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December 23, 1994 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1994-12-23

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Community Views

Editor's Notebook

The Nov. 8 Vote:
Anarchy And Taxes

Learning History
From A Scholar



What do we Jews
make of the tec-
tonic shift in the
political landscape
that occurred in
the mid-term elec-
tions of a month
ago? The election
raises serious is-
sues for us.
There will be those who point
with delight to the fact that those
who have risen to positions of
power in the U.S. Congress have
long histories of support for the
State of Israel. And this may, on
the face of it, be one positive di-
mension of this landmark elec-
tion. Others may look with
anxiety at the enlarged influence
of the so-called "Religious Right"
(or properly, the Christian Hard-
Right) over the processes of the
Republican Party.
A myriad of issues,
abortion/the right to choose
prominent among them,
all devolving from this
effort to define America
as a Christian nation,
will, I fear, occupy Amer-
ican society in the corn-
ing years.
Certain aspects of the
election raise troubling
specters. Reading be-
tween the lines of the
poll results, and listen-
ing to the exaltations of
the victors, and their
supporters on talk radio,
there arises a sense that
America, this year, vot-
ed not only against par-
ticular candidates or
against a particular par-
ty or against incumbents
or even against the idea
of incumbency, but also against
the very idea of government.
There is a mood afoot in this
country that regards government
itself as the enemy. People, we
are told, are simply tired of gov-
ernment —not this government,
but government itself. The emer-
gence and, in this election, the tri-
umph of this idea is profoundly
disturbing. Can it be that Amer-
ican citizens voted for anarchy?
Winston Churchill once sug-
gested that democracy is the
worst form of government except
for all the alternatives. It is
possible that in this election
Americans opted for one of those
alternatives. And for Jews, this
has profound resonance. For we
read in Pirkei Avot, "Pray for the
welfare of the government, for
were it not for the fear thereof,
people would devour one another
Government can be inefficient
and even wasteful. Government
can interfere with our lives —

none of us can be unaware of
that. Yet government plays an
essential role in the social order.
It is the presence of government
and the potential power of gov-
ernment that prevent social
chaos. Government protects the
weak, defends the minority from
the tyranny of the majority and
enforces the social contract for
those who are dispossessed.
To say no to government is to
say no to the forces of stability
and safety, whose protection all
of us need. .•
One final implication of the re-
sults of this election should also
be of real concern to us. This elec-
tion seems to be characterized by
a repudiation of the social con-
tract that binds the "haves" and
"have-nots" of our society. The
electorate seemed to be saying:
We are tired of taking care of
those who have turned to us for
help. We are in no mood to take


Daniel Polish is senior rabbi of

Temple Beth El.

our own precious resources and
devote them to the needs of oth-
The mood of the country was
captured in a cartoon that ap-
peared the day after the election.
Showing a well-dressed couple
stepping over a homeless person,
it was captioned, "The poor are a
luxury we can no longer afford."
Americans, we are told, now suf-
fer from "compassion fatigue."
Rather than drawing from
classical Jewish sources to argue
that Jewish tradition has always
reminded us of the responsibili-
ty the more fortunate have to-
ward the less fortunate, let me
urge you to read a remarkable ar-
ticle in the Dec. 15 issue of the
Jerusalem Report. Shlomo
Maital, professor of economics
and management at the Tech-
nion-Israel Institute of Technol-
ogy, draws a disheartening
contrast between America and
the State of Israel. Professor
Maital quotes Dean Lester
Thurow of MIT: "No country not
experiencing a revolution or mil-
itary defeat ... has probably ever

had as rapid or as widespread an
increase in inequality as has oc-
curred in the United States in the
last two decades." Professor
Maital argues that "society must
tax the rich to help the poor" and
goes on to note that this is "a prin-
ciple America has shunned ..."
More pointedly, he notes,
"America is a rich country that
acts as if it is a poor one. It pre-
tends it cannot afford to look af-
ter the poor, the sick, the
handicapped, the underprivi-
leged, the homeless, the immi-
grants." To our collective shame,
he reminds us: "America has 39
million people below the poverty
line — one person in six. There
are 12 million hungry children ...
the United States is 19th in child
mortality ..."
On the other side of this com-
parison, Professor Maital states:
"Israel is a relatively poor coun-
try — with half the per capita in-
come of America — that
acts as if it were the
wealthy one. It absorbs
immigrants, provides
health insurance for all,
keeps the homeless off
the streets by providing
or subsidizing housing

