Rabbi Asher Finkel (1934-2020): Rest in Peace

Rabbi Dr. Asher Finkel
Professor Emeritus
Jewish-Christian Studies
Graduate Program
Seton Hall University

You are righteous, O Lord
And all your deeds are just;
All your ways are mercy and truth;
You are the Judge of the world.
(Book of Tobit 3:2)

As the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies and the Master’s Program in Jewish-Christian Studies commemorates 45 years of academic work, it is with great sadness that I share the news that Rabbi Asher Finkel departed from this world on August 17, 2020. He was surrounded by his beloved wife, Jane, and his children and grandchildren as he gave his life into the merciful hands of his Lord.

“You are righteous, Lord, and your judgment is right. True and righteous Judge, blessed are you, all whose judgments are righteous and true.” (Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, p. 738).

When we studied the Book of Tobit, probably from the third century B.C.E., Rabbi Finkel pointed to the above quoted prayer of Tobit as an example of the continuity in the tradition of Judaism. Over the decades of his teaching as well as in his publications, he often drew attention to the resonances of the Biblical heritage that are shared in teachings of the Rabbis and the Christian Scriptures. His knowledge of both Jewish and Christian classics was unparalleled!

Over several generations the Finkel family has brought the profound moral message of Lithuanian Jewish education to Israel and the Diaspora. Rabbi Finkel’s uncle had brought the entire Mir Yeshiva to safety in Shanghai in 1940, thanks to the heroic deeds of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania. This is background to the message in Mishpacha at the occasion of Rabbi Finkel’s death.

This story of Rabbi Finkel’s deep love of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) reminds me of a quotation in one of Father Thomas Stransky’s essays:

Youth, what man’s age is like doth show,
We may our ends by our beginnings know.
(Sir John Denham (1615-1669), On Prudence).

May Rabbi Asher Finkel be bound up in the bundle of life, in the care of the Lord, his God! (1 Samuel 25:29).

Lament over Beirut

In May 1965 my flight from Nicosia, Cyprus to Beirut arrived at night. As the plane approached, I thought of the words in the Gospel: “A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). This view of the city was beautiful! As I visited Lebanon I experienced the wonderful hospitality of the Middle East and learned how Christians, Muslims and Druse communities had developed a harmonious expression of political harmony that was shared to benefit all. Tragically, a decade later intrusive forces would disrupt the society and wreak havoc throughout the land. In recent years more than a million refugees from Syria have brought another challenge to a fragmented country.

On Tuesday, August 4th, a cache of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate left in 2014 by an unseaworthy ship exploded in the port area of the city, bringing death and devastation. What a disaster for the city, already struggling with political and social woes that are exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic! See the following reports in The New York Times: “As Smoke Clears in Beirut, Shock Turns to Anger” and “As French President Visits Beirut, Lebanese Ask Where Their Leaders Are.”

From ancient times in the Middle East, the destruction of a city by earthquake or war has led survivors to recite prayers of lament. The five poems in the Jewish Scriptures called the Book of Lamentations, mistakenly attributed to Jeremiah the prophet, might be recalled in relation to this tragic situation of Beirut. Of course, the inspired poet took the prayer of the people directly to God; this can be imitated by the people of Lebanon at this time as they struggle to forgive their leaders for the neglect that allowed this tragedy to happen. May we see that generous assistance is offered by our leaders as the restoration of necessities will enable the Lebanese people to survive. May they have the strength, with divine help, to bring Lebanon back to much better times!

Seafarers and Their Families

Prayer printed after the Message of His Eminence Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson on the occasion of Sea Sunday, July 12, 2020.

Do we who enjoy the use of goods from distant lands think of the ways in which they come to our stores? How many hands are involved in the sea vessels that transport many of the things we purchase? People who have enjoyed a cruise have noted that many of the staff on the ships are on the sea for months at a time, living in crowded conditions and dependent of tips for a supplement to their wages, which they send to their families.

We may think that the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with our daily lives, but many people are truly in dire situations. The New York Times recently provided insight into what they are facing in “They Crossed Oceans to Lift Their Families Out of Poverty. Now, They Need Help.”

