October 19, 2007
My friends, God wants us to be perfect, so does Ann Coulter. However what God wants of us and what Ann seeks for us are two very different paths to perfection.
Let’s start with God in this week’s Torah portion. At the beginning of Genesis 17, the chapter that includes God’s call for circumcision as a sign of the covenant, we read the following: “Hithalech lifanai v’heyay tamim.” Translating this is a bit challenging. “Hithalech” means to walk, but it is a form of verb which implies that you are walking within yourself and with God at the same time. Following on earlier ideas, we might say that God calls upon us to walk within Divine footsteps, which will create a unique bond with the Eternal.
“V’heyay tamim” has been translated as be whole-hearted, pure hearted, reach for perfection, blameless, faultless. Noah is described as an “ish tam- a whole hearted or perfect individual.” Later on we read of sacrificial animals that are “tamim-without blemish.” These are the animals that are appropriate for sacrifice. Some scholars suggest that by performing circumcision, we remove a blemish from a ritual perspective, rendering us as more appropriate to serve God.
I liken this term “tam” to the Yiddish word “mensch.” Mensch is a term of high praise for men or women, who are whole-hearted, righteous people. They fulfill God’s teachings and the world is a better place because they have been in it. I don’t know that they are “perfect,” which implies without any flaws or blemishes on their record, but they come as close to it as we can imagine. We should all strive to walk with God and be menschen.
So, why do I say that Ann Coulter also wants us to be perfected, but in a very different fashion? Many of you are aware that Ann Coulter is a conservative political commentator, who has been known to make a variety of what most consider to be “outrageous statements,” sometimes about Gays and lesbians, other times about immigrants, forced conversion of Moslems to Christianity or even about the widows and widowers from 9/11.
On October 8 she was on CNBC’s television show, “The Big Idea,” hosted by Donnie Deutsch, a wealthy businessman, who happens to be Jewish. As part of the interview he asked her to describe her perfect America, to which she responded, it would be like New York during the Republican Convention. With further prodding, some might say baiting, by Donnie, she said it would be better if all were Christians. She goes on to say that she would like us all to be Christians and thereby we would be “perfected.” As far as she is concerned, we can still be Jews, but we have to accept Jesus and then we will be “perfected.” As I stated previously, this is a very different perspective from our understanding.
I must confess that I have only seen Ann Coulter on rare occasions and each time I have heard her, I find her babble to be obnoxious and often mean-spirited. While some may agree with her, she really does not speak for anyone beside herself. She is a beautiful blond with long legs, who captures your attention however she can. Controversy is the way she gains notoriety and while promoting a new book, making headlines never hurts.
In truth I do not believe that she deserves the attention that she is receiving from some quarters and the only reason I am bringing up the incident is because I think we can learn from it.
Some call for her to be banned from the airwaves. We don’t provide advocates of violence on mainstream media. Why should we provide someone who is often a hate mongerer with a forum? You would think that since Jews control the media, we could keep her off the air. So much for that stereotype! While I do not want to see her on television, I prefer that audiences be the ultimate censors. Besides with all the various paths for communication today, there will always be a vehicle for her to communicate. Smart people can simply turn her off.
As you might imagine, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying: “The Anti-Defamation League strongly condemns Ann Coulter for her anti-Semitic comment that Christians “want Jews to be perfected”… During her October 8 appearance, Coulter suggested that Jews should convert, adding that, “we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say. … That’s what Christianity is.”
I sometimes feel as though the ADL uses the term “anti-Semitism” too loosely. In this case, I don’t believe that Ann Coulter was making a statement about Jews as a people, which is usually the broad stroke of the term. Rather her comments are more about “anti-Judaism.” Correctly the ADL goes on to say:
“Ann Coulter may be a political pundit but she clearly knows very little about religious theology and interfaith issues. Coulter’s remarks are outrageous, offensive and a throwback to the centuries-old teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews are religiously inferior or imperfect because they do not accept Christian beliefs was the basis for 2,000 years of church-based anti-Semitism. While she is entitled to her beliefs, using mainstream media to espouse the idea that Judaism needs to be replaced with Christianity and that each individual Jew is somehow deficient and needs to be “perfected,” is rank Christian supersessionism and has been rejected by the Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations.”
Perhaps I am naïve, but in some ways I believe Coulter entered into an arena that she had no intention of going. However, she purports to be a fundamentalist Christian. Whether we as Jews like it or not, many Christian groups see it as their duty to bring Jews to Christ. It may not be PC, but it is a religious mission. Coulter claims to accept our Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament or Old Covenant (an important term on this particular Shabbat.) as the old path to God. She sees the New Testament as what she called the fast track, Federal Express to salvation. For her perfection comes from faith.
This is what the ADL is referring to as “supersessionism,” the idea that one Testament has superseded the other. They are correct when they say that this concept has now been rejected by the Catholic Church and many other mainstream Protestant groups. However, we have to realize two things. The fact that our testament, our covenant with God as Jews is now respected by the ecclesiastic authorities of a variety of churches does not mean that this new teaching has trickled down to the masses. Many more years of teaching will be necessary to break the impression left by centuries. Second is that this concept has not been embraced by many other “good Christians.” I use that term because these are good people (not necessarily Ann Coulter), but many are good people who have a very different view. They want to love us to death.
I am active as a rabbi in the interfaith community. A number of years ago we had a Continuing Education series to learn about other faiths. A Baptist Minister whom I had known for years came and taught. When asked about this issue of wanting to missionize to Jews, he responded respectfully: “I am here tonight because my friend Rabbi Loewy invited me to teach. I am here tonight because I want to share with you the perspectives of my faith and I am here tonight because in my heart of hearts I want you to find Jesus as your Savior.”
Rabbi Dr. David Sandmel, an expert on Christianity writes: “Christians who actively proselytize view the conversion of the Jews in entirely positive terms. Many of these Christians truly believe they love and respect the Jews — we are God’s chosen. From their perspective converting Jews hastens the second coming, and/or is the fulfillment of a commandment in the New Testament, and/or, on a spiritual level, is understood to be act of love (who wouldn’t want to be perfect?), and/or is a way of doing what Jesus would do. (Yes, there are baser motivations as well.) For many Jews, on the other hand, Christian mission to Jews is experienced as just a less violent form of genocide: its goal is to rid the world of Jews. This creates a major “disconnect” and is source of great friction.”
So how do we respond to such people? As Donny Deutsch did, we need to let them know that we find what they have said is offensive and insulting, but we can be more forceful. The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus has taught us as a Jewish people to reach for perfection through our deeds. Faith alone does not make God’s world a better place.
My colleague Stuart Federow has devoted much of his rabbinate to this issue. He teaches that we can and should say, with all due respect, your text and testament and covenant is not a continuation of ours. “To the contrary, it goes in a very different path. It contradicts our text and our testament and our covenant. To say that our Judaism is not enough, that we still need perfecting, even if we follow our faith, THAT is what is insulting. Our faith is enough without Jesus.” These may be strong words, but sometimes people need to realize that we are serious about our faith, just as they are about theirs.
Yes Ann, we do need to seek perfection, but we will do so in consonance with the covenant of Abraham and Sarah, which we Jews reaffirm on this Shabbat.