The secret in the dif-
ference is, of course, the
word that politicians of
all stripes are afraid to
utter: taxes. While
Americans clamor to re-
duce the amount of tax-
es we pay, the secret of
Israel's historic re-
sponse to the needs of
its citizens has been, as
Professor Maital notes,
the imposition of just
such taxation. Having listed all
of the social programs present in
Israel and lacking in the United
States, he notes, "Israel does this
by imposing taxes to fund a gov-
ernment budget that amounts to
half the gross domestic product


Clearly, America will not be
able to fulfill its social contract to
the poor, will not be able to meet
its responsibility to the less for-
tunate of our citizens without the
funds necessary to do so. What-
ever our discussion of taxes
should be in the future, we must
do so against the background of
the awareness of the real, press-
ing and growing needs which can
only be met by the availability of
adequate funding.
Whatever the society around
us may believe, we Jews should
know we have a tradition that
holds out loftier aspirations to us.
And we have the example of our
cousins across the sea. They have
succeeded, so far, in creating a
caring society.
Should we want to do an
less? I I

, Sometimes it's were contemporary witnesses
good to take a of these events. It's important
break away from to appreciate that when you are
the contempo- studying Talmud, you're deal-
rary issues that ing with antiquity. Without a
controversy historical background, it's dif-
seems to intro- ficult to put together the pieces
, , duce to our mod- of the Torah.
4 4 em
"It's important for every Jew
\ _.
to be educated about his or her
Whatever we believe in this past," Rabbi Irons continued.
world, the indisputable basis of "Our whole essence is history.
our people has and always will Our Passover seder is an ex-
be the Torah. For many Jews, ample of living history. We have
the Torah is something read to a sense that we are connected."
them from the bimah. It's kept
Rabbi Irons' course is not
in an ark and it passes by them geared toward any faction, but
through the aisles of their shut to the entire Jewish commu-
If we can, we'll touch it with a nity.
siddur or tallit and give it a kiss.
"When you study the people,
That's as close as the relation- then you can understand the
ship gets.
greatness of our people," he
Before we let it pass by said. "Learning Jewish history
again, understand this is our heightens our awareness of
history that's being carried. It's how the Torah can teach us
a code book of life for every Jew. about the greatness of these
It existed long before we be- p3ople."
came divided and labeled Or-
By the way, what really hap-
thodox, Conservative, Reform, pened to the 10 lost tribes?
Reconstructionist, Humanistic,
There's a man in the com-
munity who is one of its best-
kept secrets. The mention of
Rabbi Shmuel Irons this way
will probably embarrass him.
Yet, this Torah and talmudic
scholar, the dean of the Kollel
Institute of Greater Detroit, is
giving Jews in this community
a chance to learn from a his-
torical perspective what is in
that scroll that passes them by
during Saturday morning ser-
vices. It's called, "The Epic of
the Eternal People," a 10-week
course that draws from sources Rabbi Shmuel Irons teaches a course
that might intimidate many of In Jewish history every other
us. Yet, in Rabbi Irons' gentle, Saturday evening from November
knowledgeable style, Jewish through March.
history is brought to life
through people, their actions,
Do you know who was the
time and space. Better yet, Rab- real villain of the Chanukah
bi Irons brings the historical story?
acts in the Torah and finds
How about the origin of the
modem parallels and perspec- Hebrew alphabet?
And what about the history
The lecture series, in its fifth that's found inside the scroll we
week at Machon L'Torah, has call the Torah? It's more than
examined issues ranging from getting an aliyah or even lifting
the Dead Sea Scrolls to Masa- the Torah for hagbah. The
da and the history of mass sui- Torah, if it can't be a code for
cides. On Dec. 31 at 9 p.m., some of our fellow Jews that
Rabbi Irons will talk about the they can relate to, can be a use-
root causes of anti-Semitism, ful history book. Some of us are
tracing the hatred of Jews to avid followers of history. Some
the first century.
of us can name General Grant's
He's in his third year of hold- staff at Vicksburg- or Napoleon's
ing the lectures and even has strategy in Russia.
made the lecture series avail-
But the history that should
able on cassette tape.
probably be the most important
"The point is, I don't want to all of us — well, we typically
people to believe just in what get as close as a tallit kiss on
I say," he said. "I want them to the Sabbath.
see for themselves where our
Rabbi Irons is making it pos-
history comes from. You have sible to open the history book
to remember that what we're and learn so much more about
studying are events viewed an important historical sub-
through the eyes of people who ject...us. Li









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