The Catholic Church and other faith communities have shown a great concern for sailors and those who work on ships. The Second Sunday of July is “Sea Sunday” throughout Catholic communities. This year Peter Cardinal Turkson, Prefect of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, has addressed the situation of all those whose ordinary rhythm of months at sea and an annual visit to their homeland have faced unprecedented trials. His message and prayer are available on the Vatican website here.

One of the ancient titles for the Mother of Jesus is “Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.” The prayer printed after the address points to the many dangers that the poor face in their daily lives, especially in this time. Besides our prayers, are there ways we can help?

Internally Displaced Persons: Uprooted in Their Own Land

The plight of refugees has not been featured in the news media for several months.  The Covid-19 pandemic has absorbed our attention and, more recently, we are shocked by the abuse of authority when certain police officers transgress by excessive use of force. Then perhaps we fail to consider how vulnerable these people in transit are to these threats, and we are challenged again to collaborate in education regarding rights and duties of each person in our societies.

The universal Church urges us to be aware of the multitude of refugees and other migrants who are in search of a home and future for their families. The estimated number, more than 60 million, refers to those who have been forced to flee from their country because of war or natural disaster.

On January 9, 2020 Pope Francis drew attention to “the tragedy of internally displaced people as one of the challenges of our contemporary world.” The estimated number who have been driven by terroristic acts or war from their homes and livelihood is estimated to be 20 million.

In his address for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on May 13, 2020, Pope Francis offered a challenge: “To preserve our common home and make it conform more and more to God’s original plan. We must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded” (Osservatore Romano, May 15, 2020 p. 7).

In order to deal with this grave situation, Cardinal Michael Czerny of the new Dicastery of the Holy See on Integral Human Development has published “Pastoral Orientations on Internally Displaced People.” It is available here on the Vatican website (48 pages).

In the past we have drawn attention to the frequent and devastating attacks on Christian communities in the northeastern areas of Nigeria. This grim situation continues as The Tablet (London) reports in “COMECE urges defence of Christians in Nigeria.” 

The New York Times published the report of Ruth Maclean, “When the Soldiers Meant to Protect You Instead Come to Kill.” Attacks by terrorists and, it seems, by government soldiers have resulted in the death of 2,000 people in the last 18 months.  Internally displaced people are estimated to be 850,000. Among the desperate needs of such refugees is collaboration of Christians, Muslims and others to become part of a healing and restoration process. The first step, however, seems to be required of governments of each country with such a major problem. In the name of common decency and in a true response to the needs of people who desire peace for their families, may leaders in these countries be inspired to service of the most vulnerable!

Father Francis Morrisey, OMI- Requiescat in Pace

Father Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, Ph.D., JCD
(1936 – 2020)

The death of my classmate, Father Francis Morrisey, on May 23, 2020 in Ottawa brings a stellar servant of the Gospel to the completion of a priestly ministry with an impact on the universal Church.

From 1958-62 we studied theology and related subjects at St. Paul’s Seminary in Ottawa. As an Oblate of Mary Immaculate in the French province, Frank was a scholastic while I was a seminarian for the diocesan priesthood. He was always a cheery presence in the breaks between class. He went on to study Canon Law in a faculty that included great professors like Father Germain Lesage, OMI. Frank and I studied the 1917 Codex Juris Canonici, promulgated by Pope Benedict XV. In the preface to this Code, Cardinal Gaspari declared that it would endure until the end of time! However, Pope John XXIII convoked a commission to revise the Code; Father Morrissey was a contributor to this work that was promulgated in 1983. The vision of the Church as People of God in the New Covenant permeates the vision of the Law at the service of the faithful. The work of interpreting and applying the Gospel in delicate situations of tension within the Church and the wider society occupied Frank’s attention for the rest of his life.

“In recognition of his generous use of…expertise on behalf of health care professionals in the U.S., Canada and the world,” Fr. Morrisey received Catholic Health Association’s (CHA) Lifetime Achievement Award on June 10, 2019. CHA commemorated this honor with the video below:

On May 6, 2020, Saint Paul University awarded Fr. Morrisey the Eugène de Mazenod Medal. This medal honours individuals who have made significant contributions to make their community, their environment and society as a whole more just and humane.

“The Church has been enriched by Frank’s selfless outpouring and, through the Church, cultures and societies throughout the world have also been enriched,” noted Monsignor John Renken, Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at Saint Paul University. “He was esteemed and admired by a plethora of social innovators, church leaders and professional colleagues. He showed himself to be a faithful son of Saint Eugène de Mazenod, who envisioned bringing healing and hope to the peripheries of his own day. Frank has done the same in today’s world.” From St. Paul’s University (Ottawa, Canada) Reflection on Fr. Francis Morrisey

We pray for the happy repose of Father Morrisey’s soul, with the hope that he has been welcomed already into the Kingdom as a good and faithful servant!

Victory in Europe

Winston Churchill Waves to Crowd After V-E Day, End of War in Europe. Public Domain.

On May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. The “Act of Military Surrender” was signed in Rheims, France in the headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander. It went into effect on May 8th, ending the terrible conflict that began with the Nazi attack on Poland on September 1, 1939.

The report by military historian Rick Atkinson in The Wall Street Journal ends with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words on the challenge of rebuilding devastated Europe: “Forward, unflinching, unswerving, indomitable, till the whole task is done and the whole world safe and clean.” I presume that he meant safe from military attack and from polluting and polemical rhetoric.

The Wall Street Journal also published Benjamin Balint’s review of the biography of historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1915-1990) by Nancy Sinkoff, From Left to Right (Detroit: Wayne State Press). Dawidowicz’s book, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975) was very important. Balint remarks “where others had interpreted the genocide of the Jews more as a byproduct of the impersonal machinery of Germany’s war aims than a result of any special anti-Jewish animus, Dawidowicz understood what the Germans euphemistically call the ‘Final Solution’ as an intentional part of Nazi racial ideology, and end in itself.”

The tragedy of the entire Nazi period began in 1933 with official acts of bigotry against the Jews in Germany, as well as promotion of every kind of violence that culminated in the horrendous atrocities against Jews under the cover of war, blaming them for the world’s woes.

We have hoped that concerted efforts on the part of many people of good will to eliminate such hatred have been successful. However, Rabbi David Sandmel of the Anti-Defamation League has given a somber message recently: see “On Social Media, Haredi and Orthodox Jewish Communities are Scapegoated and Blamed for Covid-19.” The work of education and alert reactions to signs of stereotyping in local communities continue to be necessary everywhere!

The American Identity- Crisis at the Border

The “Great Minds Dialogues” is a series of lectures that complements Seton Hall University’s celebration of students who have shown great initiative in their studies and other activities, laying a foundation for a stellar future.  The School of Diplomacy and International Relations relates the call for excellence to be completed by seeing leadership as service.

Within this series, Sister Norma Pimental addressed the “Crisis at the Border” on February 6th in Bethany Hall.  Her qualifications and a video of her lecture can be found here. As Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma has led in the organization of this service of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.

Sister Norma could have presented data to show the accomplishments of her team in terms of efficiency and cost-effective use of resources. That would impress people celebrating “Great Minds.”

However, Sister Norma’s approach was anecdotal, describing the great effectiveness achieved when the heart is touched. Then the attitude of people “just doing their job” may be lifted to recognize the innate humanity of those depicted from afar as invasive hordes. Could Sister Norma be permitted to visit the children herded into prison cells?  She asked to go into a cell to pray with the children. This simple act had the potential for the guards to see these children from a different angle. Did they recall the parable of the “least of my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46)?

The opening prayer by Msgr. Anthony Ziccardi, Vice President for Mission and Ministry, places the challenge of our time in the proper prospective:

Almighty God,
long ago you commanded Abraham, our father in faith, to leave his homeland
and promised him and his descendants a new country.
You accompanied your elected people’s patriarchs in their migrations
and protected them in their wanderings.

You provided for them on their journeys
and in their long sojourn in a foreign land.
But suffering bitter oppression, they called out to you,
and you led them out of slavery with mighty hand and outstretched arm.
You settled them in the land of your promise
and commanded them both to fidelity and to welcome:
they were to remain true to their unity and identity as your people,
but they were are also to welcome the immigrant and the sojourner among them,
for thereby they would become a reflection of you in the world,
as Moses explained: “The Lord your God loves the alien,
giving him food and clothing. Love the alien, therefore;
for you yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Having received from you the whole wide earth as its temporal habitation,
humankind remains through time both settled and on the move.
Whenever and wherever conflicts arise between residents and sojourners,
turn the minds of both to thoughts of peace
and move their arms to open wide in mutual embrace
in the assurance
that peace, not enmity, is your will for us
and in the conviction
that none of us has here an enduring homeland or fixed abode,
but that such is to be found only in heaven,
the place of our true citizenship,
that home of countless mansions prepared by Christ your Son
where we have all been invited,
as your children and as brothers and sisters of one another,
to sit with all patriarchs at your one abundant table in the eternal kingdom.
We pray through same Christ our Lord.

Pope Francis to the City (Rome) and the World

At Christmas each year the Pope leads the faithful in prayer and proclaims a message “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and the World).

Now that we have entered the year 2020 with hope, the grim realities of the past year were placed by Pope Francis in a context of prayer and an earnest search for peace.

I wish to share this message in case some have not read it. Among the “trouble spots” in various continents, we think of the Middle East and pray for peace among all nations so that ordinary people will find tranquility and order as a sign of hope, pointing to the angelic prayer for peace among all beneficiaries of God’s good will (Luke 2:14).

The paragraph on African nations is especially poignant with reference to Christians who have been kidnapped by extremist groups.  May those who have been snatched from schools over several years and recently from the seminary of Kaduna diocese be returned safely!

“Jewish Genius” in The New York Times

On December 27, 2019 columnist Bret Stephens offered a reflection on “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” that received considerable attention. The Times published a short comment with a correction but The Jewish Week of December 31, 2019 provided a report that put the matter in a wider perspective: “Times Amends, Apologizes For Stephens Column.”

On December 22, 2019 The Wall Street Journal published Dominic Green’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s book, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 (Scribner, 2019). Getting away from the dangerous theories of eugenics that contributed to Nazi ideology, Mr. Green has a point that is pertinent to the current discussion:

There is no Jewish gene, Mr. Lebrecht argues, only Jewish genius; no “Jewish exceptionalism,” only an exceptional situation. Jews’ minds were sharpened by the hermeneutical whetstone of the Talmud, their lives perpetually threatened.  They were conditional insiders and eternal outsiders, “driven by a need to justify their existence in a hostile environment and to do it quickly.”

Probing the questions posed by Mr. Stephens requires more than a brief essay or even a book or two. May these efforts to ponder the mystery of one community’s contributions to society be made with a humble and generous spirit!

The Book of Life (Exodus 32:33)

Robert W. Service circa 1905

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was an Englishman who wandered widely and penned rollicking ballads of the Yukon gold rush days and poignant poems of the trenches of the First World War. He never claimed to be a poet. “I’m a rhymer,” he said, and yet his stories give evidence of a solid education and, at times, hints of his Christian faith

In May 1914 he described the beginning of each day as a clean page in the Book of Life. What we make of any given day will be seen on Judgment Day. The second stanza expresses the desire to re-write certain pages, and the third is a prayer for divine guidance so that his bearing reflects God’s image so that every day may be golden.

Another day of toil and strife,
Another page so white,
Within that fateful Log of Life
That I and all must write;
Another page without a stain
To make of as I may,
That done, I shall not see again
Until the Judgment Day.

Ah, could I, could I backward turn
The pages of that Book,
How often would I blench and burn!
How often loathe to look!
What pages would be meanly scrolled;
What smeared as if with mud;
A few, maybe, might gleam like gold,
Some scarlet seem as blood.

O Record grave, God guide my hand
And make me worthy be,
Since what I write to-day shall stand
To all eternity;
Aye, teach me, Lord of Life, I pray,
As I salute the sun,
To bear myself that every day
May be a Golden One.

Collected Poems of Robert Service (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921) p. 454