Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Stephen Miller shows that synagogues must teach Jewish values

Stephen Miller

(RNS) — It is the week following Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples — by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively.

On that night, I was at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I heard the doleful chanting of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. I heard pious Jews weeping over those epochal losses.

Their Hebrew refrain: mipnei chataeinu galinu me-artzeinu. “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.”

It’s all our fault.

That is what some Jews are saying about Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old senior White House adviser and chief campaign speechwriter for Donald Trump.

Miller is now the second-most-scrutinized Jew in the current administration (after Jared Kushner, of course).

He is a Jew who has espoused a radical right-wing agenda, which puts him outside the political and moral pale of the majority of American Jews.

He is an anomaly. Which prompts us to ask: Where did Stephen Miller “come from”?

Miller grew up in Santa Monica, Calif. He received his Jewish education at two local Reform synagogues. His father was a Jewish communal leader and generous to various Jewish causes.

And yet, according to an article in Vanity Fair, as a young teenager, Stephen Miller reportedly ended a friendship — simply because the friend was Latino.

From there, it was the express lane to embracing an extreme right-wing — even white-nationalist — political and social agenda.

At Duke University, Miller became friends with Richard Spencer, who would become the ideological powerhouse of the alt-right movement.

Miller’s right-wing views would help him attain positions as a spokesperson for prominent Republicans Michele Bachmann and John Shadegg.

Then, Miller became a policy adviser and communications director for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the United States attorney general.

Miller, along with Steve Bannon, is reputed to be the driving force behind Trump’s desired Muslim ban.

He has minimized the connection between Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem “The New Colossus,” with its compassion for beleaguered immigrants, and the Statue of Liberty upon which it appears.

In a clash with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the White House’s preferred immigration policy, he lambasted the reporter as a “cosmopolitan,” a term that has anti-Semitic connotations.

How could this have happened? Miller is the product of a Reform Jewish education. He should have imbibed Reform Judaism’s progressive values, shouldn’t he?

One of Miller’s childhood rabbis is my old friend Jeffrey Marx, of the Santa Monica Synagogue. He is a great rabbi.

This is what my colleague said about Miller: “We did our best here to teach Stephen the ethical standards of Judaism.”

So, let’s talk about Jewish education.

For too many American Jews, the goal of Jewish education is to teach our kids to decode Hebrew so they can be prepared for celebrating bar and bat mitzvah.

In the words of the singer Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

No, it isn’t. And many Jewish parents know it.

They know that they want their kids to learn the Jewish values — compassion, justice, love of the stranger, what it means to be created in God’s image — that are imbedded in those prayer texts.

Here is the problem.

We don’t have the time.

Many kids enroll in religious school in fourth grade, and far too many of them drop out after bar and bat mitzvah.

So, that’s four years.

Let’s assume that he or she attends 30 weeks of classes per year — at, say, three hours a week.

That’s 90 hours of Jewish education a year, times four years — 360 hours, total.

Assuming 12 waking hours a day, that amounts to one month of Jewish education. 

Most of it taking place before a kid can think abstractly and with any kind of nuance about the complex issues that face Jews and the world.

Here is the paradox.

American Jews (and America) need Jewish values and teachings more and more.

And yet, American Jews are learning about those values and teachings less and less.

Jewish values can only emerge out of what we would call a thick Jewish communal culture — where we have robust conversations about the role of Judaism in contemporary life; where we ask ourselves what the entire purpose of Jewish life should be.

Yes, religious school — however challenged that model might be.

But, also: Jewish youth programs, Jewish summer camps, Israel trips and social justice projects.

And, also, and indispensably: the sacred conversations that happen around the family table, especially on Shabbat and holidays.

Which begs the question: How many Passover seders did Stephen Miller attend in his life, the ritual meal at which Jews retell the story of the Exodus and rededicate themselves to caring for the stranger?

And did he pay attention to anything deeper than the brisket?

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the “Martini Judaism” column for RNS. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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  • As a Christian pastor I also bemoan the loss of our own communal culture and the values that went with it. It was once grounded in the home and reinforced by the solidarity found in a congregation. Like yeast, our two religious cultures leavened the loaf. But when the institution we call the American family failed and the churches spent their energy arguing over secondary issues, we also started to loose our common values. It would seem we have now passed a tipping point. So you have your Stephen Miller and we have Donald Trump. I fear it will take a long time to rebuild.

