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When Silence is a Crime

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

Now featured on Time of Israel!

 

The Virtue and Crime of Silence

Silence can sometimes be a virtue. For example, when the Biblical figure Aaron lost his two sons in a tragic episode, Aaron’s silent acceptance of the Divine decree was seen as meritorious. Silent acceptance of a sad or challenging situation in one’s life, is seen by the Jewish Sages as a courageous act of faith, a virtue.

However, silence is not always the appropriate response to tragedy. Perhaps the greatest example of this kind of silence – where silence as a response to tragedy was not a virtue but a crime- was the Holocaust, which will be memorialized internationally this Sunday.

The world may never forget the six million Jews who perished in the concentration camps, but we must also never forget the hundreds of millions who watched and remained silent. The dozens of governments and heads of state who had the opportunity to intervene, but would not sacrifice military, political or even economic support to save innocent Jewish lives. The quota system in this country allowed only a handful of Jews into the United States and turned boatloads back to Europe where they were perished.

Ambassador Letters Sent to Blind Eyes

As part of an assignment I had when I was in graduate student in Columbia, I studied the letters sent by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany George Wilson to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Ambassador Wilson detailed the implementation of the various Nuremberg racial laws to the Jewish citizens of Germany, how Jews were made to give up their property and forced out of their businesses. He sent letter after letter only to be met with a response informing Wilson how to deal with American Jews who happened to be situated in Germany at the time, ignoring the plight of Germany Jewry.

The only thing more disturbing than the US government’s failure to act was the lack of reaction by members of our own Jewish community – Jews in position of authority and leadership who failed to act. Even one of President Roosevelt’s primary Jewish advisors stopped Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. from presenting to the President a plan to start a rescue policy for Europe’s Jews.

A Better Question Than “Where Was God?”

The New York Times once published a series of letters between two Jewish cousins corresponding during WWII – Julian Hess in the US and Max Schohl in Germany. Schohl reaches out to Hess, desperately seeking safe haven for himself and his family. Hess, sympathetic and motivated to his cousin’s cause, encountered one of the major hurdles that many Jews, and other immigrants, face today – a restrictive immigration quota system. In 1938, the same year as Kristalnacht, there were 220,000 applications for visas to the US at consulates throughout Germany. The annual quota for Germany that year was 27,370 – a little over 10% of the total requested. Of the annual quota, sadly, only 18,000 visas were ultimately issued.

After a failed attempt to nail down a teaching position in the US, Schohl was forced to try and emigrate his family to England instead – a feat requiring a substantial amount of money. With his business and assets frozen, he had nowhere to turn other than his cousins. Hess approached other family members and wealthier cousins, who to his surprise, were very reluctant to help out. Before the money could arrive safely, Britain declared war on Germany, making emigration to England now near impossible.

More failed attempts for Schohl followed, including efforts to emigrate to Chile. Schohl and his family wrote from Yugoslavia in 1941, but the next letter would not come for another four years. Schohl’s daughter penned the correspondence, due to her father’s murder two years prior by the German secret police.

Julian Hess and Ambassador George Wilson were incredible individuals who did everything they could to warn and save the Jewish people from the Holocaust. But by and large, they were just individuals in a world which watched in silence as Hitler continued to the next phase and proceeded to implement his final solution.

So as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, I’m sure many will ask “Where was God?” Personally, I’ll be asking “Where was man?”

(Photo is from US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Santa vs. Latkes: Fighting for a Deeper Judaism On Chanukah

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes of Manhattan Jewish Experience on Hanukkah, Chanukah

 

Since Chanukah is such a joyous time I hate to get negative. However, as a student of Jewish history and a rabbi involved in outreach, I feel compelled to respond to some of the disturbing opinions Michael Lukas wrote in his New York Times opinion piece, The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.

The first is the depiction of the Maccabees who fought against the Greeks as “violent fundamentalists” and “religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare.” Lukas must be unaware that the Greek Seleucid Empire, governing over ancient Judea, banned Jews from practicing their religion under the penalty of death. They forced Jews to offer pigs unto the Greek gods and converted the Jewish Temple into a house of idol worship and prostitution. What actions would he have had the Jewish community take? Back then, there were only two choices: Give up your Judaism or suffer martyrdom. The Maccabees defied all odds and created a third option: they rebelled and ultimately expelled the far superior Greek military force from ancient Israel. Defending your own faith from destruction does not make you a violent fundamentalist or a religious zealot. Our ancestors did the right thing in not allowing Judaism to be replaced by paganism. Had they acted differently Greek Hellenism and its pagan foundations would have replaced Judaism and the very cosmopolitan liberties and values Lukas holds so dear.

