All In a Day’s Work

Almost always, I shy away from mixing business with blogging pleasure. Too many people, I fear, would just not appreciate how I spend a good deal of my working day.

Essentially, my job at the Simon Wiesenthal Center is old-time shtadlanus/ advocacy for the Jewish people and the State of Israel transposed to the current realities of power and authority. (No, I haven’t been at it very long. Until a few years ago, I was able to spend my time on teaching Torah and kiruv.) Such advocacy always implied trying your best to think three steps ahead. Today, this attempt at foresight has to factor in multiple layers of government, the international community, NGO’s, and the different appetites of consumers of an assortment of media outlets. It means putting out fires, as hostile groups and individuals must be challenged, lest bad situations get even worse. It means looking for friends and allies in unconventional places, and developing personal relationships with them.

All of this requires developing language and techniques that are not the usual fare of the beis medrash – while reminding yourself that it is in the beis medrash you would prefer to be! Nonetheless, the difference in approach from what would be found in the beis medrash (or even in the banter in the coffee room) might be disconcerting to some readers, so I usually stay away from reporting on it.

I am going to take the risk on this one, only because it is an example, as imperfect as it might be in its execution, of having something Jewish to say about a general topic in a manner that non-Jewish friends can applaud. My experience makes me a firm believer that Jews who interact with non-Jews ought to be doing more talking about our Jewish values with our coworkers, not less. I hope that the essay that follows, reproduced from Monday’s Washington Post’s On Religion blog, will stimulate some thought among those who agree.

Background: The newly installed governor of Alabama came under major fire for telling people in a church that he regards only Christians as his brothers and sisters. A large and diverse chorus questioned whether he was suited to remain governor, rejectionist as he was of all non-Christians. Saying this on Martin Luther King Day did not help.

The remarks were ill-chosen and poorly timed. Yet, some of the criticism was over the top. My colleague Rabbi Abraham Cooper (read more about him in the long treatment in a recent issue of Ami) and I put our heads and keyboards together, and pounded out a quick alternative view. (Stories get stale very quickly; you seldom have time to wait a few days to respond.) I trust that most readers will be able to discern that the argument we advance about exceptionalism not being an impediment to humanitarian universalism has direct application to frum Jews. I will neither confirm nor deny that there might be some other subliminal messages written into the piece.

Faith Beyond Fluff and Fanaticism

Newly- minted Gov. Robert Bentley must think himself twice cursed. He discovered that the good folks in Alabama don’t take too kindly when they’re told if they are not Christian, “you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister.” On top of that, divisive words offered from a church podium on the day we honor Martin Luther King Jr. must have grated like chalk on heaven’s blackboard.

Still Bentley’s muse could yet serve up a blessing. That’s because Dr. King’s timeless legacy shouts out what Bentley could to do to regain the confidence of his constituents and peers. And it could give a boost to people of faith everywhere.

Truth be told, faith, in recent years, has taken a series of hits. Too many people associate it with fluff or fanaticism. Either it just invokes mind-numbing platitudes, or it schools mindless adherents to blow up innocents. There is either too little of it, or too much of it. Bentley’s remarks were associated with the latter. If he only sees fellow Christians as his brothers and sisters, then clearly, they think, he must reject everyone else.

It is a tragic commentary on our times that so many people think that way. It simply is not true. What is important – and this can be proven – is not how many people are included in a person’s inner group (i.e. those he or she calls brothers), but by how he or she treats all those outside of their group.

Christians, Jews, Muslims and many other religious communities sometimes reserve special privileges, affection, and in some cases, even the afterlife, for their own kind. Dr. King was a loyal man of Christian faith. It is impossible to imagine that he did not feel a special kinship to members of his own faith community, as does Bentley. Dr. King was living proof, however, that religious exceptionalism presents no barrier to breathtaking universalism. Strong religious faith properly lived can make it easier, not harder, to reach out and work for the good of the general community and all humankind.

With a heroic voice of a modern day prophet, Dr. King thundered a message that touched the inner core of many American souls. The source of his message – and often the words themselves – came from the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. King called for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, restoring dignity, taking responsibility. No matter who people identify as their brothers and sisters, they can respond to this message to heal the pain of all who bear the imprint of their Creator – the Divine Image. The authors of this essay have never met a genuinely serious Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist who did not identify with that clarion call of the biblical prophets.