  • OTOH, I am not sorry that Jim Crow was overturned and that women have the right not to be beaten by their husbands. Shall I go on? These may be “secondary issues” to some, but not to me. Our “communal culture” was always at somebody else’s expense — whether it was the Irish or the Italians or gay people or women. When the church indulges in these romantic look-backs, we’re part of the problem. Yes, the past wasn’t all bad — but we need to be much more careful in these walks down memory lane.

  • But when the institution we call the American family failed and the
    churches spent their energy arguing over secondary issues, we also
    started to loose our common values.

    Do they require tightening? -;)

    In my humble opinion what really happened is that too many religious leaders became politicians and leaders of special interest groups pulling down huge salaries. In point of fact you (collective “you”) lost your way — not American values.

    Last time I checked those same religious leaders (some of whom are hate group leaders) have embraced Trump and his sociopathic agenda. They are rallying the faithful to support NoOneCares to replace Obamacare. They seem disinterested in the plight of dreamers, advocating for the most extreme immigration policies. They support harsh criminal justice including the inequitable capital punishment. They also support gun insanity which gets people injured and killed.

    They do not care. They became staunch Republicans and that is what really matters.

  • So you’d prefer Miller be a non religious self loathing liberal JINO? That meets your definition of “good jew”?

  • I used to live in Teaneck, NJ. It is a town with many rich Modern Orthodox Jews, doctors, professors and rabbis from Yeshiva University. The Kushner family had the largest home on the street with the wealthiest people, until the father was put away by Chris Christie.
    And one of the many synagogues in Teaneck is led by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, as reactionary a Trumpist as can be imagined. He has a blog if you’d like a taste.
    You’d think that a rabbi could figure out what “this is the bread of affliction, any who are hungry come and eat” has to do with social justice and broad topics in American life. But no.
    Sure I’d like to know what went wrong with Stephen Miller, but I’d really like to know what went wrong with Steven Pruzansky. It is easy to criticize the Reform movement in the US for not connecting children to ethical Judaism. The criticism has to be sharper for the Orthodox.
    (And sadly the author of the article has confused haroset and afikoman!)

  • It would seem the Jewish community in America is struggling equally and along with other subsets of our national culture, including the church. This is not to be wondered at given our common humanity, and the common human tendency to reframe our “values” from generation to generation.

  • There are millions of Jews in the US and, as a group, they are no more responsible for Stephen Miller than a church is responsible for Timothy McVeigh. In a world with free will and a country with free speech people will go their own way and there is no amount of education which will change them. The important point is that most Jews live honorable, mainstream lives while Stephen Miller is, in so many ways, an oddity, the Roy Cohn of his generation.

  • teaching jewish values??? when i, thought this is what resulted in the loss of two temples, enslavement, dispersion and holocausts. when teaching jewish values, rather than The Values Set by ELOHEEM.

    i believe the command, is to teach your children TheTorah and to Love ELOHEEM first without a lot of jewish bs along with it. since i can only find in TheTorah Scroll, where ELOHEEM only Loves those who loves THEM. and hates those, who do not love ELOHEEM.

    and is that not what we kind of do, is to allegedly love those who allegedly love us and hate those who allegedly don’t? even when in most cases, it is we lust for those to love us, and hate those who do not lust for us. when we know that lust, is a selfish and self serving kind of not love love.

    when there is, a lot of danger in doing what my neighbors religiously do just because they are my neighbors values. and not really true to ELOHEEM here in This ReAccounting, of The Whole Seven Day Physical Creation again from Noach to THEIR Male Child yehoshooah adam and his aside sister sarah as chaooah again. as The He and She HaMosheeach again for The Day of Rest prior to The Torah beginning with Noach to physically come again.

