Revised Mission of this Blog

I have decided to take stock of this blog, and blog writing in general.  As such, I began a second blog as a spinoff, called The World of Pastoral and Spiritual Care.  I will be using that blog as a place to post about chaplaincy and other issues related to health care. 

As such, this blog needs to also be revamped.  I am looking at this blog as a general blog for me to post what I consider interesting reads.  In general, the posts will be about:

  • Politics
  • Israel
  • Divrei Torah I have read of interest
  • Other areas of Jewish Thought which come to mind. 

I will also state, as I did on my other blog, that while I will work on posting more frequently, my minimum goal is to post at least once a week.

The Hillary Moment

I just couldn’t resist posting this op-ed piece from Monday’s WSJ.  It is quite fascinating to see many in the Democratic world thinking that Obama is not the strongest candidate that they could nominate for 2012.  To me, it goes back to something I said in 2008.  At the time, I argued with many that the Democratic party made a strategic error by running Obama.  The chronology shoud have been Hillary in 2008 with Obama as VP.  Then, a hoped for second term in 2012.  By 2016, Obama would have had 8 years of experience as VP, which would have been enough time to learn the ropes of Washington.  Of course, history didn’t play out this way, so now many in the Democratic party are clamoring for Hillary. 

The Hillary Moment
President Obama can’t win by running a constructive campaign, and he won’t be able to govern if he does win a second term.
By PATRICK H. CADDELL
AND DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

When Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson accepted the reality that they could not effectively govern the nation if they sought re-election to the White House, both men took the moral high ground and decided against running for a new term as president. President Obama is facing a similar reality—and he must reach the same conclusion.

He should abandon his candidacy for re-election in favor of a clear alternative, one capable not only of saving the Democratic Party, but more important, of governing effectively and in a way that preserves the most important of the president’s accomplishments. He should step aside for the one candidate who would become, by acclamation, the nominee of the Democratic Party: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Never before has there been such an obvious potential successor—one who has been a loyal and effective member of the president’s administration, who has the stature to take on the office, and who is the only leader capable of uniting the country around a bipartisan economic and foreign policy.

Certainly, Mr. Obama could still win re-election in 2012. Even with his all-time low job approval ratings (and even worse ratings on handling the economy) the president could eke out a victory in November. But the kind of campaign required for the president’s political survival would make it almost impossible for him to govern—not only during the campaign, but throughout a second term.

Put simply, it seems that the White House has concluded that if the president cannot run on his record, he will need to wage the most negative campaign in history to stand any chance. With his job approval ratings below 45% overall and below 40% on the economy, the president cannot affirmatively make the case that voters are better off now than they were four years ago. He—like everyone else—knows that they are worse off.

President Obama is now neck and neck with a generic Republican challenger in the latest Real Clear Politics 2012 General Election Average (43.8%-43.%). Meanwhile, voters disapprove of the president’s performance 49%-41% in the most recent Gallup survey, and 63% of voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, according to the most recent CNN/ORC poll.

Consequently, he has to make the case that the Republicans, who have garnered even lower ratings in the polls for their unwillingness to compromise and settle for gridlock, represent a more risky and dangerous choice than the current administration—an argument he’s clearly begun to articulate.

One year ago in these pages, we warned that if President Obama continued down his overly partisan road, the nation would be “guaranteed two years of political gridlock at a time when we can ill afford it.” The result has been exactly as we predicted: stalemate in Washington, fights over the debt ceiling, an inability to tackle the debt and deficit, and paralysis exacerbating market turmoil and economic decline.

If President Obama were to withdraw, he would put great pressure on the Republicans to come to the table and negotiate—especially if the president singularly focused in the way we have suggested on the economy, job creation, and debt and deficit reduction. By taking himself out of the campaign, he would change the dynamic from who is more to blame—George W. Bush or Barack Obama?—to a more constructive dialogue about our nation’s future.

