I was called to jury duty the other day. After sitting through an orientation, a video, a roll call, and a wait outside the courtroom, we were finally admitted. Inside, we heard shouting from the front. It turned out to be the defendant, who was loudly, and repeatedly, insisting that he was not getting a fair trial. Unfortunately, he flubbed his chance of getting any trial, because after a few minutes of nonstop ranting, the judge had him removed and we were all dismissed.
I have no idea if the man in question ever had, or will have, a fair trial or not. Certainly the Jewish people throughout history have often been as it were on trial in the court of non-Jewish opinion, where a guilty verdict has been rendered for the “crime” of … being Jewish.
October 11 marks Columbus Day, commemorating his voyage of 1492 that led to the discovery of the Americas. It was both a bad day and a good day for the Jews. Bad, because it coincided with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (deliberately set for Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning over the loss of the Temples and other tragedies). Good, because it led to the discovery of what would become a safe haven for Jewish people.
Columbus wrote in his diary: “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”*
Whether or not Columbus was himself Jewish has been a matter of intriguing debate. A Google search will turn up numerous pages on the subject such as this one. But as Columbus made his journey, the Jews of Spain and afterward Portugal made journeys of their own to what is known as the Sephardic Diaspora. Some headed to Amsterdam, some came to the New World, some went elsewhere. The first synagogue in North America was founded in 1654 by Jews who had first made their way to Recife, Brazil, but then, upon the arrival of the Portuguese, came up to the northern hemisphere.
Several weeks back was the observance of Yom Kippur, still another kind of “trial” in which, according to tradition, God’s judgment is sealed for another year — judgment as to whether we will be written in the Book of Life for yet another year.
To some, the trial of Yom Kippur is metaphor, a sort of reminder that we ought to behave better in the coming year. (Perhaps Yom Kippur should be made mandatory for all political candidates, Jewish or not. It might inspire a whole new level of political behavior.) For others, Yom Kippur has actually become a time to judge God Himself for His alleged crimes against humanity in failing to stem the spread of evil. I actually did hear a student-led Yom Kippur service some years ago where various ones came to the bima (lectern) to recite their poems “forgiving” God.
Why bring together Yom Kippur and Columbus Day? For many, Ferdinand and Isabella, Torquemada, and other self-appointed judges of Jewish fate are more real than God Himself. The well-being and shalom of the Jewish people, we are reminded, has appeared to often be at the mercy of those who were our overlords. Yet even as we work for our people’s shalom, we would do well to be reminded that God is the ultimate magistrate, who will both sustain the Jewish people and also judge us all.
As to sustaining the Jewish people, the often-melancholy prophet Jeremiah wrote this note of cheer:
- This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD Almighty is his name:
- “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”
And as to judging, the second Psalm contains this poetic passage:
- Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
- The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the LORD
and against his Anointed One.
- “Let us break their chains,” they say,
“and throw off their fetters.”
- The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
- Then he rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying
And, since God is a righteous judge, he would be remiss to judge the enemies of the Jewish people and not judge His own people as well. That, after all, is what Yom Kippur is about. Another prophet, Isaiah—he is perhaps the greatest of all prophets of the Hebrew Bible—said:
- Stop doing wrong,
- learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
- “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
In the end, no one will complain to God that they didn’t receive a fair trial.
And now, we’ll take a question.
Dear Rich, I thought this was the Jews for Jesus website. How come you didn’t mention Jesus in this blog?
Answer: What, it wasn’t long enough already? If you want to know how Jesus relates to trials, the law, and judgment, read the journey of a Jewish lawyer to Jesus, “How a Jewish Lawyer from Brooklyn Came to Believe in Jesus“. Or see the special courtroom edition of our limited-run webzine Y-Not.
*Quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 193.