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Kingdom of Priests

I’ve learned to temper both my thoughts and how I express them — a little bit! — since I wrote a 1998 piece for First Things about the Holocaust in light of the Hebrew Bible that was subsequently denounced in the letters-to-the-editor section as “horrible,” “ghastly,” “blasphemy,” “appalling,” “racist,” “heartless,” “impious,” “hateful,” “primitive,” “cruel,” and “evil.”

Oh for those good old days before the Internet really got going, when such attacks in print were at least signed with the writer’s real name. I commend that daring and honorable practice to blog commenters, on this and all blogs.
Anyway, tonight some Jews will be observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, which is why that long ago essay is on my mind. There’s nothing in the piece that I would retract now. But I would say it a lot more sensitively. Here’s how it begins — see how innocently!

In a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River, a young woman I know lies awake at 5 a.m., wondering if the sun will rise. That fear has gripped her on more than one occasion recently. This is what happens. She is awakened by the sound of her children crying. Once she has quieted them down, she gets back into bed and looks out the window and thinks, What if the sun doesn’t come up this morning? She is entirely sane, I assure you, but the idea terrifies her until the sun actually does rise through her window, and she can fall asleep again beside her husband.

The other day she happened to mention this to me. I felt that I should console her, even half-playfully. But how? 

While giving all due respect to her anxieties, I tried to present a cool, rational view. On the one hand, I said, it has to be admitted that nature is in God’s hands. The meaning of the phrase used in insurance contracts, “Act of God,” is precisely that nature does not always follow predictable rules. The blessing we Jews say before recitation of the Sh’ma each morning acknowledges that the Lord m’chadesh b’chal yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit: God renews the work of creation every day, continually. Theoretically, it’s possible that God might choose to withhold the sun from us tomorrow morning. In the past, on at least one occasion, He has indeed halted the course of the heavenly bodies (see Joshua 10:13). In short, anything could happen.

You can read the rest for yourself. The back-and-forth between me and readers was also entertaining, with highlights including one distinguished Conservative rabbi charging me with the sin of false prophecy — a capital offense in Biblical law! Luckily, he assured me that he did not want to actually see me executed.

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