Even though Mrs. Clinton has expressed no interest in running, and we have no information to suggest that she is running any sort of stealth campaign, it is clear that she commands majority support throughout the country. A CNN/ORC poll released in late September had Mrs. Clinton’s approval rating at an all-time high of 69%—even better than when she was the nation’s first lady. Meanwhile, a Time Magazine poll shows that Mrs. Clinton is favored over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 17 points (55%-38%), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry by 26 points (58%-32%).

But this is about more than electoral politics. Not only is Mrs. Clinton better positioned to win in 2012 than Mr. Obama, but she is better positioned to govern if she does. Given her strong public support, she has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington.

President Bill Clinton reached a historic agreement with the Republicans in 1997 that led to a balanced budget. Were Mrs. Clinton to become the Democratic nominee, her argument would almost certainly have to be about reconciliation and about an overarching deal to rein in the federal deficit. She will understand implicitly the need to draw up a bipartisan plan with elements similar to her husband’s in the mid-to-late ’90s—entitlement reform, reform of the Defense Department, reining in spending, all the while working to preserve the country’s social safety net.

Having unique experience in government as first lady, senator and now as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton is more qualified than any presidential candidate in recent memory, including her husband. Her election would arguably be as historic an event as the election of President Obama in 2008.

By going down the re-election road and into partisan mode, the president has effectively guaranteed that the remainder of his term will be marred by the resentment and division that have eroded our national identity, common purpose, and most of all, our economic strength. If he continues on this course it is certain that the 2012 campaign will exacerbate the divisions in our country and weaken our national identity to such a degree that the scorched-earth campaign that President George W. Bush ran in the 2002 midterms and the 2004 presidential election will pale in comparison.

We write as patriots and Democrats—concerned about the fate of our party and, most of all, our country. We do not write as people who have been in contact with Mrs. Clinton or her political operation. Nor would we expect to be directly involved in any Clinton campaign.

If President Obama is not willing to seize the moral high ground and step aside, then the two Democratic leaders in Congress, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, must urge the president not to seek re-election—for the good of the party and most of all for the good of the country. And they must present the only clear alternative—Hillary Clinton.

Rabbi Sacks on Vayera – family values

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks uses the brief dialogue of aqeidat Yitzchaq as his impetus to discuss the lack of family values that pervades the current world.  He blames the riots in England on the lack of good parenting on the part of the recent generation, as it led to disaffected youth who could do nothing more than violently riot during the summer.  I would offer a couple of comments on R. Sacks’ piece.

1.  I am not sure the single line of dialogue between father and son should be the impetus for this type of discussion.  The opposite just might be the case.  While the Torah only records that which is relevant to advancing the story, it seems strange that our forefathers have little communication with their parents.  Abraham and Isaac only talk in this story.  Isaac and Jacob have the one dialogue leading of the bracha Isaac gives him after being deceived.  It is only with Jacob do we see an involvement in his children’s lives (not always at the right time, but at least he tried).  My point is that while words don’t always leave as much of an impression as action, there is something missing in the Torah’s description to warrant the lesson R. Sacks tries to derive here.

2.  I do agree that the value of Shabbat includes the idea of family structure, allowing families to have a time in once a week to actually focus on themselves rather than on outside issues and situations.  Yet, I am not sure that we can make the jump that Shabbat itself is enough to show that Jewish values are greater than secular values.  Values are only as good as those who practice them.  And, the whole package can be valuable if the practitioners show sincerity.  

Walking Together

There is one image that haunts us across the millennia, fraught with emotion. It is the image of a man and his son walking side-by-side across a lonely landscape of shaded valleys and barren hills. The son has no idea where he is going and why. The man, in pointed contrast, is a maelstrom of emotion. He knows exactly where he is going and why, but he can’t make sense of it at all.

The God who gave him a son is now telling him to sacrifice his son. On the one hand, the man is full of fear: am I really going to lose the one thing that makes my life meaningful, the son for whom I prayed all those years? On the other hand, part of him is saying: just as this child was impossible – I was old, my wife was too old – yet here he is. So, though it seems impossible, I know that God is not going to take him from me. That is not the God I know and love. He would never have told me to call this child Isaac, meaning “he will laugh” if He meant to make him and me cry.

