the anti-war one in January which drew several hundred thousand people. The organizers reported distributing over a million of the “count me in” stickers given to marchers when we signed forms identifying ourselves, which is a number I’m inclined to trust and a method which, based on personal experience, is much more likely to under-count than to over-count people. That, and just look at those photos. A truly enormous crowd (were I to use an even less scientific measure, the number of people I know whom I unexpectedly ran into at the march, I would reach a similar conclusion).

What impressed me most about this march, as I alluded to earlier, was the self-conscious manner in which it broke out of the mold of white, upper/middle-class feminist/ pro-choice activism which has too often marked the movement. The choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term was contextualized in terms of the various and urgent structures which regulate women’s fertility and impact their lives and those of their born children. Speakers and placards unapologetically tied the right to choose with the rights to a progressive welfare system, progressive immigration reform, and global sexual education. Too often, as some have observed, it’s left to the anti-choice movement to discuss the realities of urban poverty. Yesterday, the right to choose was proudly claimed as part of a comprehensive struggle for the liberation of women. Women of color, poor women, and disabled women were not only present but central on the podium and in the crowds. Cheri Hankala, of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, spoke right after Hillary Clinton.

About the big-name Democrats: There were a lot of them. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Poxer, Terry McAuliffe, Carol Mosely-Braun and Howard Dean all marched or spoke. It was somewhat heartening to see them there, insofar as it makes it more difficult for the party, or its candidate (several of whose relatives apparently were there) to Sister-Souljah the Pro-Choice movement over the next several months or once in office. And it demonstrates, God willing, a recognition that this is a constituency which will be vital to rebuilding the Democratic party.

There was, of course, a good deal of dissonance at times between the speakers, and between the narrowness of some of the more famous speakers’ messages and the agenda of the march. Hillary Clinton, proud booster as First Lady and now as Senator of a welfare reform which punishes women for having children, deteriorates their access to healthcare and childcare, and make it that much more difficult to find education and living wage work, appeared all too happy to divorce freedom of choice from liberation from poverty. Yesterday, not for the first time, Clinton seemed to get a free pass from much of the left on account of the venom directed at her from the right. I would have liked to see someone like Cheri Hankela call Clinton on the impact of her policies on women’s freedom to direct their lives. But, much like John Lewis’ planned critique of John Kennedy at the March on Washington, it didn’t happen.

There were lots of families there. There were large delegations from very “red” cities and states which in the conventional wisdom would have sent no one to a pro-choice march. I spoke to women on their first march and to others who had been to the capitol for the same cause a dozen years before. There were Doctors and medical students, some in appropriate dress, declaring their preparation to perform an operation for which others have been murdered. We Jews were very, very well-represented, particularly the Reform movement, which endorsed the March.

What most surprised me about the counter-protesters was their scarcity. They stood in a designated space along the sidewalk, maybe one every several feet, for a few blocks. Mostly they held signs holding pictures of aborted fetuses and comparing abortion to slavery and/or the Holocaust. I observed no physical confrontations between us and them.

I came away from yesterday’s march with something that many of us worked for but never saw completely coalesce in the same way within the anti-war movement (whose circumstances, of course, made such much more difficult) last year: a sense of hope and alternative positive vision. The March’s organizers, speakers, and participants effectively conveyed not only the tremendous threat posed by the Bush administration but also an incipient sense of the process of forging progressive alternatives. It was a small piece of a conversation about what it would mean to build a society which fully respected and fostered the autonomy of women and children and men over their bodies and their lives, and in so doing made possible the full flourishing of the human spirit.

In the latest round of the struggle for political license over Catholicism, Democrats, including my Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, have prepared a “Catholic Voting Scorecard” designed to demonstrate that when one integrates candidates’ stances on issues, from DOMA to child tax credit refunds, on which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken stances, Democrats are better Catholics. Personally, I’d rather see John Kerry et al articulating the kind of Catholics they are and the policies that dictates (“My personal faith and political conviction demand that we mean what we say when we promise that no child is left behind”) than touting their fidelity to the policy proscriptions of the Conference of Bishops (“I’m 74% faithful!”). But this scorecard seems worth it, if nothing else, only for having elicited this tragically ironic condemnation:

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said both the bishops and the Democrats are confusing means with motives. “Many of the issues they’re talking about really have nothing to do with actual Catholic teaching or religion,” he said. “It is interpretation of economic policy.”

As I’ve alluded to before, the modern permutation of religion in political discourse into apologetics for social conservatism and the hollowing out of the economic justice which is central to all faiths is a deeply cynical and tragic abuse of the tradition. Where Jesus preached that the meek shall inherit the earth, Congressman King insists that whether the poor will have a share of the wealth of this nation is a matter of interpretation. This reminds me of nothing so much as last summer’s declaration by the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations that “the budget is not a Jewish issue.”

