What does a Rabbi tell a Bar Mitzvah in 2018?

It is natural that a lad be addressed on his Bar Mitzvah by the Rabbi. It is also expected that a lad  be more attuned to happenings in the modern secular world. A Rabbi’s holy task then, a most difficult task, is to bring the Parsha of the week, a Jewish happening, or an aligned Jewish teaching to the pulpit and to translate this into a modern, inspiring message using the language of the lad. Speeches at Bar Mitzvah ceremonies have witnessed a decaying level of Jewish content. This is manifest in “themes” that are invented and shallow.

Filling the Jewish void, is an unenviable task. It is one of the modern roles and challenges of the Rabbi. How can he steer the discussion to items of Jewish importance? It is after all a Bar Mitzvah, one of the classic days in the life of a Jewish male. The opportunity manifests itself at Shule. It’s not really the ideal place, but that’s the way it is. These days the Rabbi is unlikely to be invited to the party celebration; more evidence of Jewish decay. Imagine. The moment has come. The Rabbi has this unique and perhaps only chance to inject an authentic Jewish message into the ensuing celebration of ‘coming of Jewish age’.

It is also the week that physicist Professor Stephen Hawking dies. The Rabbi decides to couch his message in the framework of a Bar Mitzvah by adopting “role models”. Here is a great opportunity: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rivkah, Jacob, Rachel, Miriam, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Deborah; there is no shortage of personality whose example can be taught as an inspiration. It is precisely the Rabbi, who is relatively deep in Torah learning, who is able to expertly weave these Jewish role models into the tapestry of society today.

For some inexplicable reason the Rabbi chooses not to employ a Jewish role model on the day a boy becomes Jewishly relevant! Instead Nelson Mandela and Stephen Hawking are revered on the pulpit. Elements of the audience, those who have a good working relationship with Judaism, are somewhat uncomfortable given that Mandela and Hawking are paraded as the “Torah’s message to a Bar Mitzvah”.

I’m not writing to “attack” Mandela or Hawking or anyone. The two had many fine attributes. For the Jew, however, in context, let’s consider the challenges these gentlemen present to a Rabbi, and a fortiori, a Bar Mitzvah.

  1. Mandela embraced the terror-king Arafat
  2. Mandela considered Zionism as Racism and the Palestinians as the indigenous “blacks of Palestine”.
  3. Since Mandela, South Africa boycotted trade with Israel
  4. Mandela laid a wreath on the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, warmly greeting his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  5. In 1990. Mandela aroused the anger of Australian Jewish groups upon his arrival in Canberra, likening Israel to a “terrorist state” and accusing her of “slaughtering defenseless, innocent Arabs
  6. Two South African Jewish groups criticised Mandela’s meeting with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam famous for anti-Semitic remarks in the U.S.
  7. South African Jews petitioned Mandela about his approval of a $650 million sale in tank-firing systems to Syria, a move that the U.S. said would threaten foreign aid to South Africa.
  8. Mandela’s relationship with Libya was criticised by the South African Board of Jewish Deputies.
  9. The American Jewish Committee canceled a luncheon honoring Mandela, after the former president’s statements in support of Iran’s trial of 13 Jews on spying charges.
  10. In Durban, Mandela retracted statements supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and comments labelling Osama bin Laden a terrorist, upsetting the Jewish community.
  11. Of course, Mandela’s legacy is South African support for BDS.
  12. Stephen Hawking does not believe in God. (not an issue, but misplaced for a Bar Mitzvah!)
  13. Stephen Hawking decided to boycott Israel and Israeli goods whilst hypocritically only being able to function due to his use of Israeli technology (“Do as I say, not as I do”)
  14. Stephen Hawking had a macabre personal life where it is alleged he was involved in bondage style sexual machismo with his second wife.
  15. Professor Alan Dershowitz said: “Let me put it this way, Stephen Hawking would not refuse to attend a conference in a country that was equally oppressing another country, say China and Tibet, or Russia and Chechnya– it’s all about the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. You cannot understand the hatred of Israel if you eliminate the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Is that anti-Semitism? You know– you name it, I’m describing it”
  16. Although many musicians and artists have declined to visit Israel as a way of showing solidarity with the Palestinians, Hawking was the first scientist of his stature to embrace the boycott movement.
  17. In 2009, in an interview with Al Jazeera, he condemned the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza, saying it was “plain out of proportion… The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue.”
Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela

Now, to be fair, there will be those who consider Hawking “unwise” but not an anti-Semite, and those who will consider Mandela similarly. Perhaps this is something they discuss in Limud Oz.