The second point is more contemporary and goes to the very heart of raising Jewish children in America today. Lukas writes how he needs to compete with Santa, “sparkly trees, ornaments and fruitcake” with Judaism’s “latkes, jelly doughnuts and eight nights of presents.” If Lucas could share something deeper about Judaism with his daughter he wouldn’t have to do so much selling and competing with Christmas. Judaism at its core offers timeless values and a heightened sense of living through its traditions, holidays and teachings. Take the Sabbath: When a child feels that because of the restrictions the Sabbath places on technology use, they now have their parents total focus and attention (at least once a week), Judaism becomes valuable in their eyes. When they encounter the pains of growing up, whether it be a struggle to fit in or spouts of bullying, they can rest assured that once each week they will have a Sabbath meal and real down time with their family and loved ones and not get sucked into the cyber world of Instagram, Facebook and the latest iteration of Candy Crush.

In my book “Beyond the Instant,” I outline other Jewish practices with endless benefits to both parents and their children, such as:

  • Praying offers time for meditation, mindfulness and awareness that yoga and other modern activities have tried to replicate.
  • The focus Judaism places on giving through acts of loving kindness and charity have been proven to lead to great happiness.
  • Reciting blessings before and after we eat develops an attitude of gratitude.
  • The Jewish High Holidays raise children with the idea that it’s never too late to change the direction of your life and improve ones character.

We will never have to compete with Santa or a Christmas tree if we raise our children to yearn for something deeper, real, and relevant. If we instill Jewish values in our children, values grounded in happiness, giving, mindfulness, and depth, we just might look into our arsenal and find a lot more than latkes and jelly doughnuts.

Type in ‘Jewish’ and ‘Money’: See What Comes Up

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 NOW PUBLISHED ON TIMES OF ISRAEL

 

 

Mark Wildes on Manhattan Jewish Experience

On November 9, Twitter user @voidmstr tweeted at Shutterstock, a leading American stock photography company, an image hosted on their site that depicts Jews as money hungry people, an age-old anti-Semitic stereotype. It took five days until the image and the related photo series were taken down. However, with a simple search of keywords “Jewish “ and “money,” the photos can still be viewed on competitor site depositphotos.com.

I cannot comment on what the intentions behind the pictures were, but we need to get answers to some fundamental questions: Are image hosting and stock photography sites remaining vigilant in keeping racist and stereotypical images off their sites and how does this play into the larger national landscape of how tech companies are manipulated by extremists to promote their hate speech?

In this specific scenario, the market of this anti-Semitic photo involves three players: the photographers that pose and sell stock photography, the websites that host their photos, and the people buying the photos. Should we place the blame on the photographers who may be responding to image requests, either by websites or by consumers? There’s no way to know the full motives behind any of the players, although one can ironically guess…money.

This question is not a first amendment issue and whether we should allow the creation of these images. The larger issue is: why are these images still popping up and mischaracterizing the Jewish people on such a popular website like Shutterstock? These kind of images draw out bigots from the woodwork, validating the racist thoughts they harbor. Just as garbage attracts flies, we must first dispose the garbage before swatting the flies.

How we tackle this issue will have real-world implications. America is facing a surge of anti-Semitic acts over the past couple of years. From Charlottesville’s white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in 2016, the desecration of Jewish tombstones in St. Louis in 2017, to the fatal shooting of 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh just two weeks ago. The Anti-Defamation League reported a rise of 60% of anti-Semitic acts in 2017.

In at least two of these major incidents, social media and online relationships played a serious role. The people who marched in Charlottesville and the Pittsburgh shooter were reported to have used social media and lesser-known, second-tier websites to spread their hate, since their speech was considered too extreme for Twitter and Facebook. One of the ways racists communicate their hate speech is through memes and doctored images. An image that may seem innocuous, such as the picture in question, is ammunition in the hands of anti-Semites who can then share on their preferred sites. The Pittsburgh shooter, for example, used a social media site called Gab to blast his anti-Semitic rhetoric with others who held similar views about Jewish people and even posted on Gab right before the shooting. The site was taken down after the shooting and has recently been put online again.

Given the known stereotypical conflation of Jews and money, no reasonable person viewing these photos would consider them appropriate. If these images can’t be used for corny or fun advertising, then exactly who are these photos for? We must hold the sites, photographers and purchasers responsible for profiting from these images. Remaining vigilant against the barrage of anti-Semitism, in all of its forms, is the only way to confront the bigotry to which the Jewish people have been subject for centuries.

