Archive for September, 2016

imagesI was at the Anchorage Museum looking at an exhibit displaying the backgrounds of the various native American groups that have and are inhabiting Alaska. Here is the quote from one that made me pause for a minute, “Our name for ourselves is Inupiaq (the real people).” Instantly I thought of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” where we hear that the Lakota refer to themselves as the “human beings.” I then noticed another Alaskan tribe’s description in the museum and they referred to themselves the same way – as the “human beings.” As I walked the display, it turns out that a number of tribes referred to themselves as “real people” or “human beings.”

It should be no surprise that we Jews are not the only folks with a tradition of being unique, chosen. I am not going to critique the feeling of uniqueness in Jews or any group. It is a common part of ethnicity. What is unique about the Jewish tradition of being chosen is how much debate and discussion has occurred through the centuries over what that really means. Is it a quality of being select? Does it imply greater responsibility? Perhaps, it means adopting a set of ideals and religious approach to life that is different from other groups?

That is the overarching theme I glean from parashat Shoftim. “When you come to the land that Adonai your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do the abhorrant things of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 18:9) The immediate context of this verse specifies certain practices, not putting your children through a trial by fire, no magicians, diviners or other practices that lead from basic morality and truth. Moses is trying to teach that the society the Israelites are supposed to form is one that operates on a different standard than those of other nations.

This instruction becomes elevated when one considers the opening verses of Shoftim. These command the Israelites to create a just court system, highlighted by the phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, usually translated as “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Thanks to the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, this command takes us to a more complex and deeper level. Simply pursuing justice would not make the command to the Israelites unique. All cultures claim to pursue justice. Justice, however, is a relative term. It is too unqualified, open to abuse by authoritarian figures. Hebrew, however, allows us to read the word tzedek in other ways. We can translate the word also as righteousness. The system of justice we are commanded to create is to be guided by righteousness and moderated by mercy. But that is not all. The same Hebrew letters, tzadik, daled, kuf, also form the root for tzodek, which means factually correct. The justice system, indeed society, is to be informed by facts, not by falsehood. Why else would the rabbinic amplification of this system emphasize the need for witnesses who can testify to facts.

A society based on these three translations of the word tzedek: justice, righteousness and factual truth, would be a unique society indeed. It would create a nation unlike all other nations. These values are relevant not just to Jews. These are core values that Americans believe make our nation an exceptional nation. Each one is present in our founding documents. As our country has grown and aged, we have adapted the initial precepts to changing times. For example, the phrase “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence meant white property owning males in 1776. Today we operate (at least ostensibly) under the assumption this phrase really means “all humans are created equal, no matter what race or gender.” The precepts of justice are outlined in numerous amendments to the constitution. The guarantee of a free press, is a recognition not only of the right to diversity of opinion, but the necessity for a media independent enough to report facts without repercussions from the government.

These are the essential ideals of our country. Rather than exceptionalism based on tribe (our country is an amalgam of tribes), American exceptionalism is based on our founding principles. The Israelites were commanded to create a nation that did not do as the Canaanites did. Our founding fathers tried to create a system for our country no nation had ever attempted. The American experiment was a model and inspiration for many around the world. The potential for people to live in freedom with the opportunity for prosperity has attracted generations of immigrants who have contributed to the building of this country.

But now times are changing. We can legitimately ask if we are adhering to the ideals that made America exceptional. Because too many in our country see our exceptionalism expressed not by our principles, but by our power. Freedom and opportunity are not for all, but for those deemed as acceptable. That is the problem with those who state they want to “make America great again.” They do not mean a return to our founding ideals of justice, righteousness and facts. They mean a reinforcement of a system that returns favor and power to a select few. They see change and diversity as threats to be defeated, as opposed to assets to be harnessed.

Look at reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Yes, there are elements in that movement that we can question. Yes we must be careful not to demonize those police forces who are doing a great job in their communities. But to deny the existence and persistence of racism and its impact on African Americans is just covering truth with excuses. And it is not only racism against blacks that exists. The rise of Islamophobia, of anti immigrant rhetoric and more blatant anti-Semitism are all embarrassments that too many in our country refuse to acknowledge.

Why? Because we have turned away from the value of facts. Our media is not a free press that presents facts and then offers diversity of opinion on those facts. It is a series of silos which attract like minded people and offer them spin to confirm and inflame their latent feelings. When a self described news site like Breitbart states that Huma Abedin is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not interested in facts but in stirring the prejudiced emotions of its readership. We value those who bully and feed our worst instincts rather than those committed to righteousness.  We see strength as making loud, assertive statements and not in hard policy decisions. We are allowing the definition of justice to be driven by what benefits a select few instead of what best serves the majority of our population. We are too open to a system of justice driven by fear of people of color, of immigrants, of those who do not practice the majority religion.

Is America an exceptional nation? We like to think we are. It will be for you to determine.

