The other night on the Colbert Report, a television show that airs at 11:30 immediately after The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert held up two books each one authored by a member of his writing staff. The title of the first book escapes me. I can’t remember its title. I can’t remember the title, not because this first book is bad or not deserving of my attention…that’s not it at all. I can’t remember the title of the first book because I was taken aback and frankly, a little shocked and a lot surprised by the title of the second book Steven Colbert held up to the camera. This book is titled: Bad for the Jews. Perhaps I heard wrong. I didn’t.
The title of the book in Steven Colbert’s hand was indeed Bad for the Jews, written by Scott Sherman. On the cover of this book is a cartoon, a clear caricature of an Eastern European looking, full black skull-capped wearing, head tilted to the left, hands clutching both sides of his face, Oy vey moaning Jewish person caught in the throws of worry and consternation. You know the image; the one that suggests that we are all anxiety ridden, insecure, nervous, fretful pessimists waiting for the other shoe to drop people. It is a distasteful, repugnant and offensive stereotype, made no less palatable by the fact that the author of the book is Jewish.
Understand, Steven Colbert did nothing wrong, nothing which upset me, nothing for which we need to mount a letter writing campaign. Actually, Colbert was being quite magnanimous…endorsing both books and displaying them to an audience of millions. Not a small or insignificant gesture when you are trying to sell something. Just look at the success of QVC or the Shopping Network.
But…back to my shock and dismay. “Bad for the Jews,” that’s what my grandmother would say when she heard or read of some Jewish person, or of a person with a Jewish sounding name, being found guilty of some illegal, immoral unethical act…”OY,” she would say, “this is bad for the Jews.”
Wanting to get a better idea of what this book contained, I went to Amazon and typed in Bad For the Jews. I clicked on the tab that reads, “look inside.” I found a book filled with the names of the most famous and infamous Jews in modern American history — from Jack Abramoff to Mark Zuckerberg, from Woody Allen to Jill Zarin (I didn’t know who she was either: I googled her name) — and everyone, and I mean everyone, in between, those you would expect and those who caused me to raise my brow in perplexity as to why their inclusion. The book, which I will not purchase, is not particularly impressive. But it did give me reason to pause. I’ll explain in a moment.
A d’var acher, something else to consider. I served on a board which last week, held a board retreat. I attended that board training session. The facilitator began by asking us to state our names and tell the group who we represent. Well, there was a woman from DelMarVa public radio and someone from Shore Health, a man who worked with troubled teens and a woman representing Talbot Hospice. When it was my turn, I stood up and said, “I’m Rabbi Peter Hyman from Temple B’nai Israel and I…I represent God!” There was a momentary pause, some laughter…and a couple of sideways glances. I sat down.
The woman sitting to my left, touched my hand and said, “O Rabbi, you have such a delightful sense of humor.”
What would you think if I told you I wasn’t attempting to be funny? Would it make you uncomfortable? Every time I go out I am keenly aware that I represent the Jewish people and the expectation of behavior that Judaism places on me and upon each one of us. And believe me, I feel this way, not because I’m a rabbi…being a rabbi only intensifies that sense of inherited obligation. I feel this way because, in spite of the humor I draw from my grandmother’s reaction, there is an unassailable truth behind Gramma Dora’s response. We Jews have a standard against which we are measured…a standard that has been recognized thoughout our long and difficult history…and, I would dare to suggest that the “long and difficult part of our history” comes as a result of others recognizing that standard and being made uncomfortable by the measurement.
You know, above the ark in many synagogues is carved the phrase, “da lifney mi atah omed: Know before whom you stand.” This phrase come from the Talmud, from Massechet B’rachot. This statement encapsulates the notion of Jewish accountability. When you are sitting in the privacy of your own home or when you are out in public…which, by the way, is the intent of the phrase from the V’ahavta : b’shevtecha b’veiteicha u’vlechtecha vaderech… whether in public or in private…do you see yourself as representing God…do you see yourself as a Jewish soul, do you see yourself in those terms?
“Know before Whom you stand” makes a lovely Temple decoration, but its application was intended for outside the shul. Wrote Rabbi Heschel in his book “Between God and Man:” “wherever we go we must as Jews, cultivate the awareness of God. We learn this in worship, but not only in worship…To worship properly,” says Heschel, “is to expand the presence of God in the world.”
When that facilitator asked us to stand, state our names and tell the group who we represent, she was asking us to state both who we are and whose we are. If you, as a Jewish soul don’t understand “whose you are,” then how can you be an or l’goyim…a light to the nations?
I didn’t like the book Bad For The Jews for several reasons…but I think one of the more powerful and unspoken reasons for its distaste is that it is a chronicle of Jews who forgot who they are. It was unclear to me why Scott Sherman included some of the personalities he targeted for inclusion in this kitschy collection. But that’s not the point. There are more than enough examples in the book, of those who unquestionably fit the criteria, to cause us shame and disappointment.
In the Mishnah, in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Judah HaNasi said: “Reflect on three things and you will never come to sin: ‘Know what is above you –a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and that all your deeds are recorded in a book.” This is not rabbinic intimidation. Rather it is a reminder that our actions have consequence and affect.
You know, the Noah story fascinates for many reasons. The opening verse of the parasha reads: “Noach esh tzadeek tamim b’dorotav, et haElohim hithalach Noach.” Genesis 6:9 “Noah was a righteous man, who in his generation, walked with God.” The Rabbis ask: “why does Torah add the prepositional phrase, b’dorotav – in his generation?” Either he was righteous or he was not. The Rabbis answer that had Noah been of the generation of Abraham he would not have been seen as an esh tzedek, a person of unquestionable righteousness. The Midrash concludes, “In the city of the blind, the one eyed man is visionary.”
Clearly the Midrash suggests that Noah existed in a world blind to those standards and expectations established by God…perhaps, in some ways, not a world all that different from the world in which we live now. It is easy to lose sight of those things which connect us to God, which define us as a light not just to the nations but as a light to one another.
Torah asks us, whose are you and how do see yourself? Vision, understanding, identity, enlightenment: these are given even to the one eyed person. How do you see yourself?
Who do you represent?