The father is in a state of absolute cognitive dissonance, yet – though he can make no sense of it – he trusts in God and betrays to his son no sign of emotion. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

There is just one moment of conversation between them:

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22: 7-8)

What worlds of unstated thoughts and unexpressed emotions lie behind those simple words. Yet as if to emphasise the trust between father and son, and between both and God, the text repeats: Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

As I read those words, I find myself travelling back in time, and in my mind’s eye I see my father and me walking back from shul on Shabbat. I was four or five years old at the time, and I think I understood then, even if I couldn’t put it into words, that there was something sacred in that moment. During the week I would see the worry in my father’s face as he was trying to make a living in difficult times. But on Shabbat all those worries were somewhere else. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. We walked together in the peace and beauty of the holy day. My father was no longer a struggling businessman. Today he was a Jew breathing God’s air, enjoying God’s blessings, and he walked tall.

Shabbat was my mother making the food that gave the house its special Shabbat smell: the soup, the kugel, the lockshen. As she lit candles, she could have been the bride, the queen, we sang about in Lecha Dodi and Eshet Chayil. I had a sense, even then, that this was a holy moment when we were in the presence of something larger than ourselves, that embraced other Jews in other lands and other times, something I later learned we call the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

We walked together, my parents, my brothers and me. The two generations were so different. My father came from Poland. My brothers and I were “proper Englishmen.” We knew we would go places, learn things and pursue careers they could not. But we walked together, two generations, not having to say that we loved one another. We weren’t a demonstrative family but we knew of the sacrifices our parents made for us and the pride we hoped to bring them. We belong to different times, different worlds, had different aspirations, but we walked together.

Then I find my imagination fast-forwarding to August this year, to those unforgettable scenes in Britain – in Tottenham, Manchester, Bristol – of young people rampaging down streets, looting shops, smashing windows, setting fire to cars, robbing, stealing, assaulting people. Everyone asked why. There were no political motives. It was not a racial clash. There were no religious undertones.

Of course, the answer was as clear as day but no one wanted to say so. In the space of no more than two generations, a large part of Britain has quietly abandoned the family, and decided that marriage is just a piece of paper. Britain became the country with the highest rate of teenage mothers, the highest rate of single parent families, and the highest rate – 46% in 2009 – of births outside marriage in the world.

Marriage and cohabitation are not the same thing, though it is politically incorrect to say so. The average length of cohabitation is less than two years. The result is that many children are growing up without their biological father, in many cases not even knowing who their father is. They live, at best, with a succession of stepfathers. It is a little-known but frightening fact that the rate of violence between stepfathers and stepchildren is 80 times that between natural fathers and their children.

The result is that in 2007, a UNICEF report showed that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world – bottom of a league of 26 countries. On 13 September 2011, another report by UNICEF, compared British parents unfavourably with their counterparts in Sweden and Spain. It showed that British parents try to buy the love of their children by giving them expensive clothes and electronic gadgets – “compulsive consumerism”. They fail to give their children what they most want, and costs nothing at all: their time.

Nowhere do we see more clearly the gap between Jewish and secular values today than here. We live in a secular world that has accumulated more knowledge than all previous generations combined, from the vast cosmos to the structure of DNA, from superstring theory to the neural pathways of the brain, and yet it has forgotten the simple truth that a civilisation is as strong as the love and respect between parent and child – Vayelchu shenehem yachdav, the ability of the generations to walk together.

Jews are a formidably intellectual people. We have our Nobel prize-winning physicists, chemists, medical scientists and games theorists. Yet as long as there is a living connection between Jews and our heritage, we will never forget that there is nothing more important than home, the sacred bond of marriage, and the equally sacred bond between parent and child. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav.

