Straus Semikha Fellows Culminate Rabbinic Seminar with Visit to Charleston, SC

June 11th, 2018

Poyas-Mordecai House Garden in Charleston, South Carolina
Overlooking the Poyas-Mordecai House Garden on Meeting Street

As part of its ongoing study of the role of Judaism and Jews in Early America, the Program on Early America and the Jews at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought returned to historic Charleston, this time with rabbinical students, to explore Jewish Life during the Civil War. This visit served to culminate a spring 2018 Straus Semikha Fellowship that focused on “Rabbis, the Bible, and the American Civil War: Lessons on Leadership and Faith” with the goal of developing intellectual leaders of Jewish Orthodoxy in particular, and American Jewry in General. During this brief trip, the semikha fellows toured K.K.B.E Museum, Coming Street Cemetery, Fort Sumter National Monument, The Old Slave Mart Museum, Rainbow Row, The Poyas-Mordecai House, and City Market.

Pictured in front of The Poyas-Mordecai House. Moses Cohen Mordecai, prominent Jewish Charlestonian and owner of the Mordecai Steamship Line served as a member of the South Carolina Senate.
students at Fort Sumter National Monument
At Fort Sumter National Monument


A Conversation of Biblical Proportions

May 8th, 2018

Soloveichik and Podhoretz on stage in discussion

What could be better than a night at the movies with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and John Podhoretz? Especially when the movies are about Moses? In a pre-Shavuot event in a packed auditorium at the YU Museum, the two men traded pointed observations as they screened film clips, exploring the depiction of Moses on film—and what those depictions say about our times and our culture.

The program began with a clip from the most iconic of Biblical films: Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, made in 1956. The film has special effects that might seem laughable to today’s filmgoers; yet it remains larger than life, earnest in its portrayal of the Exodus, and full of cultural, social and moral themes. In a clip of DeMille introducing the film to contemporary theater audiences, he calls the Exodus story the “birth of freedom,” noting the timeliness of the question: “…whether man should be ruled by God, or by a dictator ... are they the property of the state, or are they free souls, under God.” This battle, DeMille says, continues throughout the world.

DeMille—a religious Christian whose mother was born Jewish—was his era’s Steven Spielberg, the founder of the “large-scale, ponderous, no-expenses-spared movies,” said Podhoretz, film critic for The Weekly Standard, editor of Commentary, and columnist for the New York Post. Starring a hunky Charlton Heston and featuring one of the largest sets ever created for a film, The Ten Commandments was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. It was also a uniquely American story, Podhoretz said, part of a craze of Bible movies that reflected the cultural themes of post WWII, 1950’s middle-America, a time when more Americans went to church than ever before (or since). DeMille was a staunch anti-communist, and his reference to man being “ruled by God or dictators” is a not-so-subtle reference to the “Godless communists.” Communism was on everyone’s mind, discussed in church and on “Meet the Press.” At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing—the Montgomery bus boycott happened in 1955—and DeMille, in his references to slavery, was loudly proclaiming a pro-civil rights message.

DeMille worked hard to create an accurate representation of the Exodus, from costumes to dialogue, and even filmed it on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula. (Rabbi Soloveichik noted that after DeMille finished the film he gave the tablets to Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, “so for a time, the Ten Commandments actually sat on top of Mount Sinai.”) And while DeMille does get some of the facts and timing of the story wrong, he accurately portrays a midrash that says God will speak to Moses in the voice of “his father.” With Charlton Heston as the voice of God in the burning bush, DeMille correctly depicts the idea that while Moses was raised with the Egyptians, his primary identity lay with the Hebrews, his real family. “That is the central drama of the story,” Rabbi Soloveichik said.

Sociologically, the 1950s was a time when Jews began to dominate popular culture, and when there began to emerge a “national philosemitism” that connected the American story with the Jewish story of finding a homeland. The irony, noted Rabbi Soloveichik, is that it took a religious Christian to tell the story of the Jews—while many American Jews were uncomfortable with public Jewishness.