My question though is, does a Bar Mitzvah have any knowledge about these issues? Are these going to build his authentic Jewish identity? Why does an Orthodox Rabbi not use other strings to his bow when trying to unearth a role model for a Jewish boy’s coming of age–as a person who is now commanded to keep Torah and Mitzvos.

Yes, Stephen Hawking was a brilliant physicist, but let’s keep things in perspective, perhaps? We know that Jews have been recipients of more Nobel prizes in science than any other minority group on the face of the planet! Some examples are Adolf von Baeyer, Robert Lefkowitz and Serge Haroche. As for development of contributions to science, Hawking knew all about the great Jewish scientific minds, including Albert Einstein, John Von Neumann, and Leó Szilard. Indeed, Hawking’s arguably most important result was through the modern orthodox, Kippah wearing Jew, Professor Jacob Bekenstein ז׳ל! Some consider the young Bekenstein the man who “taught Hawking a thing or two about black holes“. Hawking detracted Bekenstein’s PhD thesis at a conference and ganged up on him with two others to berate Bekenstein that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Eventually Hawking embraced the Israeli scientist’s groundbreaking ideas, which served as the basis for his own revolutionary theory that black holes give off radiation. That’s not to minimise Hawking’s contribution!

Likely, the Rabbi wanted to use Hawking as an example of someone able to overcome horrible physical constraints? Sadly, Israel has a  myriad of institutions set up to aid both financially and technologically, the disabled and maimed of Israel? These are over represented because of War. Perhaps the people who run these institutions or finance them or serve in them are inspiring examples that someone blessed to be able to walk unaided and talk unaided should follow?

Why Mandela? Was it because he sat in prison due to the fact that he was not white? Yes, that’s something we can respect: courage and commitment. In context though, I wonder if one could have used, say, the example of Chief Rabbi Lau and his imprisonment as a Jewish child in Buchenwald? The story of Rabbi Nisan Mangel in Auschwitz is another horror story of triumph. Perhaps the boy could have been encouraged to seek out and together with his friends (who will be celebrating their Bar Mitzvah in the year) support those Israelis who spent time, long time, in dark, terrorist prisons? Perhaps telling the young Bar Mitzvah boy the story of Gilad Shalit and contrasting his prison conditions to Mandelas? I have specifically mentioned examples that are recent. No doubt there are better suggestions than the ones I have mentioned. What about re-telling the towering, inspirational story of the famed Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg and his personal refusal to be freed for money.

From my vantage point it seems as if some Rabbis feel there is “no personality that is worthwhile” from an authentic Jewish religious experience that is seen fit to be employed as part of a modern sermon. Please tell me I’m wrong?

[Postscript. One of my readers and contributors, R’ Meir Deutsch davened in the same Shule as Professor Bekenstein ז׳ל and he relayed the following vignette]

I just want to mention Prof. Beckenstein who was a member of our synagogue. Had he not died suddenly he probably would have been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

During one of my lectures in the synagogue on Parashat Bereshit, I asked for his acknowledgment of some facts. Here is the interchange:

As the liturgical poet ר’ משולם ברבי קלונימוס wrote:

“אך יסדת תבל על בלימה: בהיות עולם חושך וצלמוות.”  
“Even the foundation of the world is on the brink: the world of darkness and the shadow of death.”

Chazal said (Haggiga 11: 2):
אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים”
Our Sages also say (ibid.): “Anyone who investigates  four certain things, it is better if he did not come into the world: [what are the four?] what is above, what is below, what is ahead and what is at the back.”

Tosafot interpret there “what is ahead as what was before the world was created“.
Neither the physicists nor the cosmologists know or discuss what happened before the big bang.
Professor Bekenstein!
Is it true that the whole theory begins only when the dense and hot body disintegrated and began to disperse and cool?
Professor Bekenstein responded:
“I do not want to go over Chazal’s words, so I will not discuss the subject, but I will only try to think about it.”

It’s official: thanks to Stephen Hawking’s Israel boycott, anti-Semitism is no more. The Independent

The following [hat tip Anton] is from the independent by Howard Jacobson.

Gather round, everybody. I bear important news. Anti-Semitism no longer exists! Ring out, ye bells, the longest hatred has ceased to be. It’s kaput, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. It’s a stiff, ladies and gentlemen. An EX-PREJUDICE!