And if we ask ourselves why is it that Jews so often succeed, and succeeding, so often give to others of their money and time, and so often make an impact beyond their numbers: there is no magic, no mystery, no miracle. It is simply that we devote our most precious energies to bringing up our children. Never more so than on Shabbat when we cannot buy our children expensive clothes or electronic gadgets, when we can only give them what they most want and need – our time.

Jews knew and know and will always know what today’s chattering classes are in denial about, namely that a civilisation is as strong as the bond between the generations. That is the enduring image of this week’s parsha: the first Jewish parent, Abraham, and the first Jewish child, Isaac, walking together toward an unknown future, their fears stilled by their faith. Lose the family and we will eventually lose all else. Sanctify the family and we will have something more precious than wealth or power or success: the love between the generations that is the greatest gift God gives us when we give it to one another.

Shabbat Shalom

Election 2012’s great religious divide

The issue of religion and politics continues to be a hot button item during elections.  Whether it is the question of Obama’s religious ties or Romney and his Mormonism, people want to know what drives a candidate.  I do think certain situations might warrant Americans to be wary of voting a particular candidate in.  Nevertheless, most of those running for the presidency tend to be more aligned with the expediency of one’s political views than one’s religious beliefs.  Having said that, I know most Americans do care about a candidates religion, though usually when there is a fear of negative influence.  We have seen people scared off by Bush’s evangelical, born-again rhetoric, as well as others who were/are fearful of the unknowns of Obama’s religious beliefs (which is not the subject of this piece).  In the following Washington Post op-ed, the author appears to want to question the candidates about belief might influence policy.  For Conservatives, this piece does leave a bad taste as it seems the issue is only an issue because of the Republican primaries, when in 2008, when Obama’s religious affiliation came up, it was ignored by the same writers as are asking about it now. 

Election 2012’s great religious divide

We have embarked on yet another presidential campaign in which religion will play an important role without any agreement over what the ground rules for that engagement should be.

If you think we’re talking past each other on jobs and budgets, consider the religious divide. One side says “separation of church and state” while the other speaks of “religion’s legitimate role in the public square.” Each camp then sees the question as closed and can get quite self-righteous in avoiding the other’s claims.

Anyone who enters this terrain should do so with fear and trembling. But a few things ought to be clear, and let’s start with this: The Mormon faith of Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman should not be an issue in this campaign. Period.

In the United States, we have no religious tests for office. It’s true that this constitutional provision does not prevent a voter from casting a ballot on any basis he or she wishes to use. Nonetheless, it’s the right assumption for citizens in a pluralistic democracy.

All Americans ought to empathize with religious minorities because each of us is part of one. If Mormonism can be held against Romney and Huntsman, then everyone else’s tradition — and, for nonbelievers, their lack of religious affiliation — can be held against them, too. We have gone down this road before. Recall the ugly controversy over Catholicism when Al Smith and John F. Kennedy sought the presidency. We shouldn’t want to repeat the experiences of 1928 or 1960.

But to say this is not the same as saying that religion should be excluded from politics. The test should be: To what extent would a candidate’s religious views affect what he or she might do in office?

Many beliefs rooted in a tradition (the Virgin Birth, how an individual keeps kosher laws, precisely how someone conceives the afterlife) are not relevant in any direct way to how a candidate would govern. In the case of Mormonism, those who disagree with its religious tenets are free to do so but they should argue about them outside the confines of a political campaign.

Yet there are many questions — and not just concerning abortion — on which the ethical and moral commitments that arise from faith would have a direct impact on what candidates might do in office. Those should be argued about. My own views on poverty, equality and social justice, for example, have been strongly influenced by Catholic social thought, the Old Testament prophets and the civil rights preachers. Religious conservatives have arrived at convictions quite different in many cases from mine, after reflection on their own faith and their traditions.

Neither they nor I have a right to use the state to impose such views on religious grounds. That’s the essence of the pluralist bargain. But we can make a religious case for them if we wish.

This leads to a conclusion that the philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain reached some years ago: “Separation of church and state is one thing. Separation of religion and politics is something else altogether. Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time — always have, always will.”

That is entirely true. It’s also not as simple as it sounds. For if religious people fairly claim that faith has a legitimate place in public life, they must accept that the public (including journalists) is fully justified in probing how that faith might influence what they would do with political power.

Religious people cannot have it both ways: to assert that their faith really matters to their public engagement, and then to insist, when it’s convenient, that religion is a matter about which no one has a right to ask questions. Voters especially have a right to know how a candidate’s philosophical leanings shape his or her attitudes toward the religious freedom of unbelievers as well as believers.

And here’s the hardest part: We all have to ask ourselves whether what we claim to be hearing as the voice of faith (or of God) may in fact be nothing more than the voice of our ideology or political party. We should also ask whether candidates are merely exploiting religion to rally some part of the electorate to their side. The difficulty of answering both questions — given the human genius for rationalization — might encourage a certain humility that comes hard to most of us, and perhaps, above all, to people who write opinion columns.

A little bit of Justice

With the release of terrorists in exchange for Shalit, the emotions we experienced were complicated.  However, I just came across a blog post that indicates that those terrorists who murdered American citizens (and I assume those who were accomplices) can be tried by the US courts. 

America Can Prosecute Terrorists Freed by Israel

by Nathan Lewin

On August 9, 2001, Ahlam Tamimi, a member of Hamas, drove a suicide bomber to the Sbarro restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem, where the bomber blew himself up, killing 15 people including Judy Greenbaum, an American citizen from New Jersey. On March 5, 2003, Abigail Leitel, a 14-year-old Baptist schoolgirl born in New Hampshire, was killed, along with 14 Israelis, by a suicide bomber who exploded a bomb on a Haifa bus.

Three Hamas members — Fadi Muhammad al-Jabaa, Maedh Abu Sharakh, and Majdi Muhammad Amr — plotted that deadly attack. On September 9, 2003, a Hamas suicide bomber slew seven people — including American citizens David, a doctor, and Nava Applebaum, who was his daughter and was to be married on that day — at Café Hillel in Jerusalem. Ibrahim Dar Musa helped plan that bombing.

The perpetrators of each of these murders of Americans violated American criminal law and could be prosecuted in American courts. Yet all of them are now free and living in Jordan or Gaza because Hamas demanded that they be released from Israeli prisons in exchange for Hamas’ release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who Hamas captured and held in captivity for more than five years.

Since the Antiterrorism Act of 1990, it has been a capital crime under American law, punishable by “death or imprisonment for any term of years or for life, or both,” to “kill a national of the United States, while such national is outside the United States.” A conspirator in such a crime can get up to 20 years imprisonment. No statute of limitations precludes prosecution of old offenses.

Another law, passed in 1994, made it a federal crime to use an explosive bomb “against a national of the United States while such national is outside of the United States.” In 2002 Congress authorized prosecution in American federal courts of anyone who, with criminal intent, injured “a national of the United States” outside the United States by detonating “an explosive or other legal device in, into or against a place of public use” or “a public transportation system.”

Prosecutions have been brought in American federal courts against individuals responsible for bombings that killed Americans in the Philippines, Colombia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Many of the individuals accused of these crimes were brought here for trial following their extradition, on the request of the United States, from foreign countries. American prosecutors have not, however, charged the Hamas perpetrators of bombings in Israel such as the 2001 and 2003 bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa, even though American citizens were murdered in these attacks. They have relied on the Israeli legal process to arrest and punish the perpetrators.

Tamimi, al-Jabaa, Sharakh, Amr, and Dar Musa were prosecuted and convicted in Israeli courts. They and other perpetrators of these murders received either multiple sentences of life imprisonment or long prison terms. Until they were released by Israel’s government under duress in order to bring Gilad Shalit home, they expected to spend the rest of their lives in Israeli prisons. They are now free in Jordan or Gaza.

The Department of Justice should now indict, extradite, and put to trial in United States courts, under American law, these killers of American citizens. Jordan has an extradition treaty with the United States that covers all offenses “punishable under the laws in both Contracting States by deprivation of liberty for a period of more than one year or by a more severe penalty.” A conspiracy to commit such an offense is also covered by Article 2(2) of the treaty.

No provision of any extradition treaty should preclude bringing these criminals to justice in the United States. The Jordan treaty bars extradition for “political offenses,” but it would be hard to claim that the mass terrorist killings of civilians in Jerusalem and Haifa were only “political offenses.” At the least, Jordan should be put to that test.

Nor could Jordan or any other requested country invoke the bar against double jeopardy that appears in many extradition treaties to prevent second punishment after a criminal prosecution for the extraditable offense has been conducted and fully carried out. That provision obviously does not prevent extradition of a fugitive who flees a country where he has been convicted in order to avoid imprisonment. It also should not prevent extradition if, by some other unlawful means such as Hamas’ extortionate demand, the criminal process is aborted.

Congress’ objective in enacting the provisions authorizing prosecution of such crimes in United States courts, even though they were committed elsewhere, was to insure that those who murdered American citizens like Judy Greenbaum, Abigail Leitel, and the Applebaums would not be able to avoid just punishment for their crimes. That goal can now be realized only if the United States Department of Justice takes prompt and effective action.

Mr. Lewin is a Washington lawyer who was a federal prosecutor and served as deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Black magic widespread in Middle East

Black magic widespread in Middle East – JPost – Middle East.

While many of us would think this is merely superstitious, it is clear that much of the world still believes in traditional magic.  In the west, these are not as overtly discussed, but in the Middle East, fear of dark magic runs deep within the culture.  Keep in mind that this is not just a belief held by Islamic Arabs.  Many North African and Middle Eastern Jews also believe in the powers of magic, both for good and bad.  One book I recall reading was called Without Bounds, by Yoram Bilu, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University (also see here).  In it he describes the life of a lesser known North African rabbi, including discussion of demonology and magic.  The rabbi lived in the last century and his family continues to live in Israel today. As you will see from the article below, even those who recognize the “forbidden” elements of magic are hard-pressed not to be influenced by it. 

Belief in witchcraft, spells, the occult and protective charms runs deep, despite religious and governmental bans against using magic.

 

When Tara Umm Omar was a young bride in her first marriage, she and her Moroccan husband took the youngest sister of a family friend into their home. On the day the young Moroccan woman arrived, she gave Umm Omar a doll, which Umm Omar promptly placed in a dresser drawer.

When Umm Omar told a friend of the doll, the friend suspected it was an item for black magic and suggested the doll be destroyed. Instead, Umm Omar tossed it in the garbage. That’s when household items disappeared, the family dog barked incessantly, Umm Omar started fighting with her husband and she began seeing strange insects in the house. When the guest finally moved out, the couple found their bed sheets and an identical doll to Umm Omar’s among the woman’s discarded belongings.

The message to Umm Omar was clear: The woman she invited into her home sought to destroy her happiness through black magic.

Umm Omar is since remarried to a Saudi and now lives in Riyadh. She runs the popular blog, Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis, a help website for non-Saudis marrying Saudis. As a quasi-marriage counselor for brides and grooms nervously entering Saudi society, Umm Omar dispenses religious and practical advice to help ease the cultural shock. That includes providing insight to the real world concerns of black magic and the evil eye.

“The truth is that all magic is haram [prohibited] and only leads to bad ends,” Umm Omar told The Media Line.

Belief in black magic runs deep in Saudi society. The issue was raised last month when the quasi-legislative body Shoura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households. Hundreds of Saudi women complained to the Council that granting Moroccan maids permission to work was tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands. Saudi wives complained the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.

While greeted with skepticism in western societies, Saudis would no more question the existence of black magic than they would Islam. Two surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an under Al Mi’wadhatyan address black magic and are often recited during or after prayer. Simply, part of being a Muslim is believing in the existence of magic.

In April of this year, members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice underwent special training in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes.

Although also found in Christianity and Judaism, casting spells is particularly common in Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Indonesia. Turkey is a secular Muslim country, but protection against evil eye is deeply rooted in virtually all aspects of daily life. Tools of witchcraft include using lizards, dead birds, photographs, hair, thread, dirt, blood and red ink. Hiding places to place “spells” may be in bedrooms and under beds. Written spells generally contain the intended victim’s name and one or two words to state the intention to do harm.

In 2007, the religious police in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, removed 23 black magic tokens, including knives and written spells on paper, from two graves in a cemetery. Black magic artists placed the tokens at the heads and feet of the corpses.

The Saudi press reported recently that evil eye was suspected in causing the death of Mastoora Al-Ahmadi, the Saudi poet who garnered international attention for her performance on “The Million’s Poet” on Abu Dhabi TV. She was the first woman to reach the semifinals in the Arabic poetry contest. Al-Ahmadi died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 in Madinah after falling into a coma.

Howaizan Muhammad, 26, of Madinah, told The Media Line that she had difficulty finding a job and failed in many interviews. And she hated the jobs she did find. She broke up with her fiancé and couldn’t find a husband. “My sister told me to read the surah Al-Baqarah to protect me against any spells,” she says. “After 14 days, my father found a spell written on paper and in blood with my name on it on the roof under our water tank.”

Muhammad says she had Indonesian maids at the time, but notes that anybody could have left the spell.

Sheikh Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, an Islamic scholar based in Qatar and the author of The Exorcist Tradition in Islam, told The Media Line that Muslims must not fight witchcraft with their own magic but refer to the Qur’an. “There are a number of Qur’anic texts that the Prophet said should be read with reflection as a means of removing or reducing the effects of black magic,” he says. “Eating adjuwah dates from Madinah is also a means of protection.”

He notes there is a tendency to fight magic with magic, but it’s prohibited. “People should avoid charms, amulets and other things that people have proffered, which has become something of a business in the Muslim world.”

Philips acknowledges that Moroccans have an “international reputation” among Muslims for practicing witchcraft, but cautions against overemphasizing Moroccans as master artists of voodoo. “Historically they [Moroccans] are most noted for it. But they are not much different than most in the Muslim world. Chechnya and Bosnia probably engage in it more.”

Although Saudis may claim that witchcraft is at the heart of their distrust of foreign maids, Umm Omar suggests that old-fashioned power struggles and jealously play vital roles in conflicts.

“There is a factor that Saudis are more well-to-do than Moroccans and magic can be used to remove those blessings [of wealth] if [maids] dislike them,” Umm Omar says. “Saudi women are used to feeling superior over maids, and in some cases look down on them. Moroccan women do not like to be pushed around and will defend themselves. My experience with Moroccan and Saudi women is they both like to be in charge of the household and are naturally bossy.”

Umm Omar adds that if a maid feels threatened, she could resort to black magic. “Of course that is not to say that a Saudi woman won’t seek out magic to harm a Moroccan maid.”
Left unsaid in this battle of wills between Saudi and Moroccan women is the consequences of practicing black magic in Saudi Arabia. Practicing witchcraft is an offense punishable by death.

Saudi religious police arrested popular Lebanese television personality and fortuneteller Ali Sabat in May 2008 on charges of witchcraft while he was on a pilgrimage. A Saudi court sentenced him to death. But an appellate court threw out the sentence in 2010, citing lack of evidence that Sabat harmed anybody. According to Amnesty International, the last documented execution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia was in 2007. A Saudi court sentenced Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim to death for casting spells in order to separate a married couple.

“Fortune telling is not just sleight of hand tricks, but involves the spirit,” says Philips. “As evil, it’s the same thing as black magic. Sharia proscribes the same punishment for both.”

Umm Omar points to ignorance and the absence of a strong foundation in the teachings of Islam that lead some Muslims to practice magic and evil eye.

Although Philips says that ignorance is no excuse for breaking laws, forgiveness should be considered. “God does forgive ignorance,” he says. “We should be more tolerant in some cases because some people are not doing [harmful] things deliberately.”

 

The Pursuit of Truth

Rabbi Angel offers a piece on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, which asks the age-old question of whether or not we should acknowledge the literal story presented in front of us, specifically when it comes to whether or not the characters sinned.  He uses this as a polemic against literature that tries to gloss over the failures of the great rabbis.  In many traditions, it is inappropriate to assign sin to someone of grand stature, so instead the stock answer is that don’t really understand why they did what they did.  Now, I do believe the suspension of vulnerability and humanness among these people has led to lesser folks seriously sinning (i.e. the countless charges of sexual inappropriateness among clergy), yet the biblical element is more complicated than that.  It is difficult for some people to see a role model as being imperfect.  So instead, we gloss over or reinterpret the imperfections in a way as to exonerate the individual.

Personally, I want to see the vulnerability and the flaws.  It reminds us that we too are human and that we are all susceptible to error.  Yet, we can make mistakes and still rise to the highest of levels.  Instead, if we read about superhuman humans, we can easily feel less inspired because without the innate abilities that each has, we are merely treading water throughout life.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a Hassidic Jew who assured me that his Rebbe never committed any sins. He stated with certainty that his Rebbe was endowed with a grand and holy soul, far superior to the soul of any other people.

When I pointed out to him that even Moses committed sins, he flatly denied that this was so. I reminded him that the Torah itself reports Moses’s shortcomings. He said: You do not understand the Torah! It is impossible that Moses could have done anything wrong. He was perfect in every way.

The conversation came to an end, with both of us unhappy with the result. He felt I did not demonstrate enough faith in the perfection of saintly personalities, and I felt he was guilty of distorting the Torah’s words and distorting the reality of the human condition.

This conversation came to mind recently when I received an email from a colleague, in which he included some important passages by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The comments related specifically to stories reported in Parashat Lekh Lekha—but Rabbi Hirsch’s point is of general relevance to our study of Torah…and to our evaluation of saintly individuals.

The Torah relates various problematic narratives about Abraham.  For example, when going to Egypt, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would murder him and take his wife Sarah. Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, rather than his wife. In spite of (or because of!) this deception, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was given rewards and he thrived in Egypt. When God punished Pharaoh and when Pharaoh realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh expressed outrage to Abraham over the deception. Pharaoh expelled Abraham and Sarah, who left Pharaoh’s domain with much wealth.

This story surely does not cast Abraham in a good light. He asked his wife to participate in a deception. He let his wife be taken by the Egyptians. He reaped financial rewards while his wife was in captivity in Pharaoh’s house.

Rabbi Hirsch makes a profoundly important point: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not give to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.”

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that “we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuinely great teachers and commentators.”

Our great biblical heroes, as well as our great spiritual heroes of all generations, were real human beings, not plaster saints.  They had real feelings, real conflicts. Many times they performed admirably; on some occasions they fell short.  To suggest that anyone is “perfect”—totally devoid of sin and error—is to misrepresent that person and to misrepresent truth.

There is a popular genre of “religious literature” that presents biographies of biblical and later religious luminaries as paragons of virtue, totally devoid of sin and inner conflict. In fact, such books are not authentic biographies, because they describe their heroes in an untruthful way. These personalities are drawn in such superlative terms, that readers will find it exceedingly difficult to identify with them or to emulate them.

There is an opposite tendency in some circles to point to every flaw and sin of our spiritual heroes, and to undermine their credibility as religious models. Our prophets and teachers are presented as though devoid of higher spiritual and moral qualities.

Just as it is false to overstate the perfection of our heroes, so it is false to undervalue their spiritual achievements. Rather, we must study their lives honestly, recognizing that these are remarkable individuals who reached great heights—and who had to struggle mightily to attain their levels of religious insight and righteousness.  Their failings can be as instructive to us as their successes.

Just as Truth is the seal of the Word of God, so is the pursuit of Truth the proper objective of all students of Torah and Jewish tradition.