Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Pope and integrity

The Pope . . . and Truth

It is not every day that I agree with the Pope.

After all, to say the least, we have several non-trivial theological differences.  There is also the matter of the history of the Church, and its relationship with our people, and frankly, many more matters than I can list in this essay.

Today, however, I must say that I stand firmly with the Pope in a position that he took last week.

While many of my co-coreligionists may not be aware of it, on October 27, 2011 Pope Benedict XVI invited some 300 religious leaders, and tellingly, some non-religious leaders, to the city of St. Francis to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the signature achievements of his predecessor.  John Paul II convened a “ World Day of Prayer for Peace” on Oct. 27, 1986; an event that was part of that pontiff's historic opening to other faiths, the legacy of which is now known as the "Spirit of Assisi."  During that event one could witness, along with a traditional Catholic prayer, Zoroastrians tending a sacred fire,  Buddhists chanting to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, and a Native American medicine man in traditional headdress calling down the blessings of the "Great Spirit" while smoking a peace pipe.  The event was immortalized by a picture showing all the various religious leaders standing together in their distinctive dress under the great banner of peace.  This convocation was one of the great moments in cementing John Paul's place as a great promoter of peace, coming as it did shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Interestingly, however, not all of the Pope's Catholic brethren were positively infused by the "Spirit of Assisi." Several prominent leaders of the Catholic Church split with Rome because of it. One of the strongest critics was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, who told an interviewer that Assisi "cannot be the model" for such encounters. The cardinal later wrote that "multi-religious prayer" of the kind offered there "almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith." 

In other words, to believe that all faiths have an equal claim on the truth – that in fact truth is a relative concept and there is no one absolute ultimate truth – is to strip one's faith of any real content by giving equal validity and credence to mutually exclusive points of view.  One cannot believe that the Christian Savior was the son of God, and at the same time offer full validity to those who deny this claim; One cannot accept Mohammed as a true prophet bringing a new truth to the world, while at the same time rejecting his teachings as inconsistent with G-d's law, and so on and so forth, if there is to be any real content to one's faith.   As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, he wished to "make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts" but in the substance of what different religions claim."  A seemingly obvious position, but one that is rejected by much of the intelligentsia of the Western world, who believe in moral relativism and the absence of an objective truth about G-d and the universe.

Now that Cardinal Ratzinger is known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, he found himself in a bit of a dilemma in squaring his beliefs with the honor that he owed his beloved predecessor, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his works of Peace; including peace between and among the various faiths.

The pope's solution was ingenious.   Rather than advertising this day as being about a “ Prayer for Peace”, the day was advertised as a “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World”.  Invited to participate were not only religious leaders but agnostics who are seekers of Truth, and in fact the pontiff devoted his concluding remarks to welcoming them and joining with them in Unity.  The various invocations were not “prayers” so much as calls for a united stand for peace and against war and terrorism, acknowledging that in our world today there are those who, most unfortunately, kill in the name of religion as well as those who target people of faith.

To those listening carefully, this was masterful diplomacy in which: the cause of Peace was truly honored, respect was shown to those who practice a great variety of faiths, while  at the same time avoiding any joint prayer or acknowledgment of the truth of those other beliefs.

As we now begin the study of our Patriarch Avraham with the onset of Parshiot Lech Lecha through Chayei Sarah, we see lehavdil, a similar tension.

On the one hand, Avraham Avinu, through the force of his kindness, courage, and integrity was universally acknowledged as a Prince of G-d  among men, a beacon of light admired by all (see Bereishis 14:18-21, and  more so, 23:6).  He more than held his own with the Kings of Sodom, the Emperor Nimrod, Abimelech, and the Pharaoh, all of whom had different beliefs than did he, and garnered their respect for the Almighty.  He sought good for all mankind, praying even that  G-d spare the presumably atheistic and depraved society of Sodom & Gomorrah.