Many find the film campy, but it can be spellbinding, Podhoretz said. This is partially because its dialogue, which is Biblically-based, solves the problem that all period films have, of sounding anachronistic. “People have a hunger and a love for films that takes us out of our own head,” Podhoretz said. “Even the unplaceable accent of Yul Brenner [who stars as Pharaoh] has the effect of making us wonder, ‘Where are we?’”

Some 40 years later in 1998, three secular Jews, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg of DreamWorks, produced the animated musical Prince of Egypt. With a voice cast that includes Val Kilmer as both Moses and God—"the only guy less Jewish than Charlton Heston,” joked Rabbi Soloveichik, the clip features a tortured Moses, full of pain and regret as he watches the plagues pummeling the Egyptians. “It’s a perfect snapshot of the American Jewish mindset, Podhoretz noted. “We’ve found paradise in America, and now we have the luxury to say, it wasn’t nice how we were saved.” In contrast, the pre-mid-20th century Jews, having survived very recent persecution, would have had no trouble celebrating God’s destruction of Egypt. “The notion that there would be deep regret is absurd,” Podhoretz said.

Fast forward to 2014, when Ridley Scott, renowned for films like AlienBladerunner and Gladiator, directed Exodus: Gods and Kings. A colossal flop that was panned by critics, it was, Podhoretz said, “a 200-million-dollar movie made in reaction to Mel Gibson’s successful and anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ.” We see a clip of Moses, submerged in mud with only his face poking above the muck (“which comes from where in the Chumash?”), talking to God, portrayed as a petulant 11-year-old boy. Podhoretz described a later scene in which Aaron watches Moses speaking with the little boy/God, but Aaron sees only Moses speaking to himself—implying that the Divine revelations in the Exodus story are delusions. “It’s an explicitly atheistic Moses as a psychotic lunatic thinking God is an 11-year-old boy,” Podhoretz said. “It’s a reverse mirror and a bizarro world image of the DeMille movie.”

Sadly, Podhoretz noted, Scott could have successfully brought the ancient era to life, as he did with Gladiator. “But the bottom line is that movies reflect their times, and there is no studio that would make a pious movie about Moses in 2014,” he said. “DeMille was a pious man, and that can’t be faked. DeMille’s movie was a movie of its time, and this is also a movie of its time. DeMille, for all his camp, was authentically insightful.”


Finding Meaning in Modernity

April 17th, 2018

On the eve of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, Leon Kass, philosopher and bioethicist, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of The Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, discussed memory, patriotism, Israel and meaning in an animated dialogue at Congregation Shearith Israel.

In his latest book, “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times,” Dr. Kass explores topics ranging from courtship to intimacy, human dignity, physician-assisted suicide, eugenics, liberal education, patriotism, and religion. Dr. Kass, a longtime professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, runs the gamut of Western Civilization. His book travels from the Decalogue to Aristotle, from Erasmus and Euripides to Herodotus and Thucydides, from the Peloponnesian War to Socrates, Plato, and Rousseau, from the Gettysburg Address to Churchill — all in inventive and eye-opening ways.

Following an introduction filled with praise, appreciation and jokes about their home town of Chicago, Rabbi Soloveichik and Dr. Kass began with the topic of memory, specifically as it relates to the commandment to honor our parents. “One of the most striking things that you write in the chapter on the Ten Commandments, is that the obligation to honor one’s father and mother is a radical innovation of the Torah,” Rabbi Soloveichik said. “How is this so?” Dr. Kass explained that this commandment was an innovation in two respects: “To place the mother in equal standing with the father is absolutely novel in the ancient world,” he said. “Second, other cultures give greatest honor to the heroes, warriors, athletes, statesmen and poets, while the Jews, in contrast, choose to honor our own father and mother.” This commandment comes on the heels of the commandment to remember the Shabbat — remembering God’s creation of the world, which was hallowed on the seventh day. “Each week we are called to remember creation, and to imitate our creator,” he says. “In the same way, we are enjoined to remember our own particular creators, whom we owe a special debt of gratitude for the gift of life and nurture.”

