Theodore Sorenson 1928-2010


— Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most people will be forgiven for not imagining that the late Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s close confidant and speechwriter, born in Nebraska to a father whose first name was Christian, might be Jewish.  But in the eyes of halacha he probably was.

Mr. Sorensen, who died on October 31 at the age of 82, was born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Annis Chaiken, although he was raised as a Unitarian.  He was responsible for much of the soaring oratory associated with President Kennedy, who once called the celebrated speechwriter his “intellectual blood bank.”  Sorensen had an extensive role (some say a full-fledged ghostwriting one) in producing Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, and the president included him in important foreign policy discussions, including those revolving around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a truly hot point in the Cold War.

More after the jump.
Although Sorensen was not a self-promoter, his death brought focus to the considerable role he played in the Kennedy White House and, thus, in American history.  And, for those who take pleasure in (or are suspicious about, or just find curious) the influence that Jews – recognizable as such or not – have come to wield on world affairs over the ages, he was but another good example.

As he was an example of the particular prominence of Jews in progressive causes.  In his teens, Sorensen registered with the military as a conscientious objector and in his later years he relentlessly championed liberal ideas and ideals, working with Nelson Mandela on voter registration in South Africa and with President Obama’s presidential campaign.  He served, too, as a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which seeks to pursue accountability for human rights abuses.

Such activities well fit the stereotype of the American liberal Jewish activist, which engenders pride or disdain depending on the observer.  What is striking, though, is how noticeable Jews are on the other side of the American political spectrum as well.  The Kristols and Podhoretzes, peres et fils, are examples that most readily come to mind.  But there are many others.  New York Times columnist David Brooks famously observed that for some people, “con” in the word “neocon,” is “short for ‘conservative,’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.”

So how exactly does one make sense of the fact that Jews, presumably channeling some deeply-ingrained ethnic inclination, end up moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

One approach is to simply note that Jews tend to be cerebral (a generalization, to be sure; many of us don’t seem to do much thinking at all) and so there will always be a good sized pool of bright and motivated Jews from which influential political players and activists of varied stripes will emerge.

But there is something else at work here, and it has less to do with brainpower than with a sense of Jewish mission, of wanting to better society.  To effect, in the phrase fashionable these days in some Jewish circles, tikkun olam – the “perfection of the world.”

And that drive, holy at its roots if not always in its fruit, has long taken Jews in different, sometimes diametric, directions.  Wherever on the political/social spectrum they may end up, though, what drives them there – often without their realization – is sourced in a desire… to serve G-d.

Yes, G-d.  The Torah makes clear that the Jew is intended to be an instrument of the Divine, to help bring the rest of the world to recognition of His glory.  That is true tikkun olam, as the phrase is used in the Aleinu prayer. Every Jew is hard-wired to want to do the will of the Creator.

The shame lies in the obliviousness of most Jews to how, in fact, they can create a better world.  To be sure, Jewish tradition requires empathy and charity; as it does personal responsibility and morality – “liberal” and “conservative” ideals alike.  But the Torah’s bottom line is that the observance and study of its laws comprise the ultimate path to perfection – our own personal perfection and that of the entire world.

Many Jews would – and do – scoff at that contention.  G-d, if they think of Him at all, is there to be beseeched for sustenance, health and success.  But making a better world, they insist, requires political or social activism; observing often challenging or arcane laws and studying ancient texts could not possibly lead to world peace, security and human welfare.  Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect.  But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews’ observance of the Torah’s laws somehow taxes their imagination.

And yet, the seed of that truth lies waiting somewhere in every Jew’s soul.  Sought out and nourished, it will grow.

The nourishment might be said to lie in a paraphrase of a thought often associated with Theodore Sorensen (although he insisted the words were those of his boss, the 35th president):  

Ask not what your Creator can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Creator.

Dispatching the Goat


The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Hunt had this framed in a picture with the quotations “Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows; Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted.” (Isaiah) and “And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.” (Leviticus)

May you be sealed for a good new year. G’mar chatima tova.
Best wishes for a meaningful and easy fast.

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the Two Goats.”

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal.  One lot read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.

Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they don’t dream.

I lay no claim to conversance with those truly deep meanings.  But pondering the “two goats” ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.

More after the jump

There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental.  Our existence is either a result of intent, or of accident.  And a corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.
If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left.  Human beings remain but evolved animals, their Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike.  To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial.  Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of mosquitoes.  

The Torah, of course, is based on the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.  Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.

Yet some resist that innate feeling, and adopt the perspective that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all that there is in the end.  The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place for Divinity.  It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those of us primed to perceive Him, but He has not left clear fingerprints on His Creation.

Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea that humans are beholden to something greater.  And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, would then allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.

It’s not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah – so strangely – as carrying away the sins of the people.

The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept.  Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.  

If, indeed, the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration born of its dispatching.  The animal’s being “laden with the sins” of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives.  The Talmudic rabbi Resh Lakish in fact said as much when he observed [Sotah 3a] that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.”

And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt.  And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by that thought to then turn and consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G-d.  So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have been able to better commit themselves to re-embracing the grand meaningfulness that is a human life.

We may lack the Two Goats ritual today, but we can certainly try all the same to absorb that eternally timely thought.