Wednesday, I went from a conversation with an 1199 member at Yale – New Haven Hospital to a dinner at Yale’s Slifka Center for Jewish Life with Marvin Lender (that’s right – the one with all the bagels), prominent Jewish philanthropist and Chairman of the Board of the Hospital. The topic? Jewish tradition and business ethics.

I showed up with fifteen-some friends eager to discuss, in light of Jewish tradition: the Hospital’s three-year refusal to make a contract offer with across-the-board raises for its unionized food service workers, who’ve now twice gone on strike (although in a meeting with students a few months back, the Hospital’s Vice President for Public Relations claimed that they hadn’t, and he had to be corrected by the Vice President for Labor Relations); the paralyzing, and empirically justified, fear of the Hospital’s non-union workforce, who make significantly less than the Local 34 and 35 members who perform identical work beside them, that discussing organizing will cost them their jobs; and the Hospital’s failure, even after its latest reforms, to formulate a policy which ensures access to healthcare for New Haveners lacking full health insurance.

Lender’s response to the first few questions along these lines have two basic parts. First: He could serve on “any board I wanted to,” but “I chose Yale – New Haven Hospital” because of its work helping people. “My heart goes out” to “those poor people” who work there and “love their jobs” but “are being targeted by the unions.” The Hospital “is too busy helping people” to “get into a – excuse me – a pissing contest with the unions.” Second: Secular organizations, like Yale – New Haven Hospital, “aren’t like Jewish organizations,” in that there’s a rigid structure and so “my job isn’t to tell [Yale – New Haven Hospital President] Joe Zaccanino what to do.” The Board just “hires and fires” him. So “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific issues.”

When we questioned Lender’s categorization of a non-profit Hospital’s service to the poor and treatment of its workers as “day-to-day issues,” he became visibly more uncomfortable and markedly more curt. He was relieved to get a question from one of the couple people in the room not there to talk about the hospital, this one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spoke sympathetically and articulately about his responsibility, as a confidante and ally of leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, to pressure them to commit to a two-state solution. So I expressed my agreement with his principle that those in positions of influence over powerful leaders who’ve gone astray have a moral obligation to speak out, cited some sources from Leviticus, Megillat Esther, and Pirkei Avot to that effect, and urged him to push Yale – New Haven Hospital into line with our shared ethical tradition. His response: “Are you trying to tell me that Esther or Mordechai with Chairman of a Board?”

Lender became increasingly rude as Jared Maslin, drawing on his experience at SHOUT helping the poor file applications for Yale – New Haven Hospital’s Free Bed Fund, tried to briefly describe the process to contextualize his question. “Are you going to ask me a question or not?” Lender asked, to which Jared replied that he wanted to make sure everyone in the room could understand the situation, prompting Lender to tell him that that was a waste of time. Jared, taken aback somewhat, suggested that he and Lender could talk about the issue after the dinner, to which Lender responded adamantly, “Now we won’t.” So Jared related that his experience suggests that the application system intentionally erects intimidating and often insurmountable beuracratic boundaries to dissuade those who need assistance from seeking it, and asked Lender what he would think of giving a third-party of some kind oversight over the process. Lender’s response: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

Shaking his head in his hands during questions, Lender announced, in a supreme moment of irony, “I’d didn’t come here to talk about this. I didn’t come here to talk about the Hospital. I came here to talk about business ethics.” That just about said it all. He then accused us of being rude and insisted that he was being “respectful” anyway, and accused us of “wasting the time” of all the people there who didn’t care about the Hospital, a peculiar sentiment given that all but a few of us had come specifically to discuss with one of the most powerful leaders of the Hospital how it’s treatment of the New Haven community clashed with religious and ethical values and what he planned to do about it.

Towards the end, Lender insisted that those who wanted to talk about the Hospital should “send me a letter.” That sounds like an invitation to me.

I was all revved up to respond to this paragraph from Keith Urbahn on The Passion:

Charges of ?anti-Semitism? have been conveniently tossed around by those who object to the film?s portraying of Jews in a negative light. Ironically, many of these guardians of religious sensitivity are the same who defended the desecration of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the name of freedom of expression, and now with the tables turned, condemn the film as rabidly anti-Semitic and a breach of the norms of decency.

