Sunday, May 26, 2013

Who says you're going to fail? / Shelach-lecha

When my first child was in kindergarten, she told me that she could not learn to read English. “Why?” I asked. Because, she explained, a person can read in only one language, and since she could read Hebrew, it would not be possible for her to now learn to read English. I have no idea where she got this notion, but she was so certain of its veracity that she paid no attention to the teacher’s efforts to teach the children to read.

Henry Ford is credited with having said: "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." The self-fulfilling prophecy is a well-documented powerful psychological phenomenon. No news here.

The story of the Twelve Spies sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, found in this week’s parashah Shelach-Lecha, reads very much like a primo example of the self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribe, each one a chieftain among them.” So Moses, by the Lord’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites. (Numbers 13:1-3)

Torah proceeds to list the names of the 12 tribal leaders of Israel. Ten of the twelve spies bring back a negative report; they say that the land is populated by unconquerable giants and even the land itself “devours it settlers” (Numbers 13:32). The fears of the Israelites rise to a panic:

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” And they said to one another, “Let us head back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4)

The result? God decrees that the Israelites should wander the Wilderness for forty years until the generation born into slavery had died. That generation was convinced it could not succeed, and indeed would make a self-fulfilling prophecy of their conviction. Torah presents it as God’s angry punishment, but perhaps God recognizes the power of a self-fulfilling prophesy on a national level. They would be (as Henry Ford pointed out) right.

The chapter of the spies is considered a travesty in Jewish religious history, so much so that Mishnah Ta’anit 4:5, in listing a series of “negative turning points” that led up to the destruction of the Second Temple, includes the episode of the spies. But according to biblical chronology, this occurred 2,000 years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. How could there be a connection 20 centuries later?

The Torah is clear enough about what transpired, but the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) fills in blanks we didn’t know even existed. When the spies come to report to Moses and Aaron, they find their leaders engaged in studying laws that will prevail exclusively in the Land of Israel: challah (the dough offering) and orlah [orlah is the status of produce prohibited during the first three years of the growth of a tree]. Moses and Aaron are thinking positively and actively preparing to enter the land. The ten spies, however, will soon set the entire nation back forty years.

And they came to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 13:26). They came and found them busy studying the laws concerning challah and orlah. [The ten spies who brought the negative report] said to them: “Now you in fact are not going to enter the land, and yet you are occupied with the laws of challah and orlah?!” Forthwith: Then all the congregation raised a loud cry; and the people wept that night (Numbers 13:26).

The Rabbis go on to describe the spies’ experience in the land of Canaan:

In every city they entered, the most important man in the city died. So while the people were busy burying him, [the spies] could reconnoiter the town and come out again, and no one even knew that they had been there.

What remarkable luck! The funeral of a dignitary in each city, occupying everyone’s attention. The scouts could go about their business unnoticed. The Yerushalmi paints us a picture that even surrounded by positive signs — Moses and Aaron studying up on laws that pertain to agriculture in the land, and the deaths of the leaders of the cities (which smacks of divine intervention to help the spies along) — even with these encouraging signs, ten spies succumb to a defeatist attitude which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for all Israel.

As we asked a moment ago: Why does the Yerushalmi connect this event with the Destruction of the Second Temple by telling us it also occurred on Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av)? After all, the Destruction happened 2,000 years later. And perhaps that is precisely what they want us to see: the consequences stretched through generation after generation, like a mutated gene or a toxin, repeatedly exacting a great cost.

There is no such thing as a single event in isolation. All the events of our lives are linked inseparably in the chain of our reality, the chain of our perception of what is possible and what is not. Sometimes negativity is bequeathed to us by previous generations.

This is true not only for nations, but also for individuals. Consider your own life. What negative messages from long ago abide with you and color your thinking about what you can and cannot accomplish? We all retain messages we have received along the way. Unless we can consciously confront and dismantle them, there is danger that we will internalize them and make them self-fulfilling prophecies.

Another option is for someone wonderful to dismantle them for us. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have such a someone in our lives. Happily, my daughter had that someone in kindergarten. I told my daughter’s teacher what my daughter had told me. The teacher smiled and said: “Leave it to me.” Some weeks later, while volunteering in the classroom, I found my daughter busily engaged in work I didn’t recognize. Peering over her shoulder, I was surprised to see that that the teacher had photocopied several pages of word problems from a third grade math book. The math wasn’t an issue — my daughter was passionate about math — but word problems? I said to the teacher, “What are you doing? She doesn’t read English.” The teacher smiled and replied, “She thinks she doesn’t read English. But she wants to do the math so badly that she has taught herself to read the English in order to get to the math. She just doesn’t know it yet.” And sure enough, when I asked my daughter if she was enjoying what she was doing, she grinned ear to ear and read me the problem she was working on. Without any realization she had read the problem to me, she said, “Math is such fun.”