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This week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the iconic comedic actors that my generation watched in movies we consider as classics. I can trace my maturing from adolescence to college to adulthood via Gene Wilder movies. I like pretty much all of his work from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Everyone, of course, has their favorites. And I suppose that mine should be “The Frisco Kid,” the hilarious story of a rabbi from Poland trying to find his way across the wild west – it has so many funny Jewish references and insights. However, my very favorites are two of the ones he did with Mel Brooks: “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Both films met with controversy during their development as well as their initial releases. Both tread ground no one dared to walk, showing disdain for the political correctness of their day. Both have moments where I still laugh so hard that I cry – even though I have seen them multiple times.

Brooks always wanted Zero Mostel to play Max Bialystock, but it took Mostel’s wife to convince him to take the role. The original Leo Bloom was supposed to be Peter Sellers, but that did not work out. Brooks then remembered he had spoken to Wilder about the role a few years earlier and cast him. “The Producers” was originally titled “Springtime for Hitler.” It was an idea Mel Brooks had been developing for years before he actually produced it. Major studios rejected the movie “Springtime for Hitler,” saying the idea of using Adolf Hitler for comedy was over the top tasteless. Brooks would say in numerous interviews that the best way to degrade the most vile dictator of the 20th century was to mock him, to make him the butt of jokes. His script for the 1968 film won an academy award. In 2001 he converted it to a musical play that won 12 Tony’s. Yet, even in 2015, some folks protested the play and the film’s mocking of Hitler, saying having Nazi’s parade around the stage in musical numbers is in bad taste, an insult to those who suffered through the Holocaust.

The premier of “The Producers” in Pittsburg, November 1967 was a disaster. The movie studio was ready to shelve it. But Sellers saw it privately and supported its general release. Reviews were mixed. But what do reviewers know? To me the movie is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is brilliant in its absurdity.

“Blazing Saddles” also morphed a lot through its production. The original title was supposed to be “Tex X,” a kind of spoof on Malcolm X. Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, was supposed to play Sheriff Bart, but apparently the studio would not issue insurance on him. So the part went to Cleavon Little. Brooks offered the part of the Waco Kid to John Wayne, who turned it down but promised to be first in line to see the movie. It was then given to Gig Young, who collapsed on the set early in the shooting. So it went to Wilder.

Reaction to “Blazing Saddles” was as mixed as the reaction to “The Producers.” Many thought it was hilarious, and indeed it was a box office hit. Others were offended by the frequent use of the “n” word. Brooks pointed out those protests were mostly from whites. However, the movie was incredibly politically incorrect even beyond the language, such as when former NFL star Alax Karras, in his role as Mongo, punched and decked a horse. Or when Madeline Kahn, as Lily von Schtupp, seduces sheriff Bart. One of my favorite moments is when Mel Brooks, as the Indian chief, is shocked at seeing black people and says in Yiddish, “Hast du gesehen deine leiben (have you seen anything like this in your life)? They’re darker than we are!”

Both movies challenge our sense of propriety. Both make us uncomfortable while at the same moment trying to make us laugh. Do we dare see Hitler as funny? Is he being mocked or trivialized? Do we dare laugh at the raw racism depicted by the language and attitudes in “Blazing Saddles?” I think Brooks is correct when he states this movie could never be made in today’s politically correct culture.

To put these questions in the context of this week’s Torah portion; do we see these movies as a blessing or a curse? Are they just crude attempts at humor or insights into our cultural foibles? The very first word of the portion is re’eh, the imperative form of the verb “ to see.” God commands the Israelites to “see” that the existence of blessing and curse if before us. In Nitzavim we are told to choose blessing and live or to choose curse and die. Here we are told that if we follow God’s commands given that day, we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed. We are then to pronounce the blessing from Mount Gerizim and the curse from Mount Ebal. So what are the commands given that day? Well actually, just one, to “see.” If we combine the references to blessing and curse from this week’s parashah and Nitzavim, we can understand that we are commanded to see the existence of blessing and curse; to acknowledge them and to choose our path.

Traditionally, we look at this under the mitzvah system. If we obey we get blessed. If we do not we get cursed. But I would “see” this a bit differently. We are commanded to look at things and to judge if they are blessing or curse. We are to make the choices based on what we see and from our choices we can build a life of blessing or a life of curse. Even more, can we see that the potential for blessing AND curse exists in each thing, and how we choose to react or to handle each thing determines the degree of each in our lives. While we are told to declare blessing from one mountain and curse from another, the truth is we do not live on either mountain, but at some point in between. How close we move to one mountain or the other depends on the choices we make and the attitudes we choose to embrace.

That is why I am so intrigued by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” Each represents a life puzzle. Each can be seen as funny and insightful or as awfully insulting. If we follow God’s command and “see” them in the context of life’s choices, how we choose to frame life, we will learn something about ourselves. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will better understand why we feel blessed or cursed. Our reactions to these movies can teach us a lot about who we are. And we can laugh a lot while we learn.

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