I first heard the news in a motion passed by the University and College Union declaring that criticism of Israel can “never” be anti-Semitic which, if “never” means “never”, is a guarantee that Jew-hating is over, because … Well, because it’s impossible to believe that an active anti-Semite wouldn’t – if only opportunistically – seek out somewhere to nestle in the manifold pleats of Israel-bashing, whether in generally diffuse anti-Zionism, or in more specific Boycott and Divestment Campaigns, Israeli Apartheid Weeks, End the Occupation movements and the like. Of course, you don’t have to hate Jews to hate Israel, but tell me that not a single Jew-hater finds the activity congenial, that criticising Israel can “never” be an expression of Jew-hating, not even when it takes the form of accusing Israeli soldiers of harvesting organs, then it follows that there’s no Jew-hating left.

These tidings would seem to be confirmed by Judge Anthony Snelson who, investigating a complaint that the Union was institutionally anti-Semitic, encountered not a trace of any such beast, no suggestion it had lurked or was lurking, not the faintest rustle of its cerements, not so much as a frozen shadow on a wall. Indeed, so squeaky-clean was the union in all its anti-Israel motions and redefinitions of anti-Semitism to suit itself, that Judge Snelson berated the Jewish complainants, a) for wasting his time with evidence, b) for irresponsibly raiding the public purse, and c) for trying to silence debate, which is, of course, the rightful province of the Boycott and Divestment movement.

It was this same Judge Snelson, reader, who ruled in favour of a Muslim woman claiming the cocktail dress she was expected to wear, while working as a cocktail waitress in Mayfair, “violated her dignity”. Not for him the cheap shot of wondering what in that case she was doing working as a cocktail waitress in a cocktail bar in Mayfair. If she felt she was working in a “hostile environment”, then she was working in a “hostile environment”, which is not to be confused with a Jew feeling he is working in a hostile environment since with the abolition of anti-Semitism there is no such thing as an environment that’s hostile to a Jew. My point being that Judge Snelson’s credentials as a man who knows a bigot from a barmcake are impeccable.

And now, with Stephen Hawking announcing, by means of an Israeli-made device, that he no longer wants to talk to the scientists who invented it, or to Israeli scientists who invented or might invent anything else, or indeed to Israeli historians, critics, biologists, physicists of any complexion, no matter what their relations to Palestinian scholars whom he does want to talk to, we are reminded that the cultural boycott with which he has suddenly decided to throw in his lot is entirely unJew-related, which is more good news. “Peace”, that is all Professor Hawking seeks, a word that was left out of his statement as reproduced on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website, presumably on the grounds that everyone already knows that peace is all the PSC has ever wanted too.

To those who ask why Israel alone of all offending countries is to be boycotted, the answer comes back loud and clear from boycotters that because they cannot change the whole world, that is no reason not to try to change some small part of it, in this case the part where they feel they have the most chance of success, which also just happens to be the part that’s Jewish. That this is, in fact, a “back-handed compliment” to Jews, John MacGabhann, general secretary of the pro-boycott Teachers’ Union of Ireland, made clear when he talked of “expecting more of the Israeli government, precisely because we would anticipate that Israeli governments would act in all instances and ways to better uphold the rights of other”, which implies that he expects less of other governments, and does not anticipate them to act in all instances and ways better to uphold the rights of others. And why? He can only mean, reader, because those other governments are not Jewish.

I’d call this implicit racism if I were a citizen of those circumambient Muslim countries that aren’t being boycotted – a tacit assumption that nothing can ever be done, say, about the persecution of women, the bombing of minorities, discrimination against Christians, the hanging of adulterers and homosexuals, and so on, because such things are intrinsic to their cultures – but at least now that we have got rid of anti-Semitism, tackling Islamophobia should not be slow to follow.

It’s heartening, anyway, after so many years of hearing Israel described as intractable and pitiless, to learn that activists feel it’s worth pushing at Israel’s door because there is a good chance of its giving way. It’s further proof of our new abrogation of anti-Semitism that we should now see Israel as a soft touch, the one country in the world which, despite its annihilationist ambitions, will feel the pain when actors, musicians, and secretaries of Irish Teachers’ Unions stop exchanging views with it. All we need to do now is recognise that those who would isolate Israel, silence it and maybe even persuade it to accept its own illegitimacy intend nothing more by it than love.

Can the day be far away when Israel no longer exists, when the remaining rights-upholding, peace-loving countries of the region come together in tolerance and amity, and it won’t even be necessary to speak of anti-Semitism’s demise because we will have forgotten it ever existed? That’s when Jews will know they’re finally safe. Ring out, ye bells!

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