An addendum:
There are formulations too numerous to count offering advice and instruction in how to change our self-defeating mindset in order to achieve our goals and avoid being plagued by self-fulfilling prophecies. Many formulations seem to boil down to three steps; I have added a fourth:

1.     Identify the things you want to create, explore, master, or attempt in your life, and what results you hope to achieve. Write them down.
2.     Develop a plan for accomplishing your goals. What will it take? How can you divide it into smaller, more manageable pieces or steps? Write them down.
3.     Examine the beliefs and the messages in your head that are holding you back. Write them down. Acknowledge them for what they are and jettison them.
4.     Yehoshuah b. Perachiah said: Acquire for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge everyone [including yourself!] for merit. (Pirke Avot 1:6)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Climbing the hierarchical ladder to the wall / B'haalotcha

The images from the Kotel Plaza in Jerusalem on Friday, May 10, 2013 are simultaneously wonderful and sad. Two weeks before, in a landmark ruling, Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that women wearing tallitot at the Kotel do not contravene “local custom.” Prior to this ruling, the women who have convened monthly since December 1, 1988 to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, were subjected to disruption, heckling, and physical threats by the haredim. They were regularly arrested and harassed by the police and accused of disturbing the public order. Judge Sobel’s ruling put an end to this perversion of civil justice and religious freedom. This past Friday, the police protected the women, thousands of whom gathered to pray and sing and give thanks.

How have we gotten to the point where Jews charge into battle against Jews who want to pray?

In this week’s parashah, B’haalotcha, God instructs Moses to prepare and ordain the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. Here we find a curious claim:

You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting. Assemble the whole Israelite community, and bring the Levites forward before the Lord. Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites, and let Aaron designate the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the Lord. (Numbers 8:9-11)

The Levites are themselves a sacrifice of sorts. Just as the priests will lay their hands on the animals designated for sacrifice, so the Israelites lay their hands on the Levites and designate them as the people’s sacrifice. Pretty heady stuff to be a levitical priest: God’s chosen among the chosen, intermediary between Israelites and God, the ones with the authority presented as mere animals for sacrifice.

Every society creates a hierarchy that lends power, authority, legitimacy, and privileges to those at the top. In the haredi world men run the show. Consider this charming passage from the Babylonian Talmud, which relegates women to the status of servants to men:

A heretic said to Rabban Gamliel, “Your God is a thief! As it is written, And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human, and he slept (Genesis 2:21).” [Rabban Gamliel’s] daughter said: “Leave him, for I will answer.” She said to the heretic, “Bring me an officer of the law.” He said to her, “Why?” “Thieves came upon us last night, took a silver vessel from us, and left a gold one in its place.” He said to her, “Would that he would come every day!” “And was it not favorable to Adam, that God took one rib from him, and gave him a maidservant (shifkha) to serve him?” (B.Sanhedrin 39a)

Many generations have had no difficulty recognizing the historical and social context of this passage and have refused to ascribe prescriptive authority to it. Haredim, in contrast, have enshrined it on their altar of regressive fundamentalism. Claiming that their views are the only ones God sanctions, they have done everything from attempting to force segregationon buses and sidewalks in Israel, to spitting on 8-year-old Naama Margolese, whom they deemed inappropriately dressed, on her way to school. (For the record, Naama’s family is modern Orthodox and she was dressed in long sleeves and a long skirt.)

And, of course, the haredim have claimed that their style of prayer, in which women have no role, or even presence, pertains in the public square, specifically the Kotel (the Western Wall).

The Jerusalem Post covered the Rosh Chodesh service last Friday, reporting that police formed a human barrier to protect the praying women, and three haredi men were arrested for disturbing the peace. Finally, basic human and religious rights are protected. How long it has taken the Israeli courts and politicians to begin to reject haredi misogyny and recognize the rights of half the population. While it is a wonderful step forward, it comes shamefully late.
The haredi are confronted with a new reality: Jews who no longer use Torah as a sledge hammer to elevate themselves to the pinnacle of an unjust and unrighteous hierarchy. They find themselves in pitched battled with Jews who refuse to allow an antiquated interpretation of Judaism to dominate in the Jewish State in the 21st century. Quoting directly from the Jerusalem Post article:

Rabbi Susan Silverman, comedian Sarah Silverman's sister who prays with the Women of the Wall, was at the protest where she said that haredi men spit globs of spit on her three daughters, she told The Jerusalem Post. Silverman also said that the haredim threw coffee at the Women of the Wall activists and that a little girl next to her was hit in the head with something hard.