Those who insist that religious belief, including identifying strongly with one’s “own,” interferes with building a better world are just wrong. Indeed, secular critics of the faithful acknowledge the data that points churchgoers give more charity outside the circle of their “brothers and sisters” than non-believers do.

Meanwhile our kids, the atomized, “what have you texted to me lately” Internet generation, that hasn’t been touched by a real life Martin Luther King Jr. stands on the sidelines increasingly turned off by adults the religious and secular zealots who profess loving their fellow man, but who actually withhold love from just about everybody who isn’t “their brother or sister.”

Which brings us back to Bentley. What can a leader, who holds strong religious beliefs and powerful secular responsibilities do? Here’s a modest proposal: At the next U.S. Governor’s Conference we urge the governor to present a resolution calling on the Congress and President Obama to make the protection of religious minorities around the world a focus of our foreign policy and human rights agenda. There are millions of Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who cannot walk safely to and from their houses of worship without fear of harassment or worse. Such a move will make his “brothers and sisters”, his agnostic and atheist constituents and a saint called King very proud of one man’s faith.

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12 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Nonetheless, the difference in approach from what would be found in the beis medrash (or even in the banter in the coffee room) might be disconcerting to some readers, so I usually stay away from reporting on it.

    Why? What’s wrong with being disconcerting while teaching new life skills, such as shtadlanut?

  2. David says:

    Excellent piece, thank you for posting. It reminded me of Rabbi Pruzansky’s article (on his blog) about the ruling against selling property to non-Jews in Israel. The upshot is that this is not about looking down at non-Jews, but rather treating our fellow Jews as family. we respect the tzelem Elokim in all people, but acheinu benei Yisrael are just that – acheinu – and we naturally show them special affection. It is so sad that people cannot understand the distinction between this and racism.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “The authors of this essay have never met a genuinely serious Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist who did not identify with that clarion call of the biblical prophets.”

    Evidently, we have a lot of unserious people around who officially revere this ideal but whose thoughts and behavior are something else.

    I also have detected seriously religious people committing terrorist acts against Jews and others; what happened there? Can you make the case that the evil Ahmadinejad is unserious about his goals?

    [YA – Any attempt to deny the validity of your point would be irresponsibly naive. Its truth, however, does not negate my point.

    Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l made a similar point decades ago. He set up a thought experiment. Imagine, he said, getting caught in a bald-face lie to Soviet Ambassador Gromyko, ym”s. Gromyko was well known to us for his glib, viscious lies on behalf of the Evil Empire, particulary in regard to Israel and the treatment of Jews in the USSR. Nonetheless, said R. Miller, if he caught someone lying to him, he would be offended, and cry out in moral outrage. People aren’t supposed to lie! What he did, he either got himself to believe, or convinced himself that he served a higher truth. He would not see himself as a liar.

    Similarly, even jihadists see themselves as upstanding, moral citizens, who would not tolerate murder. My invoking the mussar ha-neviim did not imply that I thought it would make any difference to tens of millions of Salafis and Wahabis. Paying lip service to an ideal, or even respecting it, does not mean that it is safe from practical neglect or perversion.

    OTOH, invoking patently Jewish values that are universally subscribed to does make sense in speaking to hundreds of millions of other people who have not made a pact with the Devil. Reminding them that the Western world owes many of its treasured values to the Jewish people is more than worthwhile.]

  4. Bruce says:

    Good point.

    After all, most of us have actual brothers or sisters (and parents, and children, and many other family members), and we feel a special affinity for them. But none of that precludes other sorts of great relationships, or acts of chesed, with other non-family members. By the logic, there’s no reason why special feelings of affinity towards other members of our own religious groups should preclude anything good regarding people who are not members of our own religious groups.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    “Similarly, even jihadists see themselves as upstanding, moral citizens, who would not tolerate murder.”

    They accomplish this by defining their victims as deserving to be executed. The inclusion of seriously religious Muslims as a group in appeals to mankind’s better nature seems to ignore the aggressive peculiarities of Islam itself. Are such Muslims somehow expected to discard basic tenets of their own religion?

  6. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, I don’t know if it would matter to you, but jihadists view themselves as soldiers in a war. Not being westerners, they don’t have the western distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Islam requires a reformation or reinterpretation. In the time of the Crusades the difference between the Christian and Muslim attitude toward the other (always including the Jew) was pretty similar. (Some) Christians evolved and (most) Muslims have not. There are significant numbers of Jews with exclusionist, hate-based attitudes, but behaviorally they usually stay short of violence. That is a big difference, some but not all of which may be based on two millenia of universal minority status in the world as opposed to the Christians and Muslims who possessed the sword somewhere all of this time.