Yet on the other hand, Avraham is also known as Avraham HaIvri (Abraham the Hebrew), which according to our Tradition means:  Avraham was the one who stood to one side against the whole world.  Living in the midst of their pagan and polytheistic, and even atheistic cults (the Tower of Babel was a formative experience of his youth), Avraham stood tall for his monotheistic belief system and was even thrown into a fiery furnace rather than recognizing the idolatrous cult of Nimrod as the relative truth.

Avraham's life is a testament to the importance of being able to live and proudly proclaim the unique truth of one's faith while garnering the respect and admiration of all the people of his time, very much including the religious leaders.

So kudos to the Pope.  While I strongly disagree with his religious views, I salute him for his honesty in not pretending that he agrees with mine, and allowing us to hold each other in mutual respect.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Much has been, and will continue to be written, about the calamity that was Hurricane Sandy.  Thousands rendered homeless, millions without power; an incalculable loss of money, possessions, any sense of security. . . the full extent of the suffering  is really beyond comprehension.  Economists claim: “There has not been such devastation affecting so many participants in the US economy before.”   That is to say, even when compared to the trauma  of 9/11/2001.  Although there was far more loss of life at that awful time, the calamity did not directly injure as many people as Sandy has.  For the American Orthodox Jewish community in particular, I am not aware of any incident that directly affected so many with serious hardship as this hurricane.  In fact, as time goes on, it seems that the impact is growing, as the scope grows larger and larger.

How do we think about such a tragedy from a theological perspective?   What message is Hashem sending us with such a large megaphone?   Although I claim no special insight into His inscrutable ways, it would seem that Chapters 40 and 41 of Yeshayahu are particularly germane.  (I was drawn to looking at this section, in part, due to its being the Haftorah of both Parshat Lech Lecha, immediately before Sandy, and Bereishit, two weeks before.) My thanks to Rav Yaakov Shulman of Brooklyn for pointing this out.

Chapter 40 begins with the famous words

 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
"Comfort ye, comfort ye My people," says your God

With these words we begin the seven weeks of consolation that lead from the depths of Tisha B'Av to the heights of Rosh Hashana.  In the ensuing verses the prophet describes the Almighty as being far beyond the plans of mortal man, as He arranges for the time that Jerusalem and Zion will be restored to their proper place of world prominence, inhabited once again by His beloved people. Gently, with great love, the great shepherd will come and gather up his lambs from the clutches of their enemies.  For after all, He is so much greater than any of his creatures, who are like a drop from a bucket; mere dust before Him.  All will know that:

כָּל הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ לוֹ
All the nations are as naught before Him; as things of no value are they regarded by Him.

The prophet surveys all human activity, all the artisans, the princes, all those who think they have their own power, and
גַם נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם
He blew on them, and they dried up, and a storm shall carry them away like straw.

If we would only
שְׂאוּ מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי בָרָא אֵלֶּה
Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these

we would know that

וְקוֵֹי הֹ' יַחֲלִיפוּ כֹחַ יַעֲלוּ אֵבֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִים יָרוּצוּ וְלֹא יִיגָעוּ יֵלְכוּ וְלֹא יִיעָפוּ
But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire

and thus have the power to face all that life can throw at us, confident that He will grant us strength and the capacity to deal with all adversity.

Actually, this was Hashem’s plan from time immemorial:

מִי פָעַל וְעָשָׂה קֹרֵא הַדֹּרוֹת מֵרֹאשׁ אֲנִי יְהֹוָה רִאשׁוֹן וְאֶת אַחֲרֹנִים אֲנִי הוּא
Who calls the generations from the beginning; I, the Lord, am first, and with the last ones I am He.

The islands (Bahamas?  Cuba?) first will see& fear, then the areas that are on the end of land (seacoast? Jersey shore?) will be terrified:
רָאוּ אִיִּים וְיִירָאוּ קְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ יֶחֱרָדוּ קָרְבוּ וַיֶּאֱתָיוּן

The islands shall see & fear; the ends of the earth shall tremble; they have approached and come

Some will think themselves mightier than the storm; they are not mightier than G-d's word; they feel that their works can hold Him back:

