Q: My wife and I have been wholeheartedly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. We have believed that synagogues were specifically structured for social, economic and political ends; nothing holy about them. We have believed some of the causes of America's social and economic problems could be attributed to the control of the media by Jews. (We come from families of Anglican descent who've lived in America for generations.)
However, we do read your column, and it embodies the antithesis of our attitudes about the Jewish people. Your Thanksgiving column on "A Rabbi's Gratitude" was heartwarming and holy! We are now trying to change our attitudes about the religiosity of Hebrews. We hope people like you can convince Jewish people to be thankful for what America has done for them, and encourage them to work toward making America strong again.
Thank you for helping us see those of the Jewish religion in a brighter light. Evidently, some rabbis really do try to spread the word of God.
A: Thank you (I think). Most people don't have the courage to admit their bigotry, and even fewer have the courage to admit that they've wrongly poisoned their souls with causeless hatred. Let me encourage you to look beyond me, however. The truth is, I'm not as good as you think, and the Jews you used to hate are not as bad as you thought.
Whoever taught you to hate Jews probably also taught you to hate blacks, gays, immigrants and people who don't belong to your church. Bigotry against other people who are also made in the image of God is a sin that seeps into every part of the soul. It can never be contained and is immune to reason. The hard thing is to love the people who brought us into the world without loving the parts of them that are morally and spiritually poisonous.
I'm also amazed and, frankly, somewhat skeptical that a single column by me could turn you away from a lifetime of bigotry and toward a more spiritually generous and compassionate frame of mind. Perhaps you were ready to grow up and leave behind your old ways. If I played a small part in that shift, I'm honored and happy.
One more thing. I hope you don't go around telling people about your previous anti-Semitic views. They may not be so understanding. I'm only barely able to understand you myself.
Q: The atonement for sin in the Hebrew Bible required specific offerings and rituals, whether the sins were intentional or not. While on the march, the Hebrews had the Tabernacle, which served as the center of worship, and the sacrifices until Solomon built the first Temple.
I'm aware that synagogues have existed for a long time, even when the Temple was still present, but how did the Jews deal with atonement during the Babylonian captivity, when this temple was razed by Nebuchadnezzar, and how do they now since A.D. 70, when it was again destroyed by Titus since they can no longer perform the required sacrifices?
-- E., from Connecticut
A: You're one of my most thoughtful readers. Since the biblical sacrifices are God's commandments, they can't be suspended, but because of the destruction of the Temple, they cannot be offered. The rabbinic solution to this problem was to offer up a special prayer for each sacrifice. The morning sacrifice became the morning prayer, and so forth.
The Jews also preserved several honorific tasks for the descendants of the biblical priests, who were called the Kohens and the Levis (the people, not the jeans). Then the leadership of Judaism was transferred to rabbis who were chosen on the basis of learning and merit, not heredity. (The biblical priesthood went through the father's bloodlines.) So the prayer book became our portable sanctuary, and our prayers became the offerings of our hearts.
In this way, Judaism was able to both preserve the past and adapt to the future. Being both a rabbi and an animal lover, I don't shed a tear that the bloody animal sacrifices of the Bible are a thing of the past. I know this is slim comfort to the Thanksgiving turkey I ate, but God is not through with me yet.