    Yes! that is right, the world to come again. is always going to be here in TheTorah, physically again to this whole world flunking kindergarten here in Always TheTorah Happening. even if it is the best twenty to 120 years of your life, never passing ELOHEEM’S kindergarten. in this world and their alleged higher degrees, without/against ELOHEEM.

    why does Only TheTorah, keep physically happening to us again and again? well take a good look around at all of your neighbors that do not believe we are all here in TheTorah Physical ReAccounting again. when according to scripture, The Male Child adam is the only one mentally all here in TheTorah at this exact same time again in This WHOLE Seven Day Story of The Physical Creation again.

    probably would have never of heard of ELOHEEM or The Torah ReAccounting we are all physically here in. had THEY not of come to tell me, all about it, just before i was seven physical years old again. with ANGELS, Angels, and angels glowing all over the place and with funny looking trumpets and clothes. as my physical body fell like dead in the dirt, and i stood up without my body as ELOHEEM Said “Behold!”. and said all kinds of impossible things, i thought could not be true or come true should the woman chaooah not do.

    Yes! i know that none of you, expected the physical return of this world’s grandmother and grandfather adam exactly as it says in TheTorah Scroll. since you all missed the previous coming of The He/She Adam somehow at the end of day four 1948 years earlier. so why would you expect the physical return of adam and sarah as chaooah again, here in TheTorah Physical Theocracy at this end of day six?

    just because you, all allowed that name change of Yeshooah(Adam) to jesus, esus, or heysus, trip your not here in The Torah mental triggers again.

  • Isnt that rich of the writer
    Stephen Miller a Jew calls a nonjew cosmopolitan and thats anti Semitic
    Reform jews dont have jewish values all they believe in is a made up religion of tikkun olam

  • except Edward, for Christians, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, so our values don’t change.

  • Actually, its the muslim who believe it is good to beat a woman.
    Quran (4:34) – “Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.”
    Quran (38:44) – “And take in your hand a green branch and beat her with it, and do not break your oath…”

  • I don’t think it’s about Judaism or values, it’s about power. Who tempted Mr. Miller with power? Who rewarded him when he acted in concert with his worst angels? No reason to fret too much over the failure of Reform values vis a vis Mr. Miller, consider the historic and epic failures of Christianity in the lives of so many criminal leaders educated in that faith.

  • Ahhh…. But isn’t there a divergence between “conservative” and “progressive” Christians. I sometimes am compelled to question the spiritual maturity and genuineness of some in either camp.

  • Actually, “progressive Christians” frighten me because they have walked so far away from the truth of scripture.

  • I do get that, but I remain confident that some of them are genuine followers of Christ, it remains a question of how far their progressivism extends and in what categories.

  • If I can find a link to the site, I’ll set it out for you. These people:
    2 Timothy 3:5 ESV / 26 helpful votes Helpful Not Helpful
    Having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
    Jeepers, Edward….they don’t believe God heals anyone any longer. They try to tell you that aspects of the Bible are not as they read, due to culture…..lol……they’re lost.
    If this doesn’t gag you, my friend, nothing will:
    http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian

  • I think you may be boxing people in. I don’t know the heart of every progressive Christian. It was the progressives, not the conservatives, who led the battle for racial justice in America, I’m good with that. Conservatives who are doctrinally sound, but fail to express compassion in their admonitions to the lost, are not any more effective in winning souls for Christ than the progressives who deny His Spirit, Power, and Authority. And I am about winning souls for Christ, no matter how long it takes to reach even one. I believe God heals, but He does not always use supernatural means. You’re right, much of what I see in progressive Christianity gags me, sometimes Christian conservatives gag me, and I’m an extremely conservative Christian. Paul spoke about being all things to all people; this was not an indication of scriptural compromise, but a desire to meet people where the are and gently but firmly draw them out of darkness. This is my aim. As to www. patheos.com., I’ve been there once or twice and am not inclined to return, for reasons you may well appreciate. I think as committed as we both are to the cause of Christ, our styles and strategies differ, even if our essential doctrine doesn’t. In my own experience, I generally do avoid those who “have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power.” That is, I avoid agreement with heresy, but I will still strive to win the heretic; except when it is evident that I will never persuade them…but perhaps another Christian will. God’s continued blessing to you.

