Last week’s column by colleague and brother Shammai Engelmayer brought me joy, not just because he’s rejoining the Jewish Standard as a columnist, as I and so many others had urged him, but because Shammai and I share one great passion: Jewish values. We both believe that Jewish values have the capacity to bring healing to a world that sorely needs it.
On June 4, at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, my organization, This World: The Jewish Values Network, together with Rambam Hospital in Israel, is hosting a dinner honoring those who most promote Jewish values in the culture. The honorees are not all Jewish, and one need not be a Jew to absorb and promote the light the Jewish people have shared with the world.
Truth regardless of consequencesForemost among the honorees is Elie Wiesel, the world’s most celebrated Jewish personality, whom we are honoring as “Champion of Jewish Spirit.” Here is where Judaism differs so much from Christianity. The latter looks at evil and has a simple response. It results from Lucifer, a fallen angel. Christianity is profoundly dualistic, dividing the world into competing forces of good and evil. The Nazis went over to the dark side. God was not at Auschwitz and therefore bears no responsibility for the mass murder perpetrated there. But the devil was present, and we must reject him fully and love God.
But we Jews believe in the absolute unity of God and his oneness with the universe. The Sh’ma, “Hear Oh, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” is the most important affirmation of Jewish belief. So in the face of unspeakable evil we are left with a profound question. God, where were you? How could you allow this to happen? Did you not see the one million babies who were gassed? Hence, the name Israel means “he who wrestles with God.” Before Wiesel, abominable notions of Jewish sinfulness were being peddled by Jewish theologians to explain the Holocaust. But what Wiesel did was to put the focus squarely back on God and our right to question Him. That is an idea I just devoted an entire book to, ” The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” My influence was Wiesel, in his own brilliant books like “The Town Beyond the Wall,” where he restored to the Jewish people, and to the world at large, the right to confront God with our pain and forlornness.
I have had many conversations with Wiesel in the 25 years I have been privileged to know him. Once I asked him, “Did you lose your God after the Holocaust?” He answered, “God was my friend as a boy. I was a young chasid, and God accompanied me everywhere. And for a time, after the war, I did not wish to have a relationship with Him. But He never left me completely, and now He is back fully in my life. But the relationship has changed. I have a right to assert my place. It is now more a rapport, not of equals, of course, but of two parties with a real and painful dialogue.”
On another occasion, I took Wiesel to Utah to lecture at a Mormon university. Ronnie Krensel, the producer of my TV show, “Shalom in the Home,” accompanied us; he was filming the event. He was Jewish but had never put on tefillin. I said to him, “We’re going to put on tefillin now – and what better place for you to have your bar mitzvah than at 35,000 feet in the presence of Elie Wiesel? What an honor!” But Ronnie, till today one of my closest friends, is a man of science. “I don’t know, Shmuley. It all seems a little superstitious.” Wiesel, who had been quietly watching the exchange, suddenly looked at Ronnie and said, “When I was at Auschwitz we had no tefillin. And then one day we heard that someone had smuggled a pair into the barracks. Suddenly, a line formed around our barracks where Jews waited, knowing they could be shot at any moment, just to put on the tefillin because their bodies ached to wrap themselves in God’s commandment.”
Ronnie put on the tefillin.
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropists, will be honored as “Champions of Jewish Identity” for the work they do to foster Jewish consciousness, especially among the 350,000 young Jews who have discovered a connection to their people and to Israel through Birthright. Some voices, here in the Jewish Standard, have been critical of the Adelsons. But this uncharitable view ignores the true essence of a couple who have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to programs such the Adelson Educational Campus ($80 million), Holocaust memory ($50 million to Yad Vashem), Hebrew senior life in Boston ($20 million), and of course Birthright Israel ($180 million) to name but a few. And they are among the foremost donors to medical research and drug rehabilitation in the world.
And speaking of medical research, we’ll be honoring my dear friend Dr. Mehmet Oz, a proud Muslim and the world’s most renowned doctor, for the incomparable work he has done through his global TV show and countless New York Times bestsellers to foster a new dedication to health throughout the world. Mehmet, who will be honored as “Champion of Human Life,” lives right here in Cliffside Park. I can relate from personal experience the times that Mehmet has come over for Shabbes dinner and lovingly rebuked me for the sugary, unhealthy garbage on the table, imploring me to do what the Bible itself commands, “Take heed to thyself and take care of your lives,” (Deut. 4:9) and, again, “be extremely protective of your lives” (Deut. 4:15).
Of all the values our faith holds, none is greater than the commitment to the infinite worth and dignity of every human life. This is an idea established in the very first chapter of Genesis, where, in the highest praise ever given to humanity, the Torah says that every life, regardless of ethnicity, race, color, or creed, is created, equally, in the image of God.