Some People Take Revenge. Jews Do Something Else

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes of Manhattan Jewish Experience on Pittsburgh Victims and Jewish Revenge

The Jewish Sages teach, based on the life of the matriarch Sarah, that a righteous person never stops growing. A pious person never becomes complacent where they are, no matter what their age. That’s why one of the most striking things about the terrible attack in Pittsburgh was the age of the people killed. Their ages ranged from 55 to 97.

But they weren’t just older people – they were older people who came to shul early.

Why Come To Shul Early?

Our Jewish brothers and sisters in Squirrel Hill taken from us attended shul early because of their devotion to prayer and community – because they wanted to continue to learn and develop themselves. To honor their memory, synagogues around the world very appropriately made a push for more people to come to synagogue and, what I think is even more appropriate in subsequent weeks, is to try to come earlier.

In a letter to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue, I informed the rabbi that our community will strive to have eleven people at MJE Shabbat services on time, each and every week going forward. I told the rabbi this is not an easy task given the young age of our community and the fact that growing up, most MJE participants never went to shul on Saturdays. But I said we would do this as a way of elevating those eleven souls and our way of telling the world: we may have lost eleven holy Jews but another eleven will rise up in their place.

There’s an even deeper reason behind this campaign for more Jews to come to shul on Shabbat. It’s not just to tell our enemies: we won’t back down, we won’t be intimidated or prevented from practicing our faith. We’re saying something much deeper: by more of us coming to synagogue on Shabbat, we show how Jews deal with tragedy.

How We Deal With Tragedy

How does the Torah teach us to confront a tragedy? The Torah teaches to deal with it, even to learn and grow from the unfortunate experience, but then to move on. We confront the problem, which here is clearly anti-Semitism. We figure out the best way to deal with it but then we move on – not to forget it – but to ensure it doesn’t stop us from our mission.

In Jewish tradition mourning only lasts 30 days. The only exception is mourning for the loss of a parent, which goes for an entire year because of the mitzvah of honoring parents, but that’s the exception. For everyone else, mourning ends with shloshim (30 days) because tragedy, sadness and loss can never be allowed to prevent us from carrying on with our purpose and mission to live a life of Torah. And with regard to this tragedy, and with any act of anti-Semitism, that is precisely what our enemies want – to stop us from living as Jews.

The Jewish “Revenge”

We have a tradition of not excessively dwelling on tragedy, on mourning, or in this case on the hate and anti-Semitism. We have to talk about what happened so we can figure out the best way to keep our synagogues safe, but we don’t allow that conversation to distract us from the mission: from coming to shul and praying, from building our community and from being a light unto the world. The natural feeling after such an attack is to focus on the hate or even to try somehow to get back at our enemies. But we Jews have our own unique form of revenge.

I was speaking with my friend Charlie Harari, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. Years ago, when Charlie had his first child, he brought his son to meet his grandparents. When he walked into the room his grandparents pointed at the baby and said: “that’s our revenge against Hitler”.

That’s the Jewish concept of revenge: others may spend their lives hunting their enemies, exacting violent revenge.

But Jews?

  • We have children.
  • We build hospitals.
  • We create cures.
  • We make the world a better place.
  • We move on and we build further.

An amazing documentary on the Chasidic community in Williamsburg recorded a reporter asking a random Chasid on the street how many children he had. The Chasid looked at the reporter and without any emotion answered:

  • “Twelve”
  • “Twelve children?!” the reporter exclaimed, “are you planning on having more?”
  • “Yes, of course,” he answered
  • “More than twelve, how many kids do you plan on having?”
  • “6 million” he answered.

That’s how we come back from tragedy. We don’t get consumed with hate, we defend ourselves with vigor, but we spend our energies getting back to our mission of being a light, of keeping the mitzvoth, of studying Torah and making the world a better and more spiritual place.

How Jews Operate

Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, also happens to be the President of Allegheny General, the hospital where Robert Bowers was brought for treatment. After Dr. Cohen walked into Bowers’ room to check on him, an FBI agent on guard said to the doctor: “I’d never be able to do that.”

Most people would not be able to do that, but that’s the way we are ideally supposed to operate. We don’t allow these situations to destroy our values and bring us down to the level of our enemies. We don’t operate in their world, we operate in ours. The murderer’s nurse in the ER was also Jewish. She treated him too because we’re above acting like our enemies.