Rabbi Soloveichik asked about friendship, a strong virtue in Greek philosophy and for Aristotle in particular, wondering how it compares to the Jewish perception of friendship. “The Bible is relatively stingy on friendships and strong on marital love and parenthood,” Dr. Kass said. This is largely due to the differences in culture: “The Greeks celebrate maleness and gaining a name for yourself by prowess in this world, versus a way of life the core of which is to carry out the covenant made by Avraham to your children from generation after generation,” Dr. Kass said. “Friendship belongs to a world of male dominance where male-male relationships are primary.” Indeed, noted Rabbi Soloveichik, at eight days old, at circumcision, Jews are already envisioning a child getting married.

In the larger secular world, Rabbi Soloveichik pointed out, young people think of themselves more as friends then as future husbands and wives or fathers and mothers. As a University of Chicago professor for 34 years, Dr. Kass, along with his late wife, Amy, addressed this issue in a seminar called “On Courtship.” In the course, students were challenged to discover the purposes and virtues of courtship, love, sex and marriage through texts by such writers as Homer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Allan Bloom and even Miss Manners. Dr. Kass discussed the evolution of the students’ attitudes throughout the course: At the beginning, Dr. Kass said, students made comments like, “the idea of being married to same woman of 25 years is preposterous” and “relationships with men should be impermanent.” Toward the end of the course, however, attitudes had shifted; an inner self had emerged. “These students want to be taken seriously, to love and to be loved,” Dr. Kass said. “They want to make a life with someone. They’re frightened by bad examples they’ve seen around them, they’re taught all the wrong things by the general culture and by professors. But it’s not hopeless. We can encourage young people to trust their deeper selves, and put the right things in front of them.”

Moving on to the state of America, Dr. Kass and Rabbi Soloveichik discussed the Gettysburg Address. In it, as Dr. Kass sees it, Abraham Lincoln affirms the Declaration of Independence but calls for a different kind of freedom, which is directly to his overarching mission “to create for future generations an interpretation of war” that affirms the dignity of life and the principle that “all men are created equal.” He argued that “Lincoln has transformed a merely intellectual truth, held as self-evident and accessible to universal human reason (the Declaration’s formulation), into a truth requiring practical demonstration by particular people — our fathers — who dedicated themselves to doing so.” That is, Lincoln’s transformation of American politics was at its core not political at all. It was ethical, grounded in a recognition of inherent human dignity. The words of the Declaration are only the beginning, a reminder that our moral work is never finished.

Dr. Kass described spending Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel, with his children and grandchildren. He was moved by a visit to a new memorial for fallen soldiers in Kfar Etzion, which was filled with dramatic reenactments, pictures, and letters. “There’s no place in America where you can feel so immediately what this means for those still living Israelis, to feel so connected to people who sacrificed their lives here.” Reviewing the Israeli Declaration of Independence with his granddaughter, he felt, “in awe of the document. There’s something quite remarkable to see what, on the threshold of independence, people connected with thier history and set forth the values they want to live by.”

Finally, Dr. Kass compared Israeli and American students. The Israelis, he said, have a “seriousness of life,” while Americans “work forever to trace to the fundamental questions. There’s much foolishness from the brightest students, and few opportunities for discovering wisdom,” he said. “There’s cynicism everywhere and irony is applied to everything to anything people hold dear.”

But beneath the cynicism, students still possess an age-old desire for a place in the world that makes sense, “a pursuit of truth rather than lying to yourself all the time, a place in community and a connection with the spiritual and the divine.” How to access this? It will require no less than a student revolution — the radical idea that moral relativism is a lie, and that much can be learned from old books. “These books,” Dr. Kass said, “can teach us something important to help us lead a meaningful life.”