Monthly Archives: January 2015

Weeping With God

 Before Shabbat readers,

I promised myself that I would start the new year with upbeat and spiritually uplifting essays. I thought that after such a tough year, after so many stories of loss and pain and atrocity and massacre, that 2015 would lead us into some light. But last week the loss of lives in Paris demanded a response. Surely, I thought, surely we can segue into something more affirming for this Shabbat.

Alas, I cannot. I am in mourning. Dr Michael Davidson was not a member of Beth Avodah. He was not my doctor. I never met him or his wife, Terri, a doctor and a 7 month pregnant expectant mom of three. I don’t know his 3 young children. Yet his utterly senseless – and here I would say that ‘senseless’ is truly the definitional word for this murder – has left me shaken.

I never met Dr Michael Davidson, but I look at his picture and I realize that I do know him. You do, too. He’s got a quintessentially Yiddische punim, a wide open, friendly Jewish face. You can tell he loved to laugh. You can tell he rolled around on the floor with his kids. You can’t help but smile back at the confident Jewish doctor.

The Jewish doctor. Michael looks to fit the Platonic ideal of the Jewish doctor. Cardiac surgeons are, by nature, confident and self-assured people. Would you want any other character type doing open heart surgery on you? But there’s something else that is revealed in the photo of Dr Davidson. I see a mensch. I see a doctor who took his mission of healing others seriously. I see a man who lived by these words from Maimonides’ Physician’s Oath, something many Jewish docs have seen and adopted as their own: Preserve the strength of my body and soul that they may ever be ready to help rich and poor, good and bad, enemy as well as friend. In the sufferer let me see only the human being.

When I first heard the whole story of Dr Davidson’s death, quite frankly I got very angry. How could we lose such a good man, a person devoted to healing and doing good? He was in the prime of his life with so much more to offer the world. He himself had so much more to accomplish professionally. He had so much more to anticipate as the father of 3, soon 4 children. What a loss, a loss that reverberates over time and space for his own progeny, not to mention the lives he might have saved in the operating room.

You will not hear me say that God took Michael away. You will not hear me say that God needed Michael more than this world did. No, Stephen Pasceri took Michael with 2 shots to the chest for reasons only the murderer would know.

These are the moments when pat theological constructs collapse.  To say that everything happens for a reason is to defame the memory of Michael Davidson and every other soul murdered or brutalized in this world. With complete faith I believe that God weeps with Michael’s family and friends and community. Sometimes I imagine that God spends every moment of every day weeping for all of the pain and injustice in the Universe. God forbid someone might go to his family and say the equivalent of “he’s in a better place right now”. One will never hear those words at a Jewish funeral because we don’t believe it; it’s just not true. Michael’s place is not with God; his place was here in this world with his family and his friends and his patients and his band. The only thing God needs from us is to be just and righteous among other humans, right here.

I imagine that God looks at us and wonders why we do what we do. I am certain that we surprise God every moment with our pettiness and our violent natures. We know what God wants of us and what God does not want. For better and for worse, we have free will; we have the choice to listen to God or to turn away and instead listen to our own baser and more selfish impulses.

I also imagine that God’s holiness is magnified by people like Michael Davidson who give of themselves in extraordinary ways. Life is so mysterious; the things that happen or will happen are unknown to all of us and to God as well. At any moment the randomness of the Universe will be visited upon us. The best that we can do, given the intrinsically capricious nature of life and death, is to remember that we are here to embrace the world and its inhabitants for God’s sake. Whatever we do, any love and kindness and healing we can bring into the world, with a scalpel or music or laughter or fixing a sink or correcting a test or cleaning a floor, will bring more light. Dr Michael Davidson brought beacons of light into the world before he was extinguished. What can we do? Mourn this deep and terrible loss. And then pick up the torch. May Michael’s memory be for a blessing.

Where Do We Go?

What would we be doing right now if we were a congregation in France? What would be the zeitgeist of our community? What kind of decisions would we feel compelled to make? How many new armed guards would we be hiring? What programs would be curtailed or outright cancelled? Would people come to services out of solidarity or stay home for fear of violence?

Whatever the complexities of these practical questions, I have no doubt that we would face them as resolutely as our French brothers and sisters at this moment. Whatever the answers would be, we would address them and then implement them without hesitation. We believe in the strength and the resilience of our people.

But there is another question French Jews are asking each other, THE question.  And we as American Jews have no analog experience from which to answer it: should we stay or should we go now? Or to state it in apocalyptic but honest language, is this the end of Jewish life in Europe?