Building on their Legacy

As explained, the Jewish approach to tragedy is to deal with the pain but then to move on, but we don’t just move on. Tragedy changes us. Losing a loved one creates a void and the people who are no longer with us not only deserve to be remembered, ultimately, they leave a legacy from which we build. The Sages of the Midrash teach that after the matriarch Sarah died, the special miracles that existed in her home disappeared: the Shabbat candles which remained lit continuously, the special blessing in her dough and God’s cloud of glory which hovered over her tent. These miracles disappeared when Sarah died but when Rebecca came into Sarah’s tent, they suddenly reappeared. This teaches that Rebecca did not simply replace Sarah as the new Matriarch, but rather she built upon her legacy. Rebecca took the foundation that Sarah established, moved back into the tent Sarah lived in, and from there continued to build the Jewish people, not as something new, but as a continuation of the past. We too are not just carrying on from those whose lives were taken in Pittsburgh; we are building on their legacy.

Rebecca took Sara’s place but Sarah and her teachings were never forgotten. We live her values every day of our lives and we will carry on the legacy of those souls from Pittsburgh by continuing to come to synagogue and by living the full Jewish lives of which they were so proud. Our eleven will be their eleven. Through us, they will never be forgotten.

Rabbi Mark Wildes Featured in The Forward – “How One Rabbi Keeps Singles Safe”

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

NEW OP-ED NOW FEATURED ON THE FORWARD! Click below to view.

Rabbi Mark Wildes featured on The Forward

 

Kavanaugh & Ford: Two Jewish Principles at Stake

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

 

 

 

Rabbi Mark Wildes on Kavanaugh and Ford

Watching Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings was upsetting, shocking, and anything but bipartisan. However, if we remove all the politics involved, the situation raises two ethical issues: sexual morality and speech.

Both are fundamental Jewish principles and go to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Parshat Bereishit famously tells us: “God created man in His image” (Bereishit 1:27).

So what does it mean to be created in God’s image? There are a wide range of views of what “His image” means.

The Impact of Speech

Maimonides said that it refers to man’s cognitive abilities – that only human beings can reason/think in a certain way. Only humans can freely choose their path in life and rise above the instinctual part of who they are – something an animal cannot do.

There is another fascinating interpretation by the great scholar Onkelos. Onkelos says that what separates man from animal is man’s capacity for speech. Rashi also says this, namely, man was given something extra – “deah v’dibbur”- he writes, intellect and speech. The human capacity to speak is reflects on us as intellectual beings that are able to communicate complex thoughts.

Thus when we misuse speech, “lashon hara,” we are tainting an inherent, “Godly,” trait that makes us fundamentally human, undermining mankind’s holiness. By misusing speech, we risk losing our very humanity. We must always stay vigilant and careful about what we say to each other and the impact of our speech on others.

Sexual Morality

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick, in his comments on the Chanukah story, points out Maimonides’ very specific language in his description of what the Greeks were trying to do to the Jews:

“The Greek oppressors laid their hands on our property and on our daughters.”

That kind of attack on the daughters of Israel (during the attack, the Greeks made Jewish women submit to their officers)  went to the heart of who we are because, as Rabbi Soloveitchick wrote, sexual morality is a fundamental principle in Judaism:

“No other moral norm is as central and as important in Judaism as that of sexual modesty. Judaism held the view that human dignity and majesty can be achieved only through protecting sexual morality. If the latter is abolished, then man, no matter how agreeable and creative, forfeits the extra existential dimension that the Almighty granted him.”

The Rav refers to our sexual identity as an “extra existential dimension” – a gift that goes to the essence of who we are as human beings. Therefore, acting in a way which violates another’s sexual integrity can cause that individual to feel less than human because, like speech, it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are.      

Not Out of Our Control

We can’t control what happens on Capitol Hill, but we can try to make sure that in our own lives and in our own community we treat these two areas – speech and sexual propriety, the holiness, respect and utmost of seriousness they deserve.

The Jewish community is not immune to what we see happening all over the country, including inappropriate sexual advances and badmouthing that can ruin a person’s reputation. In the last few months, I’ve had to bar two individuals from coming to MJE: one who I became convinced was inappropriately touching women (who very bravely came forward) and another who spread unfounded/unsubstantiated claims about someone else. Both refused to acknowledge or apologize so both are no longer a part of our community.

Jewish law is very clear: we must never say anything untrue about another person. Even something which is true, but negative, we must learn to keep to ourselves UNLESS it is necessary to protect ourselves or to protect another from harmful or wrongful behavior. Then it becomes a mitzvah to say something. Speaking out in that kind of circumstance should be seen as an act of heroism, because – in all probability – you won’t only be saving yourself, but also the next victim.

If we can learn to get this right, we will fill our lives and our community with the kind of holiness our world so desperately needs and ensure we remain true to the divine image in which each and every one of us was created.