But it turns out James Kirchick, with whom I agree on few things, has beat me to it:

First off, there is a major difference in defending an art museum’s first amendment right to display whatever art it chooses, and advocating that the museum be forced to close the exhibit altogether. I defy Keith to find a statement from Abraham Foxman or any of the other major Jewish leaders he accuses, demanding that the government prevent Gibson from displaying his art, which is what Catholic leaders urged, and ultimately convinced, Mayor Giuliani to do in the “Sensation” episode. Second, as I remember, the “Sensation” exhibit was essentially an elephant-dung stained portrait of Mary, created by a Catholic. However tasteless that piece of “artwork” may be, it does not compare to a Catholic defaming a people of different faith.

Jamie makes the central point: that protesting the nature of a piece of art is not a parallel activity to protesting the freedom of an independant artist to create it or of a publically-funded institution to display it. Intentionally obscuring this line allowed conservative commentators to have a heyday claiming that the Ofili episode was yet another demonstration that liberals hate religion except when it’s aberrant and/or un-Christian. Keith risks echoing that line in the graph above – what exactly does it mean to say “now that the tables are turned”? Now that Jews rather than Christians are allegedly impugned? I trust that Keith doesn’t intend the nastier readings of that line – but it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase.

I do disagree with Jamie, however, on two points. The first, which is incidental, is that I agree with Jack Newfield’s account in this book that Giuliani’s stand against Ofili’s painting was much less about his bowing to pressure from the “Catholic leaders” Jamie references and much more about his ill-conceived gambit to pick up suburban votes for his senate run by sparking a controversy. Second, while I agree with Jamie that the Museum had the right to display “tasteless” art, I think to describe Ofili’s work as “tasteless” is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the piece – a mischaracterization which went largely unchallenged in the press at the time. Ofili was a Nigerian altar boy who set out to create a work to reconcile his African heritage and his Christian identity. The elephant dung was a traditional sign of respect which he incorporated into portraits of other figures as well. “The Holy Virgin Mary” was, in Ofili’s words, “a hip hop version.” I wrote more about this in the early days of this site in a post here (scroll all the way down), on a strangely fitting coda to the whole episode.

In related news, Drudge is reporting that Mel Gibson declined to appear in tonight’s Oscars because he was afraid he’d be booed. So much for redemption in suffering.

I tend to make an effort, on this site, to highlight pieces by folks I generally, sometimes vehemently, disagree with which demonstrate our common ground. On the one hand, it bolsters my case to cite supporters to the right of the upper- or lower-case left. On the other hand, I think it’s important to distinguish differences in postulates, differences in conclusions, and everything in between – to know where the real area of contestation lies. And sometimes, just because it’s reassuring and humbling to remember what we don’t disagree about.

Having said all that, I’ve made clear in the past what I tend to think of David Brooks’ arguments. The same probably holds for the arguments he would see as natural correlaries – and I would see as perversions – of the account he sets forth in column today. But his account, nonetheless of a Bar Mitzvah in the shadow of the Shoah is deeply resonant. I was also, not so long ago, a Bar Mitzvah named Joshua, and I chanted the Shama holding a Torah rescued from an atrocity which so many – one of whom I’m named after – could not escape.

The Times reports on a new national clergy lobby designed to speak from a place of religious faith in calling for economic justice, civil liberties, and ethical foreign policy, and to disrupt the conservative monopoly on religion in political discourse:

“Clergy have to be careful not to rush in with solutions to big problems, but when they see gross injustice they have an obligation not to be silent,” [Sloane] Coffin said. “The arrogance and self-righteousness of the present administration are very dangerous. And silence by members of the clergy, in the face of such arrogance, is tantamount to betrayal of the Gospel or the Torah or the Koran.”

Several of the political group’s founders are from Midwestern and Southern states, including Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, which Mr. Pennybacker called “battleground areas” in which moderate and progressive Christians have been losing their “political voice” to Christian conservatives.

Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant working with the new group, said: “There’s been a concerted effort by Christian conservatives to question the faith of people who disagree with their positions in the same way that they question their patriotism. The Clergy Leadership Network will now be the amen corner for people of faith who express disagreement with the administration and the Christian Right.”

…”In many people’s minds the words `conservative’ and `liberal’ are firmly linked with positions on lifestyle issues,” Mr. Green said. “Within such a diverse coalition, these clergy undoubtedly have congregations with different views on gay rights and abortion. But they may be able to find common ground on issues like war and peace, social welfare and the need for jobs.”

Last night, incidentally, was the first meeting of Yale’s newly revived Jews for Justice group, also in part an effort to create a space for Jews on the left to articulate a social justice agenda supported by our Jewish tradition and our Jewish values, while providing a counterbalancing voice to those on this campus and nationally arguing that only hawkish views are authentically Jewish, or that only foreign policy should be a Jewish issue.