On Yom Kippur, a Rabbi Reflects on the Generations

Oct. 19 2016

As his Yom Kippur sermon this year, Rabbi David Wolpe shared with his congregation a letter he had just written to his father, himself a pulpit rabbi, who died seven years ago. Among other recollections, family dinners—always at 5:30, in case his father had to return to the synagogue—stand out:

If you ask what I miss most about my childhood it isn’t the field or the basketball court, it’s the dinner table. That’s when we would get stories—everyone from Samuel Johnson to Rebbe Naḥman [of Bratslav] to your teachers at the seminary. Just the other day I told someone your story about [the Jewish Theological Seminary’s distinguished professors] Alexander Marx and Louis Ginzberg and the elevator. How Ginzberg, whom you and your classmates called “the old man” and you always thought of as the greatest scholar you had ever known, invited Marx for Shabbat. And Marx realized that he lived on an upper floor so he asked Ginzberg if it was permitted to use the elevator on Shabbat and Ginzberg said “no.”

So Marx dutifully trudged up all the many flights of steps, only to see Ginzberg stepping out of the elevator. “I thought you said it was not allowed!” exclaimed Marx. “But I didn’t ask,” said Ginzberg.

You loved that story. But you loved so many stories, relished them, rolled them around your tongue. One would lead to the next. . . .

One thing I knew would happen and could not change is that every day there are things I want to ask you. Sometimes I think I might know the answer but would still like to ask you. . . .

And then there are sudden glimmers. How often since you are gone have I opened a book in my library and discovered your notes or underlining on the pages? It brings me closer to you, although it is agonizing sometimes that I cannot ask—what were you thinking when you wrote this? Why did you read this, and did you like it? And now every time I underline a book I wonder as well: will [my daughter] Samara have the same experience one day, open this book and wonder what I was thinking?

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More about: Family, Jewish Theological Seminary, Religion & Holidays, Yom Kippur

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations