I Love John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl

Before I read The Little Drummer Girl, I saw the movie – probably 25 years ago when I was in my very early 20s. During my 40s (I’m 46 presently), I’ve taught a course called “Israelis & Palestinians” through the Judaic Studies Department at the U of Oregon, and as part of my development of the course I watched the movie again. I think a lot of thedrummer critics wrote that they thought Diane Keaton was not young-enough looking to plausibly play Charlie, the main character. If memory serves, Keaton was a driving force behind getting the film produced, with her playing Charlie, for which I can only say kol ha-kavod (Hebrew which roughly translates to “hats off” to her).

I’m not an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I don’t think I’m able to judge how to describe my level of knowledge and understanding, but I guess I’m willing to say that I’m well-read on the subject and that I have a lot of interpersonal experience with Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders, as well as a lot of time spent in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. I am basically a J Street person in my politics, FWIW, and I’m sure those lenses color how I see things, but I happen to believe that everyone has lenses of some kind through which they approach this topic.

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Reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth


I’ve become a lot more interested in understanding World War I over the past couple years, largely because of the research I had to do to teach a course called “Israelis and Palestinians” as an adjunct instructor in the Judaic Studies department at the U of Oregon. The more I read, the more I realized the enormous role that “The Great War” played in laying the groundwork for the future Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the screwed up politics of the Middle East to this day. I guess, more specifically, I would say that I learned a lot more about the influence of WWI and the decisions and agreements made by the victorious Allies after the war on the Middle East.bible sword

That sparked my interest in gaining a better understanding of late 19th / early 20th century history. I had long ago read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, but last year I discovered a lesser known book of hers, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, which helped me better understand the multiple motivations that the British had leading up to the British Mandate over Palestine.

And now, when I read books that mention people like Lord Herbert Kitchener, Herbert Samuel, Arthur Balfour, Harry St John Philby (and his traitorous son, Kim Philby), I have a better sense of how their beliefs and decisions shaped the dynamics of the Middle East to this day.

A British gov't WWI propaganda poster seeking to motivate men who hadn't enlisted through social pressure.
A British gov’t WWI propaganda poster seeking to motivate men who hadn’t enlisted through social pressure.

A couple weeks ago, I heard an NPR story about the recently released movie, Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of the same title. Whoever was being interviewed described Brittain’s book as hands-down the best memoir ever published in terms of describing the impacts of WWI on much of English youth.

I thought that by reading her book – the work of a woman who grew up in rural English society and became a nurse during the war – I might gain some insight into the mindset of the post-war British population, since their experiences, fears, hopes, and assumptions strongly influenced the political decisions the British government took in the decades to follow.

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Go Set a Watchman / לֵךְ הַעֲמֵד הַמְצַפֶּה

I just finished reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and I find myself more confused than anything else about what to make of the Atticus Finch and Scout characters we meet in the book. To me, I couldn’t tell if Watchman is meant to be read as a sequel / companion to To Kill a Mockingbird, or if it is meant to be read as a novel on its own, in which the author gave us quite different versions of the characters who also appear in Mockingbird.cover watchman

In Watchman we read that Atticus once defended a black man (presumably the Tom Robinson character in Mockingbird?) against unjust charges, and that the man was acquitted. Of course, in Mockingbird Tom Robinson is found guilty and then shot to death by the police during an escape attempt. So given that the two novels present different versions of that key event, I lean towards reading Watchman as a book set in the same fictional world as Mockingbird, but in which the two central characters are different people. If you read Watchman that way, and then read Mockingbird alongside it, you end up with a body of work by Harper Lee that explores different possibilities and digs into the issues of race, the South, etc. in different ways.

As a rabbi, I’m curious about Lee’s use of a verse from Isaiah as the book’s title. The phrase “Go set a watchman” is part of Isaiah 21:6, and the entire verse reads like this:

go set hebrew

I’m just messin’ with ya. In English translation:
“Because my Lord said this to me: ‘Go, set a watchman. Let him tell what he will see.'”

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Loving the Stranger / Loving the Vulnerable Among Us

Acharey Mot – Kedoshim D’var Torah      April 23, 2010

Shabbat shalom. This Shabbat we continue our journey through the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, or Leviticus in English. We actually read from two Torah portions this Sabbath. The first is called Acharey Mot, and the second is called Kedoshim.

Acharei Mot presents an account of the laws of Yom Kippur, as well as a list of laws regarding sexual relationships. Kedoshim offers us a list of laws that define which behaviors are considered holy – kadosh – and which are not. It’s a mixture of ethical and ritual laws.

Perhaps the most famous part of Kedoshim is Chapter 19 of Leviticus. Chapter 19 happens to be right at the mid-point of the Torah, and many commentators have described it as the heart of the Torah. It begins with God telling the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. And then the Torah goes on to present a list of mitzvot – commandments.

farmworkersThe list includes the foundations of a universal human ethics. Honor your parents. Don’t steal or make a false oath. If you’re a farmer, leave the corners of your fields un-harvested so the poor and the needy can anonymously come glean and avoid both starvation and the embarrassment of begging for food.

If you hire a day-laborer, pay him or her promptly for their work, the same day. In other words, don’t take advantage of their desperate economic situation or essentially enslave them by withholding their wages for long stretches so that you can force them to stay under your employ.

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Abraham, Sarah, and the Arizona Immigration Law of 2010

Op-ed first appeared in The Oregonian on May 3, 2010 – see it here

In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land. Shortly after they arrive, they encounter famine and head to Egypt in search of food. Foreigners without family or clan to protect them, they are afraid. Abraham asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister in the hope that this will help them avoid trouble — an act of deceit that made sense in the context of their times. The gamble works out badly. Pharaoh’s courtiers notice Sarah’s beauty, and the king summons her to his harem. Only divine intervention lets Sarah escape without having to sleep with the king.

It’s a pitiable story. Abraham and Sarah lie and humiliate themselves to try to survive in a foreign nation they have not received permission to enter. It must have been agonizing. It’s a story of strangers in a strange land, without protection, without connections and without a right to go about their business unmolested. It’s an illegal immigrant’s story.

Are things so different for America’s illegal, undocumented immigrants? And is the new Arizona law, which goes so far as to allow race and language to be a factor in police spot-checking peoples’ identity papers, a response that models the best of our society’s values?

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Esau’s Kiss – D’var Torah

D’var Torah – Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton, MA – Dec 6, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach – “Esau’s Kiss”

Rabbi Maurice Harris

We’ve been reading in our recent parashahs the saga of the life of Jacob. I’m sure folks here are pretty familiar with it, but it never hurts to start with a quick plot summary. I hope you won’t mind if I quickly recap what’s happened prior to and including this week’s portion. Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, had married a woman named Rebecca, and Rebecca became pregnant with twin boys who struggled physically with each other in her womb. In fact they struggled so much that Rebecca at one point cried out in anguish and asked what the point of her existence was. Finally, she gave birth to the two brothers. Esau, the first born by just seconds, had reddish features and grew to be a strapping, muscular, and quite hairy hunter. Jacob, who the text tells us emerged from the birth canal grabbing on to Esau’s heel, is of slighter stature and, according to later rabbinic midrash, he is bookish and studious.

The rabbis who gave us midrash would sometimes retroject images of themselves back onto the heroes of the Bible, such as picturing Jacob as a skinny and introverted Torah scholar. In fact, we even have examples of midrash that depict God studying the Torah and weighing the merits of different rabbis’ interpretations of each word! I guess we tend to see what we’re looking for much of the time – let’s hold on to that thought.

Anyway, getting back to the twins, Esau and Jacob. As you may remember, they end up in bitter conflict over issues of inheritance, first-born status, and pride. Families can just be awful, right? We know from the text that it turns out Rebecca and Isaac don’t see their kids in the same way. Rebecca sees Jacob as destined to carry on God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac, whereas Isaac tends to favor Esau, who is good with a bow and provides delicious meals of venison. The Torah uses sight as an important symbol in this story, hinting that Isaac can’t see the big picture by telling us that he has become blind in his later years.

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Jonah Then and Now – Yom Kippur 5769 / 2010

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

“Jonah Then and Now”

Once a year, on Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah. Jonah is most famous for having spent 3 days in the belly of a giant fish and for being a tremendously unwilling prophet of God. God gives him a message to deliver to the people of the great city of Ninevah. Located on the east bank of the Tigris River, close to the modern day city of Mosul in Northern Iraq, Ninevah was an ancient metropolis within the Assyrian Empire.

God tells Jonah to tell the Ninevites that they must make teshuvah and repent of all their wickedness within 40 days or else the Almighty will destroy the city. Jonah doesn’t want the assignment and he tries to run away from God. He boards a ship at the port of Yaffo. A terrible storm seizes the ship and threatens to break it to pieces. The sailors cast lots to identify who has brought this evil upon them, and the lot falls upon Jonah. Jonah tells them that he is fleeing the Almighty, and he suggests that they throw him in the sea so that they can save themselves. The sailors don’t want to, but they reluctantly toss Jonah overboard.

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The Shoah Still Makes Us Ask: How Do We Recover from Trauma / Yom Kippur Sermon 5770/2011

Yom Kippur 5770 D’var                                                               Rabbi Maurice Harris

The Shoah Still Makes us Ask: How Do We Recover from Trauma?

Good Yom Tov. Tonight I’d like to share some thoughts I’ve been having about questions that emerge from a pop culture phenomenon that has generated a lot of controversy, especially in the Jewish community. I’m talking about Quentin Tarantino’s summer hit movie, Inglorious Basterds. Before I go any further, I want to say that this movie, and my talk, both deal with the subject of the Holocaust. I know that, for some here tonight, the Shoah remains a tender or painful topic, and I hope to engage this topic without reopening anyone’s wounds. I ask your pardon in advance if I miss the mark in that effort.

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A Plausible Faith in an Uncertain World – Yom Kippur 5771 / 2010

A few years ago, a family I was working with had a tragedy happen – a sudden and shocking loss. In the weeks following their calamity, I met with them several times. On one of those occasions, the mother of the family – I’ll call her Miriam – told me that she didn’t know what she believed in anymore. She certainly didn’t know if she believed there was a God anymore. She had been pushed past her breaking point, and there was no world-organizing system, no master narrative that she could put these events into so that her life still made sense.

Miriam was exhausted and despairing over her ability to cope. I had never been through a loss like hers, and I wasn’t really sure what to tell her. To get some advice, I called a rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, and told her I wasn’t sure how to address this person’s crisis of faith.

Rabbi Glazer responded by sharing something she had learned as a hospital chaplain. She said, “When people have just lost their anchor and don’t know what they’re certain about anymore, sometimes it can help to ask them to look inward and identify what they still do believe in, whatever it might be.”

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