  8. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Bob Miller:

    I would be wary of cursing Andrei Gromyko. In the late 1940s, as the Soviet ambassador to the UN, he made several speeches in support of a Jewish state in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. Between 1945 and 1951, the Soviet Union was a firm supporter of the Zionist cause (maybe more than the US), and Gromyko was a most supporting mouthpiece. And let us not forget that during the War of Independence, when the US was not selling arms to the infant state of Israel, Soviet satellite Czechoslovakia was.

    I have few illusions about the Communist “evil empire,” but there was a time when it was pro-Israel, and since the evil empire fell, antisemitism has become far more acceptable in those areas that were once behind the Iron Curtain.

    [YA – And I would be wary of romanticizing Soviet support of the new Jewish state, including keeping the Czech factory open to sell Israel arms. Soviet intentions were entirely self-serving. They wanted to further embarrass the British. So claims Paul Johnson. As soon as that idea lost its charm, Stalin quickly showed how much he loved Jews. And Gromyko continued his career as a lap-dog of his masters.]

  9. Miriam says:

    Well I guess there’s an example of disconcerting: the best way to appeal to morally-affiliated-but-rather-secular Westerners is to include a dash of political correctness, which here means letting it be implied that Muslims have as strong a propensity for universal moralism as any other religion.

    I particularly like the point in the essay above about action being a better indicator of one’s true ideals. But I think it’s easily missed.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Lawrence M. Reisman (January 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm) wrote,

    “Bob Miller: I would be wary of cursing Andrei Gromyko…”
    My own comment said nothing about Gromyko; that was part of YA’s note in brackets.

    Nevertheless, I would not credit the Stalinist regime for anything but acting to advance itself. Thank G-d, Stalin died before his planned slaughter in the “Doctor’s Plot” episode could take place.

  11. michoel halberstam says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein, after a long absence, it is good to see that you are still frequently so stimulating. What you say is absolutely true, and brings up a very important issue. That is, whether religious questions, when they are treated standing alone, are approached the same way as when they are treated in a social context. For example, while we would not want to say things in an essay about Judaism which casts a favorable light on religions whose basic tenets are inimical to our own, we may very well have to say things like that in a world where the prevailing tendency is to denounce and delegitimize all belief as being unhealthy. It seems clear that the Torah itself recognizes that these two cases are not the same, and that a healthy dose of ” Ain Ladayan ela ma she”eiynav ro”os” is in order.

    Bear in mind however, that within our own community, as in so many others, there is an age of retrenchment in progress. People have come to believe that rejectionism, even of long standing Jewish beliefs and practices, is the way to save the future. People have been preching for years that whatever losses are engendered by insularity, they are better than absorbing the risks of being open to the world. And here you are, working on the notion that Goyim are people too. The bottom line is however, Haemes Nitan L’heamer” Truth was given so that it may be spoken. Good luck to you.

    [YA – Those people, they should live and be well, can go on preaching, but you and I and thousands of our readers know that the losses engendered by stultifying restriction – in activity and in thought – are too severe to be borne. Don’t wish


    good luck. You are in this as deeply as I am. You were zocheh to hear a different message growing up – in your case from both Chassidishe and Litvishe gedolim. Even if you hadn’t, you are not the type to sit back and watch the suffering of families who have been devastated by the “system” without solacing them with some encouragement. You are not the type to contemplate in silence the inner agony of people wrestling with their commitment or even their emunah, because an inner voice tells them that what they read in the Letters dept of Yated is not a Yiddishkeit they can believe in or practice. You are going to whisper to them that they have not lost their sanity, nor are they alone. You may not want to rock the boat, but you are going to throw as many life preservers to those who are already in the water. Like it or not, even in your gartel, you live in the growing expanse between the two camps of contemporary Orthodoxy. You can wish me luck. I will reciprocate by telling you to chill out, and enjoy the company!]

  12. Lawrence M. Reisman says:


    My apologies. I caught that just now when I reread the post. I wouldn’t credit the Stalin regieme for doing anything other than in its own interest. However, Stalin’s help played a crucial role in Israel’s founding. And yes, his death before he could carry the “Doctors’ Plot” to fruition was an act of divine mercy.

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