A Tale of Two Worlds
Rav Moshe zt”l repeatedly referred to American as a medinah shel chesed – a country of lovingkindness, particularly when it came to being hospitable to traditional Jews. Sitting with the Los Angeles Police Commissioner last night while eating some kosher-and-cholov-Yisroel food drove home the point. [Cholov Yisroel means that even the milk used in the dairy products was produced under supervision.]
We were gathered in the Tom Bradley Room, the highest point of City Hall, one of the landmarks of downtown LA. It is a small room, no more than about fifty feet on a side, occupying the top of the building’s tower. A special elevator had to be built to take people there, but it is well worth the trip, offering a magnificent 360-degree panorama of the city. We were part of the Religious Forum, a group of religious leaders who meet periodically with the top brass of the LAPD to keep the department attuned to the pulse of the quilt work of communities that comprise the City of Angels.
Hatzolah sponsored the kosher food. This group is appreciated in LA not only for their wonderful work, but apparently because they are the first such community-based group to ease the burden upon overworked city personnel. As such, they are courted as models and potential trainers for future groups in other parts of the city.
The Chief made a presentation, but most of the civilians in the room were there to ask questions or make suggestions directly to the head of the Department. I waited my turn, and then asked whether the Department was prepared to offer training to religious groups to help them look for suspicious objects. I noted that Israeli citizens were far better equipped to look out for the cheifetz chashud / suspicious object, and how to differentiate it from the backpack carelessly left behind. We should draw on their experience.
A guest from South-Central spoke about a different explosive situation. He noted that a particular stretch of inner city artery provided on hot summer Sundays a combustible mixture of ethnicities that amounted to a “time bomb” waiting to go off. He questioned whether traffic flow patterns might be redirected to defuse the problem.
The speaker, an African-American pastor, was dignified, calm, and spoke with concern that was palpable. He noted two drive-by shootings in his community just the day before. The irony hit me. We were both concerned about explosions, but neither of us was attuned to the one the other was talking about. Gang violence and street gatherings that get out of hand are just not the concerns of the Orthodox redoubts of our city. My foil, on the other hand, just didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the potential for death that depended upon whether or not Islamofascists flex their muscles here in LA. He was too preoccupied with people dying in the here and now. I resisted the temptation to even feel triumphalistic, let alone to express it. Those feelings have to evaporate in the face of real human anguish. I did feel complete cultural separation, though. We could have been living on different planets.
I took my time leaving. My real purpose in coming was to make the acquaintance of leaders of other faith groups, as part of what I do in one of my day jobs. I must have been one of the last to get down to the parking lot, but when I walked towards my car, I spotted the fellow who had asked the question about the demographic tinderbox in his community. I introduced myself to him, and he responded with both a smile and a few words of Hebrew, which he had been carefully studying.
He knew the words for “brother” and “brotherhood.” He then began talking about “yiras Elokim” – reverence for G-d. I couldn’t resist doing what I often do at friendly meetings with Christian clergy, particularly the more Bible-thumping types. I ask them to recall the source of Biblical phraseology. So I asked him if he knew the first place that the Bible used the very phrase he had just pronounced in Hebrew.
I fully expected him to get flustered and give up, but he came back with the right answer without batting an eyelash. It appears in Genesis 20, as Avimelech upbraids Abraham for announcing that Sarah was his sister, rather than his wife. It was my turn to be flustered.
The best defense is a good offense. To alleviate my own discomfort, I pressed on with another question. I asked him how he understood the dialogue between Avimelech and Abraham. Avimelech by now has been warned by G-d of dire consequences if he should lay a hand on her. He essentially asks Abraham, “What did we ever do to you that you should treat us like a bunch of criminals? Do you take as for primitives? We have laws in this country, and we respect them!” Abraham answers, “I saw that there is no yiras Elokim in this place.”
Why didn’t Abraham just answer the question, without making speeches about the religious piety of the natives? My friend was interested; I had him hooked. I told him what the Malbim wrote in the middle of the 19th century. Abraham did answer the question. Avimelech protests that they are civilized and law-abiding. Abraham counters “Show me a legal system that is not based on a firm belief in a Supreme Being Who rewards and punishes, and I’ll show you a system I won’t trust for beans.” Unless moral behavior grows out of a commitment to G-d and His teaching, it can be bent at will or ignored.
He was clearly pleased by this message. I realized that not only had I made a friend, but that we had found the one area of cultural intersection that brought our worlds a bit closer together. Our theologies are vastly different and incompatible, but we both cherish the Word of G-d.
Three times a day, at the end of Alenu, we daven that one day Hashem will become King of the entire world. Sometimes, we don’t realize that vast parts of the world population have a head start on the process. Like the Rambam wrote in the closing lines of the original (since censored) version of the Yad, the vocabulary will not be a new one.
In the meantime, we ought not to underestimate the power of the Book, at least in some cases, to generate respect for the People of the Book.