On Knees And Ne’ilah

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By Larry Gordon

Just the other day, before hundreds of National Football League players were protesting something about America—this land of the free and home of the brave—many of us also “took a knee,” as it has become known, in shul on Rosh Hashanah. Millions of Jews were in shul for two straight days last week, and on both days part of the beautifully constructed davening calls for us to bow on our knees. We spend a good part of our davening focused on coronating G‑d as our King Who created us, gives us life, and sustains us with kindness and beneficence throughout the year.

Kneeling is not part of our usual shul practice, at least not since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and additionally since the practice was adopted by Christianity and is commonly practiced in churches. Since we only take to our knees and prostrate ourselves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is both a fleeting, special time and a unique experience. It occurred to me, however, that our kneeling and the getting-down-on-one-knee of some NFL players this past Sunday represent two diametrically opposite positions, despite having the matter of knees in common.

It seems that when football players go down on at least one knee these days, they are rejecting authority and declaring their own unmitigated and absolute power, refusing to acknowledge anything but themselves and who they believe they are.

Now, unfortunately, this taking-a-knee business has shifted somewhat; it has moved in the direction of actually protesting the reaction of President Trump to the ballplayers disrespecting everything our flag and national anthem stand for. But there is a concern here that is wrapped inside a bigger problem, and that is that disagreeing with the president’s position on an issue is one thing, but the outright rejection of the greatness and freedoms that America has offered all these athletes is very much something else in the extreme.

As our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy expresses in the Aleinu prayer in Mussaf, “for they bow to vanity and emptiness” contrasts with Am Yisrael who during davening bow to the King of the universe. As the ArtScroll commentary points out on this matter, “This was part of the text originally included by the sages in the Mussaf prayer. Although it was later deleted from the Siddur by Christian censors, Reb Yehoshua Leib Diskin and others insist that it must at least be recited in its entirety in Mussaf.”

So as you can see, there is sensitivity about this bowing-down matter, as well as some of the prayer verbalizations, going way back in history. The reference above is to the common practice of Christian kneeling but even more so to the fact that our belief is that non-Jews bow to little more than conceit, arrogance, and self-importance. Kneeling was a minor part of this problem; rather, it was the reference about the nations of the world worshipping little more than vanity.

Today, however, in modern societies anyway, we are focused on free speech, which means that here in the U.S. more than in other places, anyone can say just about anything and it comes under the rubric of free speech, free expression, or religious freedom.

Take LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who referred to President Trump as ““bum” after the president disinvited Stephen Curry from visiting the White House as a member of the Golden State Warriors, NBA champions. So James probably did not vote for Mr. Trump. He might not like him or his policies, but where is his decency and respect for the presidency?

And, by the way, it should not go unnoticed that these inane controversies are amplified by media outlets that are magnetically drawn to and even desperate to feature stories that the lowest common denominator can understand and relate to. And, frankly, the president’s habit of starting the day by tweeting whatever happens to be on his mind is certainly not helpful.

So there are knees, and then in a couple of days, in the late afternoon, there will be Ne’ilah, perhaps as an antidote to this spreading obsessive craziness that is supposed to be the ultimate protest of our flag, our country, and our president. This Shabbos during the avodah we will also be taking a knee, but with a contrary intent that involves prayer and humility, along with our petitioning on high for peace and good things for all.

 

The Kurds And The Jews

Kurdish pesh merga fighters in the 1990s

The Kurds and the Jews go way back. Perhaps that is just part of the reason why so many countries—including the United States—were concerned that the citizenry of the internationally unrecognized Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly earlier this week to move forward on independence.

The Kurds are a minority in a territory that is located partly in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. They are recognized as significant minorities in each of those countries but each prefers that they maintain that minority status and nothing more. It seems somewhat incongruous that these same countries are active advocates for the creation of Palestine mostly on the same stretches of land that are the sovereign state of Israel but in their own countries are determined to keep their Kurdish populations from achieving independence.

So attached are the histories and interests of the Kurds and the Jews that this week, in the aftermath of the Kurdish vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed members of his government not to comment on the matter of Kurdish independence.

Today there are 200,000 Kurdish Jews living in Israel but we do not hear much about them at all. They do, however, for the most part support an independent Kurdistan, but with Israel’s relations with the Sunni world in several Arab countries, this is not the time to actively express support for Kurdish independence.

So what exactly is that Jewish–Kurdish connection? Both groups have a shared history that goes back to the Babylonian exile. The first Jews in Kurdistan were among the last tribes of Israel taken from the land of Israel in the 8th century BCE, almost 3,000 years ago. The ruler at the time was Cyrus the Great of Persia—who the Talmud says may have been the son of Queen Esther—who was very kind to the Jews and even allowed them to return to Israel if they so desired. Many of those same Jews built and enjoyed a good life in Kurdistan and decided to stay at the time.

That was until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, when almost all the Kurdish Jews picked up and left to live in the newly established Jewish state. The Jewish exodus left civil society amongst the Kurds so bereft to the point that today Kurdish leaders still lament over the period that the Jews left.

Sixteen-hundred years ago, Saladin, a Kurdish leader who ruled Jerusalem, was also very kind to the Jews and notably hired a Jewish physician, the Rambam (Maimonides), as his doctor.

So the relationship extends deep into history with common experiences and aspirations shared by the two peoples. Today, part of the Kurdish territories in Iraq feature vast oil wells and they do a significant amount of oil exporting to other countries. The Kurds also have a formidable armed forces—the pesh merga—who have been quietly and surreptitiously trained by the Israeli military.

A large part of the Iranian concern about Kurdish independence is that such an independent state would allow Israel a base from which it could defend itself against Iran within close striking distance.

For now, Israel is lying low on the matter for politically expedient purposes, but with the Kurdish vote, that may change in the months and years ahead. Kurdish–Jewish history is intriguing as it is unknown to most. The two nations share a great past and perhaps they will be sharing an important future as well.

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

 

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