12/24/20

Kushner: Crimes, Misdemeanors and Philanthropy

[I first published this blog post on 12/06/2006.]

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime,” my friend Charlie used to assure me on the golf course as we discussed the meaning of life. He exaggerated to make his point that it is commonly understood that people break laws in the pursuit of wealth. Lately we don’t have to look far to find proof.

When the wealthy donate the products of their ill-gotten gains to charities we face some meaty moral issues. Do yeshivas, synagogues and federations have the obligation to investigate the source of the munificence that donors offer? How far must they go to be sure that the money is clean and that the donor is not a crook? Are there circumstances when accepting money from a scoundrel is morally right?

In a recent local example Harold Kushner, a billionaire real estate developer and businessman in Essex County, made substantial donations to Jewish charities including Yeshiva University and a local yeshiva, subsequently named after him, the Kushner Academy. Now said individual has been arrested for allegedly paying prostitutes in an effort to suborn the perjury of witness that could testify that he made illegal contributions to political candidates.

This is not a “great crime” but the full story of Kushner’s fortune has not yet unraveled. We may derive some moral guidance in today’s scandal ridden times at what some people argued regarding earlier ill-gotten gains.

Back in the eighties New Yorker, Ivan Boesky made millions of dollars through the exploitation of illegal insider information. He did not earn his fortune honestly and through hard work. We know that he broke laws with impunity.

12/16/20

The Celebrity Archetype in Jewish Prayer: A chapter from my book "God's Favorite Prayers"

A chapter from my book.

The Celebrity’s Prayers

Aleinu

(Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ, “upon us”) or Aleinu leshabei'ach (“[it is] upon us to praise [God]”), meaning “it is upon us or it is our obligation or duty to praise God.” A Jewish prayer recited at the end of each of the three daily services. It is also recited following the New Moon blessing and after a circumcision is performed.

—Wikipedia, Aleinu

 

M

y quest for perfect prayer and for spiritual insights evolved, not just at synagogues on the ground but also one time during my davening on a jumbo jet flight at an altitude of 39,000 feet and a speed of 565 miles per hour. That is where, by happenstance on an airplane in 1982, I met Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, an ultra-nationalist writer and political figure and, later, a member of the Israeli Knesset.

I recognized Kahane right away when I saw him on the flight. He was a famous New York Jew. In the 1960s and 70s, Kahane had organized the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Its goal was to protect Jews in New York City's high-crime neighborhoods and to instill Jewish pride. Kahane also was active in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate from Russia and to immigrate to Israel. By 1969, he was proposing emergency Jewish mass-immigration to Israel because of the imminent threat he saw of a second Holocaust in an anti-Semitic United States. He argued that Israel be made into a state modeled on Jewish religious law, that it annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it urge all Arabs to voluntarily leave Israel or to be ejected by force.

It was then, by coincidence, that I traveled with Kahane on a long Tower Air flight to Israel. As was common on flights to Israel, a few hours after takeoff, Jewish men gathered at the back of the plane. As the sun became visible in the Eastern sky, they formed a minyan, kind of an ad hoc synagogue. In this unusual and somewhat mystical setting, I prayed the morning services with the rabbi and others at the back of the jumbo jet.

12/12/20

What is Hanukkah?

As the Talmud asks, What is Hanukkah?

If you are wondering what is the official meaning of Hanukkah as presented in Jewish liturgy, here is the text we insert for the holiday, no spin added,
And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.
But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.

You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

The Hanukkah Avatar

Hanukkah has its avatar. I wrote about this in my classic book, "God's Favorite Prayers."

...The concept of avatar has several meanings. First an avatar can be an embodiment or a personification of a substantial idea, for instance, "the embodiment of hope"; "the incarnation of evil"; "the very avatar of cunning." In some respects I describe in this book how the prayers serve as avatars of several diverse personalities. In this sense I can say that the Amidah is an avatar of the priest.

An avatar in the context of religions can have another meaning. In specific it is a manifestation of a Hindu deity, particularly Vishnu, in a human, superhuman or animal form. As an example of how the term is used is, “The Buddha is regarded as an avatar of the god Vishnu.” In this sense of the term, I created my archetypal avatars, such as my “priest,” as representatives of the core values that inhere in the prayers...

... The most recent technological application of the word avatar denotes a computer user's self-representation or alter ego, in the form of a three-dimensional model within a computer game, or as a two-dimensional icon picture on a screen, or as a single-dimensional username within an Internet community.

... On two special occasions, Hanukkah and Purim, we add paragraphs to the Amidah to describe the victories of heroic Jews of the past. I see these hero figures as avatars of the priest.