The first evidence of Jews in France dates back to the 6th century. Since then Jews have experienced horrors and honors, oppression and freedom. When Napoleon made Jews equal citizens of France after the French Revolution it was a new high water mark for Jewish life in the Diaspora. It spelled the beginnings of modernity and the possibility that Jews could enter the secular world as equals to their non-Jewish neighbors. When Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jew and a career officer in the French Army at the end of the 19th century was charged with treason on trumped up charges (as a Jew he was an easy target in the terribly antisemitic French army),  there were all kinds of antisemitic incidents. Dreyfus was later cleared, but what of the antisemitism? As always, a complicated story, but perhaps part of the answer is revealed in how many Jews were rounded up in France during the Holocaust. Or is it revealed in the way France alone amongst other European nations, came to Israel’s aid in the 50s and 60s?

The story of the Jews of France is filled with point-counterpoint. What’s undisputable is the impact Jews have had on the French Republic – and vice versa. And now, in the wake of the murders in the kosher market in Paris and other recent antisemitic violence, are the Jews of France at risk? Statistically speaking, the chances of being hurt or killed in a terror attack are still greater in Israel. A new Israeli citizen from France said, “But it’s not the same thing, because here, we look out for one another. There, the feeling is that nobody will protect us; we don’t know if people on the street will help us if something happens.”

“If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” So said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. And I would agree. A judenrein France would be the ultimate disgrace of a modern nation founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and egalitie.

Would we do? Would we be planning our exit? Would we opt out? Of course I don’t know. Thank God I don’t need to answer that question. So I have the freedom to wonder: isn’t the exodus of French Jews to Israel exactly what these terrorists want? Isn’t scaring Jews to run away an old picture from a well-worn playbook? Isn’t that yesterday’s news? And isn’t it awful that in 2015 I have ask these questions?

I stand with my French Jewish brothers and sisters. If they believe that it is time for them to leave, then so be it. What would I do? As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I couldn’t bear being forced to leave a democratic nation, terrorism or not. I think I believe in making a stand. Either choice right now feels dangerous and fraught with meaning. No matter what, I am relieved that there is an Israel. I am relieved that Jews, thank God, actually have a choice. That’s the good news in all of this.

What’s My Name?

I had so hoped that this new year would somehow be better than 2014, a year that was filled with so much suffering and death. I don’t know why I let myself embrace that thought, but I did. And here we are, just inside the doorway of 2015 and the news from Paris is horrible and overwhelming. Of course I know there’s plenty of good news in the world. America has more jobs, the stock market seems secure and bullish, kids have gotten into college, the Ebola scare has been tamed, and of course, we’re here, breathing, living, connecting.

It’s not that there is bad news; it’s always been around. It’s the increasing virulence of the headlines and the worsening ways in which some humans extol killing and maiming innocent people as a statement of faith. This scourge of terrorism feels pernicious and long lived.

I actually chose the title of this week’s Before Shabbat 2 weeks ago while I was in Israel. I wanted to tell you a story about identity and Jewishness and Zionism and the different names we acquire at different phases of our lives. The title remains but the original story was wrested away in Paris.

Today I stand in solidarity with all of the journalists and writers and cartoonists and photographers and stringers and critics who risk their lives to speak out and share their thoughts and ideas. Je suis Charlie.

I mourn the loss of Stéphane Charbonnier and Jean Cabut and Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, Philippe Honore and Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat and Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Frederic Boisseau, Ahmed Merabet and Franck Brinsolaro, the 12 victims killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a raunchy political newspaper. I honor them and their bravery to lampoon the status quo. I applaud their right to “go too far” in their statements or their imagery even when I am offended by their crudity. The world needs such people to remind us of our temporality. Freedom requires us to take a deep breath and not take ourselves too seriously.

Radical Islam is utterly unable to abide diversity of opinion and belief. Freedom of thought and expression are anathema to any totalitarian regime. The mere fact that humor and the act of laughing at oneself are unlawful in the eyes of radical Islamists is absurd. That political humor, even poor or low brow humor, might provoke assassination and mayhem is beyond belief.

As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times today, “…provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.”

I have another name today. Actually it is always one of my names but usually not in French. Je suis Juif. I am a Jew. I am one of the customers at the kosher supermarket purchasing last minute Shabbat wine and a challah. Je suis Juif. I’m buying Shabbat candles with my grandson, schmoozing with the cashier about Israel. I don’t have the names of the 4 dead yet, but I know mine. Je suis Juif. I am a Jew, a vulnerable person by virtue of my name and my history. For centuries I hid from the mercurial wrath of antisemites and their ilk. For centuries I tried to avoid trouble, to do the complicated Jewish equivalent of “putting on the ole master”.

But no more. Je suis Juif. I will not go gently into that good night. I will stand for justice and for freedom, for my people, for all people. I will speak out in the face of inequity: in the USA, in France, in Israel.

I guess it was irrational to assume a new year would somehow bring us closer to a Messianic era. I see that the work for this year more than ever is to declare as did the Bratslaver rebbe, “Don’t despair.” It won’t be easy. But that’s a part of why we’re here. Nous sommes Juifs.