Spitting? Throwing coffee? Pictures from Friday show men throwing chairs and stones, as well. To interpret Torah as countenancing such boorish and dangerous behavior is blasphemous. (Oh, and happy birthday, Susan! What a marvelous way to celebrate your 50th.)

Torah explains the elevation of the Levites this way:

Now I take the Levites instead of every first-born of the Israelites; and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary. (Numbers 8:18-19)

In the twisted thinking of these fundamentalists, God has designated them the true Jews, the only ones who understand and follow God’s will, the only ones capable of interpreting God’s will. Rabbi Silverman is quoted in the article as telling the reporter that haredi protesters represent "a fundamentalism and a belief in a single and very narrow view of God that I believe is idolatrous."

Rabbi Silverman’s charge of idolatry is entirely fitting. The haredim expend their energies protecting and worshiping their prerogatives and privileges — their position at the top of a ladder they have skillfully built with countless perverse interpretations of Torah. They do not enlarge Torah, they narrow its scope of justice, righteousness, and kindness. They are concerned only about themselves, not fellow Jews who are not part of their insular community, and certainly not anyone beyond the Jewish community. This is not Torah; this is idolatry.

Men who do not work to support their families, yet expect their wives to bear 8, 10, 12 children and work while raising them, men who refuse to serve in the army that protects them and their families, men who live off the largess of society in the form of millions upon millions of dollars worth of Israel welfare — this is not traditional Judaism. This is a new and frightening fundamentalism. Rabbi Silverman is quite correct: it is idolatry.

The first time Women of the Wall came to daven and read Torah at the Kotel, on December 1, 1988, men screamed, cursed, and threatened them from the other side of the barrier, yet Kotel Administrator Rabbi Yehuda Gertz refused to shut down the service. At the time, he stated, that they are “not violating Halakhah.” The haredim are retreating further and further into misogyny and fundamentalism. It’s not that they’re going back in time. There was never a time in Jewish history when women were treated this way.

The verses the women can be heard chanting in the video that accompanied the article are prescient:

Or chadash al Tzion ta’air / a new light will dawn on Zion…
Od lo avda tikvateinu, ha-tikvah sh’not alpayim / We have not lost our hope, the hope of 2000 years…

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gezuntheit!, Mr. Spock, amulets, and comets / Naso

How are “Gezuntheit!”, Mr. Spock, jewelry, and a comet crashing into earth and causing the extinction of humankind related?

How often have we said or heard, “Gezuntheit” or “God bless you” after a sneeze? We have been taught to say it, but do we think about what it means? Probably not — we’re being polite.

This week’s parashah, Naso, includes the most famous blessing of all time. In fact, its words comprise the earliest inscription of biblical text that has been found. Nearly 15 year ago, two amulets dating to the late seventh century B.C.E. were excavated in Ketef Hinnom outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon wrote of them:

This is now the earliest occurrence of a Biblical text in an extra-Biblical document, significantly predating the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is also the oldest extra-Biblical reference to YHWH, the God of Israel. (In Life in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, 1987, p. 306.)

Today, you can find pendants inscribed with this blessing, facsimiles of the Ketef Hinnom amulets.
Ketef Hinnom amulet

The blessing on the Ketef Hinnom amulets was invoked by the Priests in the Temple as they held their hands in a particular position. Leonard Nimoy used this hand position for Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Hand Salute in Star Trek. People who trace their descent from the kohanim of old sometimes have it carved into their grave markers.
This blessing has been invoked by many people in many situations. On the big screen, the president of the United States, as played by Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, invokes this blessing when he informs the nation that an approaching 7-mile wide comet may lead to the extinction of humanity.

By now you may have guessed that I’m talking about Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction of Numbers 6:22-27.

God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons saying, Thus shall you bless the Israelites: Say to them:

May God bless you and protect you.
May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God raise the divine countenance to you, and grant you peace.

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

The Priestly Benediction: Numbers 6:22-27 (The first letter of verse 25 is a letter missing from this graphic image of the Torah text. I don't know why.)
Birkat Kohanim has been studied, discussed, analyzed and explicated more times than I can count, through the lenses of history, halakhah, linguistics, psychology, Kabbalah, and even geometry. I won’t review them here, but rather note the structure I see and three things I learn from it.