  • I don’t know if I have ever explained to you some of my motivation in what and how I do this.
    I have a family member who walked away from the church because she went to a website called “soulforce”. Apparently the guy used to work with Billie Graham, so she gave him credibility due to that and justified her homosexual urges.
    She walked away from Christ.
    Now, we both know that if one walks away, they never really were a Christian, but, to see this happen and the atrocities I have further seen in her family because of her decision and a desire to “support” her, I just made up my mind that wherever and whenever I could, Christ’s word was going to be put online on this subject, and several others. That is why you really don’t see a lot of personal comments by me because I’m not here for me.
    I’m hoping that onlookers will see the Word of God, knowing it’s value and make decisions on the topic from there. There is a scripture that when God’s word comes from His mouth, he is responsible for how it is heard. I cannot think of it right now, but I’m pretty close on that analysis….anyway….He is in control of how it is heard. I just supply it.
    I love the family member very much, and don’t want to see anyone else fall into the bondage she put herself into because of lies on the internet. This is my attempt to assure the truth is at least online in an site considering itself “religious”.
    Also, I really don’t have a lot else to say on the matter aside from scripture, as that is the Word that we follow.
    Blessings to you Edward

  • Jeff, you are a “professional” Jew, so you spend more time thinking about this problem than most. This is an issue I think about, but I only have my own personal experience and currently unaffiliated perspective to offer. I’m likely to confuse terms, myself, but I’ll do my best to articulate something meaningful here.

    It seems to me the Reform Movement took a wrong turn that led people to confuse Jewish values with leftist values, thinking they are one and the same. They are not. They certainly overlap in places, but I think the confusion has led, in a critical and unfortunate way, to the subjugation of Jewish identity to identity with the left for many people. Often, in communicating with left-leaning Jews, I find huge holes in knowledge, and therefor experience, that account for choices that favor political identification with the left over political identification with Jews and being Jewish. This is most obvious, these days, with progressive Jewish positions on Israel, but other things, too. Jewish identity as an indigineous people, race relations and the Jewish place within all that are other examples. I think Reform religious education most definitely needs to be looked and improved, in a big way. If Reform Jews want to keep things going, it requires serious soul-searching and action.

    I believe, strongly, that progressive (and Reform) Jewish leadership have compromised Jewish power, certainly in the U.S. and Israel, in a misguided attempt to solidify relations with the non-Jewish left, which has grown increasingly hostile to Jewish, as well as Israeli, interests. Continuing to ignore this problem is leading us into danger. Of course, there are plenty of problems on the right, but I think it’s a mistake for Jews who lean left to be as attached to that identity as they are. Our unique experience of acceptance and success in America, I think, has led many Jews to blindly adopt an unrealistic sense of permanence and security on the left that Jewish history clearly tells us is a misguided.

    From my perspective, all, whether progressive, conservative or inbetween, Jewish, Christian or whatever, we must be wary of too much “group think” and group identification. Too much of anything can be too much. It seems to me, part of what is wrong with the world today is we have segregated ourselves so severely that people are no longer willing, or have forgotten how, to loosen up enough to cross the dividing lines to find common ground. Many people are terrified of this, because the consequences can be ugly when you do. I guess I’ve said more than enough. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  • Sandi, I really do appreciate what you have said here, and I’m casting no judgment at all. And yet I do struggle with one point you raised; that if someone walks away from the Word, then they never were saved at all. I believe that while there is life there is hope, and apart from blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, there is always the opportunity for redemption. Every road has its ups and downs. I think there must yet be hope for your family member. And I don’t ask that you abandon the Word, merely that you might express yourself with greater sympathy. I know this has been a difficult and challenging exchange for you, and I will not press you further, my sister in Christ.

  • Sad story, but very true. It’s the ethical values and worldview that make Judaism worthwhile to me. (Minor point – check your usage of “begs the question.” It’s common but incorrect.)

  • Edward, I love homosexuals and become quite perturbed at the crap that they are told by the public and the lies that are pushed at them – intended to send them to Hell. I just feel Christ said it the best, so I quote Him.
    If you are referring to how I answer the people trying to hurt the homosexuals when they argue:
    Ephesians 5:11 – New International Version
    Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
    I have little patience for people wanting to kill people they do not know. I know that sounds pretentious, but that is, in reality, what they are doing.
    Without people to question them, homosexuals wouldn’t have a chance at the truth on these pages. There is not time to candy coat as this may be the only chance homosexuals have at seeing the truth in today’s culture. Candy coating has it’s place, but not on a blog of this nature.