 וַיְחַזֵּק חָרָשׁ אֶת צֹרֵף מַחֲלִיק פַּטִּישׁ אֶת הוֹלֶם פָּעַם
 אֹמֵר לַדֶּבֶק טוֹב הוּא וַיְחַזְּקֵהוּ בְמַסְמְרִים לֹא יִמּוֹט
And the craftsman strengthened the smith, the one who smooths with the hammer [strengthened] the one who wields the sledge hammer; he says of the cement, "It is good," and he strengthened it with nails that it should not move.
They build, they fortify, build with nails and cement, they think themselves impervious to G-d's power; that the work of their craftsmen will be able to withstand whatever the Almighty has in store.  After first reassuring His people that they will survive all that will transpire:
אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ
 אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
Do not fear for I am with you; be not discouraged for I am your God: I encouraged you, I also helped you, I also supported you with My righteous hand.

He tells those that oppose Him that

 תִּזְרֵם וְרוּחַ תִּשָּׂאֵם וּסְעָרָה תָּפִיץ אֹתָם וְאַתָּה תָּגִיל בַּהֹ בִּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּתְהַלָּל
You shall winnow them, and a wind shall carry them off, and a great storm shall scatter them, and you shall rejoice with the Lord, with the Holy One of Israel shall you praise yourself.

And though that great wind will cause tremendous destruction, which will lead to widespread hardship and the demolition of His enemies, Israel is called upon not to have fear:

 וְאַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתִּיךָ זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי
But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me,

Those that oppose Hashem will be gone:
הֵן יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיִכָּלְמוּ כֹּל הַנֶּחֱרִים בָּךְ יִהְיוּ כְאַיִן וְיֹאבְדוּ אַנְשֵׁי רִיבֶךָ
Behold all those incensed against you shall be ashamed and confounded; those who quarreled with you shall disappear and be lost.
As the chapter ends:

הֵן כֻּלָּם אָוֶן אֶפֶס מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם רוּחַ וָתֹהוּ נִסְכֵּיהֶם
Behold them all, their deeds are naught, of no substance;
wind and nothingness are their molten images.

Thus, in brief, the prophet warns later generations that a time will come before the end of days when, primarily through the power of wind, He will show once and for all, that man's arrogance, as expressed through the objects and structures he builds, strengthened or not with cement and nails, are no match for the Almighty when he allows his wind to blow and cause havoc and destruction.   Using just wind, a barely tangible medium, He can easily wipe away the strongest structures of Man.  Virtually all that Man creates is after all, according to the wisest of all men, mere הבל הבלים, vapor and emptiness.  (In modern Hebrew הבל  is the vapor that is created by a breath on a cold day, for a moment looking like it exists and gone in an instant).

Again, one hesitates before suggesting what lessons we are being taught. 

Some are suggesting that in keeping with Parshat Lech Lecha, rather than rebuilding ruined homes here, it is time to take the insurance money and head, finally, to Eretz Yisrael.  While I agree with the sentiment, and feel that in general all of us need to ask ourselves constantly whether we are justified in not taking advantage of the blessed opportunity our generation has been given to move to our true home, I recognize that this might not be the answer for everyone at this time.

And so, we rebuild here in the USA.  But as we rebuild, perhaps we ought to reflect.  Do we really need to build the types of mansions that so many Orthodox Jews have built themselves?  With the “tuition crisis” and the struggles facing so many worthy institutions, with the many people struggling to keep up with the demands being made for shuidduch “neccesities” and the economic crisis in Eretz Yisrael, is it not time to perhaps rethink some of our priorities?  Are we really going to rebuild as if we are staying in the Five Towns and Seagate and Belle Harbor for the next hundreds of years?   Is it not obscene that, as I heard just the other day, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan is completing a new building that will cost close to 50 million dollars?   Has “Next Year in Jerusalem” been reduced to nothing more than an advertising campaign for tour operators who bring crowds for the holidays who have absolutely no interest in staying? Have we not lost our minds?

Let us fervently hope and pray that all the suffering should end, that everyone is restored to their homes in safety and blessing, and that the losses, financial or otherwise, be restored and then some.

But let us not forget this wake up call, and think again about the momentous hour in which we have been given it.