What’s wrong with ethnic jokes?

April 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Germany. I was there, of course, to learn German: that was the express purpose of the trip. But I also had felt a need to go there to find out whether Germans were a different kind of people. I wanted to see if there was some kind of obvious reason for the Holocaust.

And what I found was that Germans are not particularly different. The German university students I met were much like the students I met in the U.S. Maybe they were a little more focused, on the account of the fact that they were older. The German university system is organized a bit differently than ours. But otherwise they were thoroughly normal. You might even say: depressingly so.

The Holocaust would be easier to fathom if the Germans appeared to be a different kind of human, wholly unlike us.

While I was living there, I hung out with a group of students from a diverse list of nations: some Americans, a Spaniard, some Brits, and a German. One night we’d had dinner together and were hanging out in the dorm kitchen telling jokes in English. And so one of the students made a tasteless ethnic joke, the kind of joke that starts: “A Jew, a Frenchman and an Arab…”

So he told the joke and almost everyone laughed — or at least groaned — except for Bernd, the German man in our group. He was very quiet, and very still. Thinking that Bernd did not understand the joke – for humor is indeed difficult to translate – the joke-teller proceeded to tell the joke again. This time, Bernd slammed his fist down on the table: “I understood it the first time.”

We were stunned: where was his anger coming from?

He calmed himself and explained: “In Germany, we have a saying. Asylanten, as you know, are asylum-seekers, refugees. Ausländer are foreigners. And a Witz is a joke. So this is the saying: Asylantenwitz… Ausländerwitz… Auschwitz.

I learned something that day.

Words matter. The names we use when we talk about each other matter. Our jokes matter. We should be careful not to hurt one another, and careful to avoid marginalizing each other.

There is, as you know, a backlash in this country to the whole concept of ‘political correctness.’ It has become popular to express disdain for those who would ask that we modify our language. Political correctness is perceived as a form of whiny victimhood.

But I disagree. To the contrary: I think, for example, that the Redskins should change their name, in deference to the repeated requests by Native American groups, because ‘Redskin’ is not meant as a compliment.

I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to the misuse of Holocaust imagery. I object to the Redskin name for the same reason I object to ethnic jokes.

Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such. Yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

In other words, when it comes to hurting others, I really don’t have much of a sense of humor. We can and should do better.

On this Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, I’d like to share with you the reflection I delivered at the Days of Remembrance program in the Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh:

We approach the enormity of the Holocaust with a sense of rupture. We have this sense of rupture because the Holocaust alters our view of what can possibly happen.

Even a nation as cultured as Germany can descend into brutality, and even a people as acculturated as the German Jews can be targeted for genocide.

In confronting the Holocaust, then, we find that we have to let go of the sense that culture will serve as a brake against the worst in human nature.

Speaking from the Jewish perspective, I can tell you this: the Holocaust has forced us to reconsider our theology and worldview. What is and is not preventable? What can and cannot happen? What might we reasonably expect from God?

On the other hand, I also can tell you this: the Holocaust is not the first time that we have had to reconsider our God-concept in the face of tragedy. The destruction of the Second Temple, for example, created a similar difficulty of how to relate to God in the absence of the Temple cult.

In that context, the question was not merely the ritual problem but also a theological problem: won’t the world come apart if the sacrifices are not offered on time and in the right manner?

And the answer is no. The world won’t come apart if we don’t offer the sacrifices on time and in the right manner. The world shrugs and continues, even after tragedy, and the sun dawns again.

Yet we simply cannot abandon the project. We cannot leave the past in a clean break without finding points of continuity. We are still very much a part and product of our world. We must mourn and we must build again.

So, in the wake of the Holocaust, that means that we live with the awareness that our narrow range of experience does not predict the full range of what is possible. Humans are infinitely clever.

In the negative sense, that awareness means that we must acknowledge that the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation. Let me say that again: the world can slip into unimaginable brutality in the course of a generation.

In the positive sense, however, the reverse is also true.

What is needed, therefore, is a cautious but tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.

Blessed is the Lord, our God, who gives us the power to transcend ourselves.


Aharei Mot — ‘Guidance, Not Governance’

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I went shopping at Price Chopper earlier this week, I ended up taking an extra 45 minutes to complete my errand. And you might ask: just why did my shopping take so long? I will tell you: it wasn’t the extra burden of figuring out how to exist for one week without wheat products – that’s something I do year-round.

It wasn’t even the time spent checking boxes of matzah for the ‘kosher for Passover’ designation, making sure that the regular not-for-Passover matzah boxes didn’t migrate over to the Passover section. Because, of course, they always do.

It was, rather, time spent engaged in the kind of family reunion that happens whenever you’re shopping in the Passover section. There were five of us shopping there – members of the congregation, a couple from Montreal, and I – and it wasn’t long before we were comparing notes on cake mixes and kugel recipes. We were having a fine time, actually, enjoying the shared experience of holiday preparations.

Despite this Passover bustle, this week’s Torah portion has a different holiday in mind, one that does not involve Manischewitz pesadik blueberry muffin mix.

As we read in the portion today:

“Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. — He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” Have you guessed yet which holiday we’re talking about here?

In Israel, it’s possible to wear linen more or less year-round, so that detail doesn’t give it away. It’s hard to tell with this snippet, but it does contain an important clue: this holiday is the only time Aaron enters the Holy of Holies.

The portion continues: “And from the Israelite community [Aaron] shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” Have you guessed yet?

It continues: “Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.” That’s the original scapegoat: the goat that escapes. We are talking about Yom Kippur in this portion. It is describing one of the steps needed for atonement.

Part of the reason why it’s hard to guess the holiday is the fact that it does not match what we do now. So much has changed since then.

There is some continuity, however. As we read: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” We read that section as part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur. And we still do practice self-denial.

But even then there are changes: it used to be that Passover was the start of the year and Yom Kippur was mid-year. That’s why the portion says “in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month.” That makes some sense: Spring is a good time to start a new year.

After the Babylonian exile, however, the calendar shifted, incorporating the Babylonian’s sophistication in calculating the year. Rosh Hashanah became the start of the year, mirroring the Babylonian kingship ceremonies.

Thus we know from the dissonance between ‘what the Torah says about the holiday’ and ‘what we actually do to celebrate that holiday’ that our tradition changes over time.

Like Yom Kippur, the description of Passover in the Torah also does not match what we do now. There, Passover involves slaughter of a lamb, the use of hyssop to paint your doorposts with blood, and eating lamb while girded for travel. Now our Passover observance involves a whole lot of baked goods with an odd texture and egg salad on matzah for breakfast. But how does that kind of change happen?

I’ve spoken before about the process of change that led the Israelites to adopt prayer in place of sacrifice. Some of it is an evolutionary process; much of it is a direct response to a major event, such as the destruction of the Temple.

Tonight, however, I thought I would speak a bit about change in the Reform movement. As many of you know, I have just returned from Chicago, where I attended the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

At that conference, I attended a session taught by Rabbi Dr. Joan Friedman, regarding a central figure in the history of the Reform movement. Her book about Solomon Freehof was just named a finalist for a major Jewish book award.

At the conference, Freedman opened her talk with a discussion of how the Reform Responsa Committee was first formed. In 1906, Kaufmann Kohler, the President of the Hebrew Union College, made a presentation to the CCAR regarding the first draft of the ‘minister’s handbook.’ He explained that it would conclude with a section titled Halakhot – the Hebrew word for Jewish law. The section would provide a summary and explanation of the decisions of the CCAR on certain issues.

There was a storm of protest in response to his proposal, however, largely on account of the title. The Reform Rabbis were not interested in creating a system of biding rules for the Reform movement. A compromise was worked out: the CCAR would create a Responsa Committee to provide guidance.

Solomon Freehof, the focus of Freedman’s book, was appointed the head of the Responsa Committee in 1956. At that point, he was already a well-known and well-respected expert in interpreting the tradition. As the HUC Press notes, “Even before Freehof was named chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee in 1956, his colleagues began turning to him for guidance, especially in the situations Freehof recognized as inevitably arising from living in an open society where the boundaries between what was Jewish and what was not were ambiguous or blurred. Over nearly five decades, he answered several thousand inquiries regarding Jewish practice, the plurality of which concerned the tensions Jews experienced in navigating this open society—questions concerning mixed marriage, Jewish status, non-Jewish participation in the synagogue, conversion, and so on—and published several hundred of these in eight volumes of Reform responsa.”

According to Friedman, Freehof’s theology was grounded in a sense of ethical monotheism. He also believed that ritual and observance are human creations. His process, therefore, in writing responsa was to study the tradition, looking to it to provide ‘guidance but not governance’ – which is, in fact, the title of her book.

As a matter of fact, Freehof was opposed to creating a code of reform practice. In his view, all responsa are to be considered advisory. Thus, in writing his responsa, he was not claiming any kind of binding authority.

Let’s look at that last point a little more deeply. According to Freehof, Jewish law derived its authority from legally consititued kehillot. What does that mean? In the medieval period, Jews were not citizens of the countries in which they lived. Rather, Jews lived within kehillot, which were separate, self-governing communities.

The community would receive a charter from the local authorities to settle in a specific place; this charter would also give the community the right to manage their own affairs. And the halakhah, the system of Jewish law, would be the basis of that governance. In Europe, that situation changed after the French revolution: Napoleon granted Jews citizenship for the first time. And that emancipation of the Jews spread to the rest of Europe in fits and starts.

Thus, with the end of separate Jewish status, there were (in Freehof’s view) no more binding halakhot. All observance has since become voluntary. What remains in the absence of binding authority is minhag (custom).

In fact, according to Freehof, Jewish practice has always been developed by the people; the role of the rabbis has been to regularize it. In a sense, it has always been true that Jews will live the way they are going to live and the rabbis are playing catch up. Freedman, in describing this process, used the image of river banks directing the flow of the river. The rabbis’ function, she explained, is to find a way to make it okay. That was Freehof’s view.

There were, however, four conditions under which he would say no: He would say no to practices that were contrary to decided CCAR policy. He would say no to practices that would blur religious boundaries with regard to the Christian majority. He would say no to practices that publicly flouted known rules. And he would say no to practices that were (in his view) vulgar and tasteless.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing what is timeless and what is passing fad. Tastes change, of course, so that what’s vulgar for one generation might be perfectly acceptable for the next. And deeper changes happen as well: there might be a greater appreciation of the pain and suffering that is caused to groups displaced by our assumptions and our rules.

All of which brings us back to the Torah portion this week. Freehof could not imagine a world in which two people of the same gender would be able to be legally married in the State of New York. To the contrary, he viewed same-gender attraction through the prism of the prohibitions we find in this week’s Torah portion. But our assumptions about what constitutes normal human sexuality have changed, and that’s a good thing. It’s as it should be.

Parts of our tradition are indeed timeless – God is. Our need for ritual is. The demand to do justly is. And parts of our tradition change with time. Even Passover, one of our oldest holidays, looks wildly different than in the days of Moses. So feel free to make it your own. You, too, are a part of this tradition, a most vital part.

A Zissen Pesach – a sweet Passover to you all.

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