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May 9, 2003

Heschel’s Views on Dialogue Distorted

In his explication of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s views regarding Jewish-Christian dialogue, opinion writer Meir Soloveichik misrepresents the views of my father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the major Jewish figures in the ecumenical movement (“How Soloveitchik Saw Interreligious Dialogue,” April 25).

Meir Soloveichik claims that my father, in his essay, “No Religion is an Island” (published in the book, “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”) called for an “equalization of dogma” between the two religions. That is simply not the case. When my father writes that “ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words,” he is referring to the concept “dibra tora kileshon bnei adam,” God does not speak in human language.

The phrase, mishnaic in origin, was understood in medieval Jewish thought to mean that God accomodates truth to our ability to comprehend it, using human language that is ambiguous and analogical, so that divine truth always transcends our meager human ability to know it.

My father is quite clear about profound and absolute differences between Jews and Christians about dogma, such as Jesus, and he never advocated the religious relativism that Meir Soloveichik wrongly attributes to him. Rather, he urged Christians and Jews to discuss matters that we have in common, such as the difficulties we find in maintaining faithfulness to our different religious beliefs and practices in a secular society.

My father concludes his essay: “What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures for ever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.”

As much as Meir Soloveichik wishes for accuracy in understanding the views of his great uncle, I would like accuracy in the understanding of my father’s views.

Susannah Heschel

Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies

Dartmouth College

Hanover, N.H.

Full Story Not Told on Belzec Memorial Efforts

With all due respect to Rabbi Avi Weiss, he did not inform Forward readers that the leading charedi rabbi of England — who is the responsible authority on Jewish cemeteries — has visited the Belzec memorial site, reviewed the plans for the monument, undertaken his own borings to check for the location of graves and approved the construction plans (“A Monumental Failure at Belzec,” April 11).

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel concurred with his decision.

Furthermore, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger indicated that the true desecration is the current condition of the camp and its neglect. A rabbinic team under the direction of the rabbi of Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, will be on site during the construction to ensure that there is no desecration of remains and will consult as needed with Schudrich, Schelsinger and Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.

One may wonder why Forward readers were not told of this information. Could it have anything to do with a personal vendetta against Miles Lerman, a former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission and a moving force in the Belzec memorial effort? I surely hope not.

Surely, the sacredness of a site where one in ten of the victims of the Holocaust were murdered, the killing site of Galician Jewry, should not fall victim to personal animus.

If there was a religious issue, leading authorities have given their approval and their support. If there is a design issue, there was a public competition — I was one of the judges — and the design is compelling and moving. It also includes a small 3,000 square foot museum adjacent to the site at Belzec to tell the story of what happened there. It is a monumental achievement and a monumental improvement of the current situation of neglect.

Michael Berenbaum

Director, Sigi Ziering Institute

University of Judaism

Los Angeles, Calif.

DNA Pioneer Franklin’s Storied Family History

I was surprised that the Forward, of all publications, neglected to mention in its article on DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin that her grandfather’s sister, Beatrice Franklin, was married to Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner of Palestine (“A DNA Pioneer Finally Gets Her Due — 50 Years Late,” April 18).

Martin Epstein

West Hartford, Conn.

Southerner Grits and Bears Northern Food

As a transplanted Southerner now living north of Philadelphia, I absolutely loved the April 25 article on Southern Jews in New York City (“Cooking Fried Chicken on the Upper West Side”).

I grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and our family belonged to the Conservative synagogue there. Moving north was a culture shock for me in many ways. It hit me on back-to-school night at my son’s public school. There I was, sitting in his kid-sized chair. I looked at the desk to the right: a Jewish name. To the left: a Jewish name. In front: a Jewish name. I smiled to think that he would not be a minority in the same sense that I was growing up.

And I laughed out loud when I read the part of the article making fun of Yiddish with a Southern accent. This phenomenon could even be found in South Florida; my college roommate was from Miami, and she couldn’t get over the fact that Hebrew could be spoken with a twang!

Even when I later moved to Orlando, which was quite cosmopolitan in comparison to the “Redneck Riviera,” I held on to my roots in the Panhandle. I volunteered with the Southern Jewish Historical Society and for Mosaic, which was a traveling exhibit on the history of Jews in Florida, sponsored by Miami’s Jewish Museum.

In fact, I loaned one of my favorite pieces to the exhibit — an orange packing-crate label in Hebrew. My grandmother also appears in a photo in the book that was printed to accompany the exhibit.

And, yes, I still say “y’all” on occasion and have introduced my family to the wonder of grits — although Philly’s soft pretzels are still the favorite comfort food in our house.

Darcy Silvers

Holland, Pa.

Santorum’s ‘Sodomy’ Stance Constitutional

A May 2 editorial unfairly attacks Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for “endorsing laws that criminalize what some individuals do in the bedroom, because it offends the religious principles of certain other individuals” (“Sanctimonium Santorum”).

Santorum stated: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy” and various other generally illegal practices.

The Supreme Court’s mission is to evaluate the constitutionality of state laws. It follows that Santorum was arguing that the Supreme Court should find state anti-sodomy laws constitutional, because if any laws regulating consensual sex are unconstitutional, laws regulating bigamy, adultery and incest are also constitutional, because the latter type of law is also about sex.

Thus, Santorum was not defending the wisdom of anti-sodomy statutes. Rather, he was asserting that such laws, even if foolish, do not violate the federal Constitution: in other words, that the people’s elected representatives have a right to be wrong.

Michael Lewyn


John Marshall Law School

Atlanta, Ga.

Opinion Makers Also Influence Israel Views

Opinion writer Jo-Ann Mort wonders innocently why uninformed young American Jews might have a negative view of Israel (“What is the Jewish State to the Children of Israel?”, April 25).

But she fails to acknowledge her own significant role in their perceptions. In an April 27 opinion article in the Los Angeles Times — to a non-Jewish audience — she asserts that “the core of settlers who hold Israel hostage are as fanatical in their religious zeal as the worst Islamic fundamentalists.” And that “Jewish fundamentalism is as dangerous… as is Islamic fundamentalism.” Finally, she asserts that all of the residents of cities and towns in the West Bank “have contempt for the Palestinians among whom they live… [and] also have contempt for the state and its laws and for the soldiers who guard them.”

Of course these young people have negative perceptions about Israel. With “promoters” like Mort, what would you expect?

David Eisner

New York, N.Y.

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