    As far as the person leaving the church:
    1 John 2:19
    New International Version
    They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

    I’ve been looking for this wonderful quote that I had….and I cannot find it…It stated basically that when they cannot overcome what you have said (scripture) they begin to pick at the person, then they try to round up a group to go against the person to invalidate what they are saying…..and it goes on.
    Someone convinced you Edward and I’m sorry to see that as we are on the same side on many issues. but I am not going to quit using scripture to help people.
    God bless you.

  • Well, I wasn’t asking you to cease using scripture at all, but your genuine concern for the lost, including homosexuals, does not seem to be reaching the very ones for whom you express concern, that worries me. If you desire to make the last comment, I’m prepared to receive it, but I think in this instance we both will have to allow the other their own strategy, to God’s greater glory if we are able. Continued good wishes to you. I’m sure we will find solid ground together in other exchanges.

  • Most definitely we will find the same ground, but I think not on this issue, my friend.
    As I related earlier, I think the complainers have more than likely convinced you of their point and you have not heard from any of the people the Lord has helped through me.
    God bless you Edward.

  • I would gladly receive any testimony on your behalf from others, perhaps it might even quiet those who revile you, if only temporarily. Certainly, you have those who have upvoted you on this forum. It honestly pains me that we haven’t seen eye to eye entirely on this question, and I was musing about that today, though this would not be the first time devoted believers came to a disagreement that they could not resolve. A pair named Paul and Barnabas come to mind. Peace always.

  • I personally know Stephen Miller because my son was murdered by a four time deported illegal alien. Stephen is a decent and honorable man and a true American patriot. Also, he’s no racist. This is a lie.

  • So proud of Stephen Miller he is the only admirable face of Judaism in the news whatsoever the rest of you reform Jews are Marxist embarrassments

  • Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to you husbands as to the Lord”; and similar advice for slaves in 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”..and the Bible condones slavery and subserviance even towards a cruel master..

  • Oh so you know him personally huh? Well I’ll just stop everything I was believing in just believe you now. I’ll just trust you I guess.

  • Google my son Spencer Golvach. This is how I know him. I know Trump as well.
    I’m sure you will reply with something like “ I’m glad your son is burning in hell”.
    I don’t care anymore. I don’t expect kind words from my enemies.

  • I am very sorry for your loss. A true tragedy. But Mr. Miller is consistently mean-spirited and supports racist policies. Because he tried to help you in your most difficult moments doesn’t dismiss his awful behavior at other times and the hateful ideas he espouses.

  • Steve …. I’m not sure what hateful behavior you are referring to. If I thought he was anti- (Semitic , Black , Hispanic or anything else), I wouldn’t work with him. I’m not into targeting ethnic groups. I don’t believe pigmentation has anything to do with a persons character. I’m only into asking my country to enforce our already existing immigration laws and defending our borders which is their end of the social contract.
    We have a right to know who is coming into our country. We also have a right to insist that immigration into this country is done on our terms.
    If opposing illegal immigration is racist, Mexico is racist because they crack down. Their law states that it doesn’t want its demographics changed. The only vibe I ever got from Stephen is that immigration should be as the naturalization section of the constitution prescribes it.
    Stephen himself is Orthodox Jewish which is a fine religion. The Torah does not promote massive thumbing of the nose at laws. I don’t believe it promotes hatred either. I don’t hate illegals nor do I believe Stephen does, I hate the effects of illegal immigration for obvious reasons. Stephen is a very brave man. He spoke up for my family. No one from the side that opposes him ever gave me the time of day.
    My kid meant NOTHING to any Democrat and nealy any Republican.
    We was expendable. I loved him more than life. He was all I had. I come from a family who has served this country. We pay our taxes and play by the rules. Yet, liberals acted as if we never existed,

  • My experience tells me that there really is no such thing as “the Jews” . There are these Jews and those Jews just like anyone else. There is no ideologically monolithic Vulcan mind melt as the author of “culture of critique” is propagating. Stephen is my friend. I know him not to be a bigot.

  • Exactly my point. Today, people like you think “there’s no such thing as ‘the Jews.’” On the left, Jews just keep morphing into whatever the left needs Jews to be. Today, the left demands that Jews abandon Israel, and Jews on the left are increasingly willing to do it. The left’s case against Israel contains a grain of truth but is shot through with lies, just like every case against the Jews through history contained a grain of truth but was shot through with lies. Jews are not thinking clearly.

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