First, structure. The three lines confer three separate blessings — protection, grace, and peace — the components of the life we all want to live: safety, comfort, and serenity. The most elemental is protection or security. Without a sense of basic security, life is out of control, chaotic, even savage. With safety reasonable secured, we can dare to hope and pray for grace, the gifts of heaven in whatever form they come (health, family, friendship, prosperity). With protection and grace, we have a shot at shleimut, genuine wholeness or peace.

To offer the Priestly Benediction is to offer what we all want and need, but cannot always assure for ourselves. We can forge loving relationships, pursue meaningful projects, and perform righteous deeds, but we cannot guarantee for ourselves protection, grace, and peace. Birkat Kohanim is all-encompassing; it’s about the really big stuff.

Next, three things I have learned.

First, we might be tempted to ask: why do we need priests to bless us? Why do we need anyone to bless us? The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a) provides insight here. The Rabbis imagine that God prays, just as we do. They therefore ask, as we would, “What prayer does God say?” Like good trial lawyers who never ask a question they cannot answer, the Rabbis tell us that God prays for the ability to control divine anger and approach us with mercy rather than strict justice. In other words, God prays for self-control. But apparently prayer isn’t enough, because God visits the High Priest R. Yishmael b. Elisha in the Holy of Holies and asks for a blessing. R. Yishmael has the perfect blessing for God, just what God needs and wants: “May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” Even God needs, and benefits from, a blessing. So much more so do we. We all need one another’s blessings — good wishes and expressions of love and caring, reminders of what is important, and the hope that God and the world will meet our needs and desires.

Second, blessings remind us that, in fact, we are already blessed. The trick is to be able to recognize our blessings. The Rabbis speak of hakarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, because the more we do so the happier and more satisfied we will be. Ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are content with their portion” (Pirke Avot 4:1). In other words, when we are pleased with what we have, we are rich with satisfaction. Rabbi Julian Sinclair tells a wonderful story of a rabbi whose hakarat ha-tov extended to bushes. In Rabbi Sinclair’s words:

Hakarat hatov extends to inanimate objects as well. Moses famously did not strike the Nile to catalyse the plague of blood for that would have shown a lack of gratitude to the water which had conveyed him in his ark to Pharoahs [sic] daughter. A modern-day example is of the late Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman, head of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael, who used to water the bushes in front of the yeshivah. For when fleeing Vilna, he had hidden behind some bushes and always felt a debt of gratitude to them, be they in Vilna or Jerusalem. Neither Moses nor Rabbi Gustman credited water or bushes with the will to chose to save them, but they recognised that to destroy or disregard something that once helped you is indeed a base trait.
Think for a moment: what are you grateful for? How have you been blessed, and by whom?

Third, counting our blessings leads to anava (humility). Humility is perhaps the greatest and most difficult middah (personality attribute) to cultivate, but the one that is the genesis and nexus of all middot. Ego is part of our natural make-up and, indeed, necessary for survival. We must value and appreciate ourselves. An overblown ego, however, separates us from others and from genuine happiness. It is natural to be proud of our achievements, but it helps to remember that we are all blessed with talent and potential. We didn’t earn them; they came installed with the hardware. We get credit for developing our potential and using our talents productively.

Torah doesn’t say when or how Birkat Kohanim should be conferred. The Rabbis, however, decided that it should be said at shacharit and musaf, as well as at Ne’ila, the closing service of Yom Kippur, ensuring that it is recited every day, year round. Even on Tisha B’Av it is recited at minchah. Not a day goes by that we are not blessed in some way. And perhaps not a day should go by that we do not extend, in some way, a blessing to another.

What blessing will you give someone else today?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, May 6, 2013

Names and Numbers / B'midbar

Sefer B’midbar (the Book of Numbers) opens with two chapters recounting names and numbers related to a census of the Israelites conducted in the second month of the second year of their Wilderness experience. I associate names and numbers, and counting up people, with the Holocaust. Human beings in a moral wilderness reduced to mere numbers tattooed on their bodies, and we now collect and memorialize their names.

Names and numbers: The National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, features a breathtaking exhibit called the “Tower of Faces.” Some 1,500 images taken between 1890 and 1941 of the 5,000 Jews of Ejszyszki (also spelled Eishishok) in Poland (now Lithuania) massacred by the Nazis in September 1941 tile the walls of the tower. The Tower of Faces is the work of Brooklyn College professor Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, who was born in the town. Of the 500 Jews who escaped slaughter, only 29 survived the war. Eliach has “rebuilt” Ejszyszki in photographs, preserving their names and memories.

Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
More names and numbers: At Yad Vashem in Israel, the “Hall of Names” memorializes the Six Million. It houses short biographies of the victims. The center hall has a domed ceiling filled with 600 photographs of the Six Million.

Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Israel
Both the “Tower of Faces” and the “Hall of Names” try to restore both names and faces to the dehumanized victims of the Nazis. So much time and effort has gone into cataloguing the names of those who perished in order to preserve their sacred memories. This is as it ought to be. We can do no less in response to a travesty that tore people’s names from them and left them only with numbers.

The Nazis are often likened to Amalek, the quintessentially evil nation that attacked the Israelites during their march through the Wilderness (Exodus 17:8-10). Amalek’s unforgiveable sin was not in fomenting war. The Amalekites attacked not the soldiers at the head of the line, but rather attacked from the rear, slaughtering the most vulnerable: the elderly, the infirmed, and children at the back of the line. For this reason, the Amalekites become the paradigm and symbol of unredeemable evil. Torah tells us:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, [they] surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

What a peculiar and seemingly contradictory requirement: to remember the Amalekites, and yet to blot out their memory. How do we explain this? Purim provides a hint. According to tradition, Haman, who set in motion a plan to kill all the Jews of Persia, was descended from the Amalekites. We read Haman’s name in the Megillah many times but also drown out his name with noisemakers.

What’s in a name? Should we seek to wipe out the names of the worst of the worst: Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler? Do they belong with Amalek and Haman yimach shemam (may their names be blotted out)? Perhaps here is where the Torah’s subtle wisdom rises to the fore: we are also commanded to remember.

Now we have another and surprising reason to recall Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and Hitler. Each of them — the very quintessence of human evil — has a Jewish descendant in his family tree.

Colleen Rosenblatt is the granddaughter of Magda Goebbels, wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Colleen converted to Judaism at the age of 24, married a Jewish man, and raised a Jewish daughter. Today she lives in Germany where she designs jewelry.

Matthias Goering, a physiotherapist, is the grandnephew of the Nazi Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering. Matthias grew up in a virulently anti-Semitic family yet he found his way to Judaism. He is reportedly in the process of converting. He lives an observant Jewish life, keeping kosher, observing shabbat and wearing a kippah, among other practices. He has said, "I used to feel cursed by my name. Now I feel blessed."

Katrin Himmler, great-grandniece of the SS commander Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust, published The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History in 2007. That same year, she told an interviewer: “Many times during my research it was quite difficult for me to go on. As things were revealed it became more and more shocking. We descendants were left in no doubt about what Heinrich had done. But his actions cast a large shadow that the rest of the family were standing in, many of them hiding in there.” Katrin Himmler married (and is now divorced from) an Israeli, the child of survivors, whose father was in the Warsaw ghetto.

And then there is Dr. Michael Mach, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, who claims to be a descendant of Hitler. It’s a rather complicated story, so hold on for a rough ride. The account goes like this: Adolf Hitler had a half-brother named Alois. Alois had an illegitimate son named Hans who married a woman named Erna after Erna’s divorce from her first husband. Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler family and remained a die-hard anti-Semite throughout her life. Her daughter (from her first marriage) is the mother of Prof. Mach. In order to avoid conscription into the Germany army, Mach pursued a theology degree that brought him to Israel for six weeks in 1970. "I felt at home. I was no longer living in a conflict. I didn't have to reject the older generation. And I thought I had met for the first time a nationality that at that point in history — today it is more problematic — still had good reasons to be proud of itself." He stayed and converted.

Strangely, the Talmud records that another honorary descendant of Amalek converted to Judaism. Amidst a longer account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, we are told:
He [the emperor] sent against [the Jews] Nero the Caesar. As he was coming, [Nero] shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy: “Repeat to me [the last] verse of Scripture you have learned.” [The boy] said: And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel [Ezekiel 25:14]. [Nero] said: The Holy One, blessed be God, desires to lay waste the House [i.e. the Temple] and to lay the blame on me. So [Nero] ran away and became a proselyte, and R. Meir was descended from him. (Gittin 56a)
Talmud is telling us that not only did Nero, himself, convert to Judaism, but the great R. Meir was descended from him.

Not long ago we thought the names Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler should be blotted out, yet now they are attached in various ways to Jews. Would you ever have imagined?

What’s in a name? Sometimes just what we thought, but sometimes far more.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman