The year 2014/5774 marks a 50th anniversary milestone in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act enacted by the 88th Congress. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of that moment. The past 50 years of progress in the rights of women, the movement for the freedom of Soviet Jews, as well as the struggle for liberation for the LGBTQ community all are predicated on the success and strategy of Dr. King and his supporters.
The act was the culmination of years of marches, sit-ins and protests. In this brief article, I would like to honor the contribution to the struggle by four heroic American rabbis, two of national prominence and two local Seattle-area heroes.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Joachim Prinz were two “brands plucked from the fire” of the Holocaust, both of whom rose to national prominence primarily due to their association with Dr. King.
Heschel marched with King in Selma and his oft-quoted reflection, “I felt that my feet were praying,” is one of the signal mottos of the movement. Dr. Heschel, who was also a Biblical scholar and poet, was the first to express the solidarity of Jews with their African-American brothers and sisters. His remarks at a conference of “religion and racism” on January 14, 1963 are as relevant today as when he spoke these words over 50 years ago:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses….
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?...
Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.
A few months later, at the historic march on Washington, another refugee rabbi, Joachim Prinz, was given the unenviable task of speaking directly before Dr. King. Clearly they had not compared texts because Prinz’s words were so close to the words that followed. To me, the words of this man who served a congregation in Berlin under Nazi rule are just as eloquent and even more poignant. Though forgotten largely by history, they deserve to be read over and over again:
As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.
As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.
In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity….
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.
One month before the signing of the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King was joined by 16 rabbis from the Central Conference (Reform) on a historic march in St. Augustine, Fla. in support of voting rights, still relevant to this day. The rabbis were all arrested and spent a night in jail for trespassing and civil disobedience. One of the 16 was a young rabbi from Temple Beth Am in Seattle, Rabbi Norman Hirsh. The placard he carried can still be found in the library of his congregation 50 years later. The rabbis composed a letter from the jail, signed by all of them, titled “Why We Went.” Rabbi Hirsh, thank God, is still with us today. Here is an excerpt from that historic letter he composed with his colleagues:
We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….
We believe, though we could not count on it in advance, that our presence and actions here have been of practical effect. They have reminded the embattled Negoes here that they are not isolated and alone. The conscience of the wicked has been troubled, while that of the righteous has gained new strength. We are more certain than before that this cause is invincible, but we also have a sharpened awareness of the great effort and sacrifice which will be required. We pray that what we have done may lead us on to further actions and persuade others who still stand hesitantly to take the stand they know is just.
Finally, another heroic rabbi from Seattle: Rabbi Raphael H. Levine, of blessed memory, the senior rabbi of Temple De Hirsch prior to its merger with Sinai. It is little remembered that Dr. King visited Seattle only one time is his life: In November of 1961.
Those of you not born then may not realize how vilified King was at that point and how controversial his visit to Seattle was. That our county is now officially named for him (and not the original King, an obscure, slave-owning vice president) would be astonishing to virtually everyone at that time.
The great Rev. Dr. Samuel McKinney (still with us, thank God) was a friend and classmate of King and had invited him to speak at his church, Mt. Zion Baptist. But McKinney also wanted a larger and more public venue for his friend. He had received permission for the speech from a large (white) downtown Protestant church, which I will leave unnamed. At the last minute, no doubt due to pressure from lay leaders, the church rescinded the invitation. Dr. McKinney approached his friend and neighbor Rabbi Levine, who without hesitation (and, I suspect, without board approval) gave his unstinting approval.
On November 11, 1961, Dr. King addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Temple De Hirsch and the world and Seattle began to change. President Obama would be the first to declare: “Without people like Rabbi Levine and Rabbi Hirsh, I would not be president of the United States.”
Let us be grateful for rabbis like these four. Those of us who have come after can only hope to be half the leaders they were — if that much. Fifty years later, there is still much to be done.
We should be comforted and challenged by the words of Pirke Avot: “You are not obligated to complete to task, but you are certainly not exempt from doing your share.”
It was a spring evening in the mid-’60s; a group of young students from NYU came for a private audience with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
The group was mostly young boys and girls from secular homes who wanted an opportunity to converse with the Rebbe, and ask about what was on their minds. They were granted a 20-minute meeting with the Rebbe and they came prepared with questions. The Rebbe answered their questions incisively and shared with them the Torah perspective on many issues relevant to their lives.
The 20 minutes passed quickly. The Rebbe’s secretary knocked on the door to let them know their time was up. Suddenly, a boy in the group who was “blessed” with a bit of chutzpah turned to the Rebbe and said, “Rebbe, may I ask one final question before we leave? This will be the final question of the evening.”
The Rebbe granted him permission and the boy asked: “Rebbe, are we good Jews or are we bad Jews?” The room was still and silent.
The Rebbe smiled and replied: “To be Jewish is to climb a ladder. Each and every one of us is climbing that ladder. The ladder has 613 rungs with many more sub-rungs. If you are on rung 613 but you are going toward the 612th rung, you are going in the wrong direction. However, if you are on the first rung and heading up, you are going in the right direction.
“Let me ask you, you American students, at this hour of the night, in New York City, choosing to take your time to visit a rabbi to discuss Jewish values and ethics,” the Rebbe concluded, “are you good Jews or bad Jews”?
It’s all about direction. We are all truly the same; we all have our own challenges and difficulties in our Jewish experience. Some have a hard time with observing Shabbat, others struggle with providing their children with an authentic Jewish education, and some find it hard to give of their hard-earned money to charity. Everyone battles something.
The important thing is not to put yourself in a box. I often speak to people who claim to be “bad Jews.” They feel inadequate if they don’t look a certain way or do a certain thing. So they put themselves in a box with a big label that says “High-Holiday Jew, open for High Holidays only.” Or, “non-synagogue goer, not for use in a shul.”
Once in the box, we are less inclined to change and we fall into a quasi-comfort zone, which we are not entirely comfortable in, but too complacent to get out of.
It is critical to understand that connecting to God is an infinite pursuit. To claim to have reached the apex of that journey is to go in the wrong direction.
Rather than feel guilty about what point we might be in our journey, let’s look up, and continue to climb.
We can’t quantify the value of the mitzvot we do. Let’s not look at others and say, “There’s no way I can be like him.” Rather, let’s ask ourselves, “How have I improved today?”
To illustrate this idea, Chassidim would recount a story of the czar’s army, which was renowned for its high level of discipline. One night a group of soldiers escaped from the army base to the nearest town to get a drink at the local bar. One drink led to another and suddenly they realized it was almost dawn. They got up and started to run back to the base. So inebriated were the soldiers that they collapsed and fell asleep at the side of the road.
A short while later, an army officer rode by, noticed the scene, and wrote down the names of the sleeping soldiers, then continued toward the base. Several hours later, the soldiers sobered up and hurried to the army base, fearing what awaited them for missing the morning line-up. Upon arrival they were sent to the officer’s tent, prepared for the worst. To their amazement, the officer greeted them all with a big smile and said: “I truly understand you, living on this base for so long without a drink must be really difficult; you are forgiven for what you did, just don’t do it again.”
Suddenly he turned to one of the soldiers, his face filled with rage and anger, and said: “You, however, will receive a severe punishment.”
This poor soldier, feeling like a scapegoat, demanded an explanation for this unfair verdict. The officer explained: “The reason for your severe punishment is because when I found you on the side of the road sleeping, I observed that all the soldiers, even in their stupor, fell facing the army base, their final destination. You, on the other hand, were the only one who fell facing the direction of the bar. And for this you deserve to be punished.”
This story is a good analogy: In life we will sometimes fall asleep, our daily struggles and challenges have a way of immobilizing, preventing us from reaching our fullest. But we can at least make a conscientious decision to fall asleep facing the right direction so when we muster the strength to get up, we may continue heading toward that destination.
Let us hold hands as we climb the ladder of Judaism together, helping and lifting one another as we stumble on our way up. Let’s strap on our climbing shoes — things are looking up.
After having lived most of my life in California, New York, and New Jersey, I took a job in 1993 in St. Louis, Missouri. I had never lived in the Midwest, and St. Louis has a touch of the Southern in its culture, as well. There were so many aspects of my new life there that surprised me. One of them was the way people dressed up: At work, for parties — really, almost any time you had to be out in public.
After 12 years in Missouri, I moved here to Seattle, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. People wear jeans to Shabbat services, fleece in every season, and teenage boys seem to get away with shorts and flip-flops even in the dead of winter.
Does what you wear really matter? Our culture is certainly obsessed with it. All you have to do is look at the fashion models walking down the runways, or the designer fashion lines in every store.
I think that humanity’s fascination with clothing goes back to the beginning of time. So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, starts out with a description of the clothes that the priests were supposed to wear. We all know the phrase, “the clothes don’t make the man,” yet in this case, the clothing of the priests were considered incredibly important. In fact, I bet that when the average Moshe or Sarah looked at the priests, they were probably in as much shock as I was when I first arrived in this drizzly land.
Aaron and his sons were each supposed to wear a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. Each item was made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns. But it gets even better than that. The breastpiece of decision was supposed to have 12 stones in it. It’s hard to figure out exactly how to translate the names of the stones, but the new JPS translation says: “carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper, all framed in gold.” Wow! Did normal Israelites walk around in such finery? My guess is no.
When Rashi, the famous 11th-century French commentator, read this passage, he noticed something else unusual. He noticed that some of the stones on this list are rare and valuable, while others are common and inexpensive. Why would this be so? “To remind us to treat the rich and the poor evenly and fairly when we judge a case,” he explains.
When I first read this, I was blown away. Even while the priests were dressed in incredible finery, the 12 stones on the breastpiece were supposed to remind them to treat rich and poor alike. The priests’ clothes were supposed to instruct them, making sure that they did not let their finery go to their head.
I am a Jewish educator, so when I read about the 12 stones, I immediately think about children. After all, if you have a class of 12 children, you will have 12 absolutely unique individuals. But what this week’s Torah portion tells us is that every one of them needs to be respected as an individual. Every one of our children needs to be seen as his or her own little miracle. Every one of them needs to be treated fairly, so that whether rich or poor, shy or outgoing, beautiful or awkward, each of them will be respected, loved, cherished, and helped along the path to becoming menschen.
May our community take to heart this lesson. May it instruct us not only to treat rich and poor alike, but to tear down barriers to opportunities that might only be available only to some children and not to others. May it remind us to treat each individual child in our community as if he or she were made in God’s image. May we treat all of our children fairly, giving them what they individually need to be successful. May we also fill our community with teachers who truly understand this deep in their hearts and their souls. This is the gift of this week’s Torah portion. May we live it and cherish it, and may it make our children shine like the jewels they truly are.
Rabbi Janine Schloss is the director of education at Temple Beth Am in Seattle.
Every once in a while, Seattle gets a visit from Old Jerusalem. An elderly fellow with a white beard, a full smile, and a strained walk, “Uncle Chaim from Yerushalayim” is how he is known. His sweetness and simplicity endears him to us all. And he likes to tell stories. Sitting in Seward Park, Uncle Chaim has transported us to places as far as Baranovitch, as cold as Lechovitch, and as intense as the inner room of his rabbi. Truthfully, Uncle Chaim has become a story. It got me thinking about stories…
There is something exceptional to the story. Whenever it appears it invites me inside, I accept. It grabs my attention. It stills my roving mind. I am quickly lost within it and live within its reality. But, more than I enter it, it enters me. And that’s what makes it so right for conveying a message. Couched within the lure and authenticity of the story, I am ready to receive its teaching.
So perfect of a vehicle is it that God Himself chose it as a medium of His message. In two ways does the Torah communicate the Divine will to us, mitzvot and stories. Mitzvot instruct, stories demonstrate. Mitzvot tell what is to be done. Stories show how they are to be done. Mitzvot are communicated directly. Stories teach by inference. Mitzvot tell us what we are to do. Stories tell us how we are to be.
Torah is neither a book of history nor a book of laws. It is a book of communication of the Divine will, through two mediums. We mine the mitzvot in study, to derive how they are to be done, teasing the depth out of the written word. We mine the stories in study, to derive an understanding of proper character.
We are told to tell stories. Tell your children what happened in Egypt. Tell it graphically, say the Sages, as if you were there. From the story your children will know there is a God who created, who cares, who is involved, and they may extrapolate it to their lives where God may seem silent. When they are gathered around your table on that majestic night, see them forge a connection with past and imbibe it for their future.
We are told to tell what happened at Sinai not only to our children, but to our grandchildren. Describe the awesome rendezvous, when God united with a people and left them with a way back through a book. As they sit upon the lap of their grandparent, stories sharing, eyes absorbing, share with them also this.
Remember days of old, we are told. “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” Tell your children stories of long and short ago — family stories, personal stories to root them in tradition, for “tradition”? No, for a living, vibrant, meaningful legacy.
There is something more to the story. We need to hear stories, for stories expand the man. Hearing about a great person do the very thing you did, but in the way a great person does it, expands your perception of that very thing. I thought I knew about prayer from reading about it. Then I met a man of prayer. I met prayer.
Rav Nachman of Breslov said the whole world tells stories to put people to sleep, I will tell stories to wake them up. The story has the power to awaken. To arouse. To spark. To ignite. To cause to blossom.
Most of all, we have to become stories. Sitting in the company of tellers who carried their stories, were changed by them, were alive from them, I became. When we teach, students and children understand. But when they see, they can become. Hear God’s story. Tell His story. Tell your story. Be a story. Become.
Rabbi Shmuel Brody is the rabbi of Congregation Ashreichem Yisrael (The Kehilla) in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, where he can often be heard sharing stories of meaning. To drop in for a story telling evening, contact the rabbi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit online at http://www.ashreichemyisrael.com.
The tradition tells of a blind man, holding a blazing torch, walking a dark road late one night. A rabbi coming from the other direction recognizes the man as he approaches and asks, “Why do you need a torch? It isn’t going to help you see in the dark.”
The blind man replies, “The light isn’t to help me see. It is so you will see me and help me find my way.”
We all have torches we carry — some to help us see and others to help us be seen. Despite the fact our cities produce so much light they obscure the heavens each night, far too many of us suffer alone in darkness. The darkness brought on by the various forms of poverty is as viral as a plague.
Almost a half century ago, President Lyndon Johnson wanted to understand the riots afflicting America’s cities. The resulting 1968 Kerner Report conveyed the stark assertion that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Today, the Kerner prediction of “two Americas” is coming to pass. We are becoming two nations, but that division follows the fault line of declining economic mobility and spreading isolation. At some point in their childhoods, half of all American children will live in households using food stamps — one half! Roughly 17 million U.S. children currently live in hunger.
We have the ability to feed our children both physically and emotionally, but either we don’t have the will or we lack the awareness. Because of our own blind spots, many of those we pass every day are doomed to stumble in darkness. Because of our own spiritual poverty, we don’t pause to recognize the hunger in those around us. This poverty and hunger extend beyond economics.
For many of us, the experience of our own economic poverty can seem distant in our Biblical past. We need only go back to the stories of our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents to realize how close it really is. Yet, as many of our families have climbed further up the economic ladder, we have not looked back to repair the rungs below us, causing the gaps to widen and eventually become all but impassable. Fifty percent of us will experience economic poverty, but 100 percent of us will suffer from the existential poverty of loneliness at some point in our lives.
We would do well to realize that when we help someone else find a way out of the darkness caused by poverty or isolation, we find ourselves becoming more nourished. As we give freely of our light, of our wealth and our privilege, our brightness is not diminished. It is expanded. As Pope Francis recently said, “When we love our brothers and sisters we walk in the light. But if our heart is closed...then darkness falls within us, and around us.”
Many years ago there was a child who wouldn’t go to sleep. She just kept staring out the window into the night. Exasperated, her father finally asked, “What are you looking at out there?” Pulling back the curtain, all he saw were the old lamplighters who went about their nightly task with a ladder and a torch, setting the street lamps aflame for the night. The young girl saw something deeper. Turning back to her father, she said, “Look at those men! They are punching holes in the darkness!”
And that is our task as well — to punch holes in the darkness and share freely the light we were given, so it may ignite the flames of hope to those around us. In so doing the light from the heavens will not be diminished. They will burn even brighter.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz will give the keynote speech at the United Way’s Martin Luther King Day of Service on Mon., Jan. 20 at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, 3931 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle.
Rabbi Haninah, the son of Papa, says (in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot, page 35b): “Anyone who enjoys anything from this world without a blessing, it is as if they have stolen from God and the community of Israel.”
What a statement — to be guilty for just eating the delicious piece of fruit I bought at the farmer’s market, or perhaps picked from my very own garden, or delivered to me by my neighbor. And guilty of stealing not only from God, but also the community of Israel.
And if one is guilty for stealing if you don’t say a blessing, what is involved in saying a blessing that is so transformative as to make that same act (that same eating of the piece of fruit) no longer theft? What is a blessing all about?
I often use the metaphor of quotation and plagiarism for explaining the mechanics of blessings. Similar to how citations work when we intellectually benefit from the wisdom of someone else and are allowed to do so by citing the source, when we acknowledge the source (through the act of blessing), we then have permission to use and enjoy this item.
Alternatively, through the act of blessing, we may be transforming ourselves, seeing the world through sacred lenses, somehow transporting ourselves to the divine realm, and are thereby fit to enjoy God’s bounty.
The rabbis suggest one should say 100 blessings a day. If one sleeps between seven and eight hours a day, an equal distribution of reciting blessings has one saying a blessing approximately once every 10 minutes of one’s waking time. (The rabbis assumed one would be saying a greater number of blessings during the three daily services, so the expressing of blessings is not necessarily evenly distributed every ten minutes throughout the day.) What an incredible way to interact with the world — to pause frequently to be mindful of one’s surroundings, to acknowledge one’s blessings, to show gratitude and express a sacred connection with the Divine and the world around you. How differently would you perceive the world, how much more grateful and mindful, patient and appreciative would you be if you interacted with the world with regular pauses, mindfulness and appreciation? I know, from the couple experiments I have done with trying to fit in my hundred daily blessings, that this practice helps radically shift my perspective and energy. I see the world and those around me as a constant source of awe and potential.
For me, the hardest part to understand about Rabbi Hanina’s statement is how we can steal from other human beings when we don’t offer a blessing. One possibility, as suggested by the commentator Rashi, is in how we behave as role models: When we don’t bless, others will think it is acceptable to not bless. I want to suggest another possibility, based on another passage in this same tractate of the Talmud, offered in the name of Ben Zoma (Berachot 58a). Ben Zoma is recounted as including in part of his blessings, after thanking the Creator, a list and acknowledgment of all the different people involved in the supply chain of producing a piece of food or creating a piece of clothing, and how fortunate he was to have others who help with the various stages of production. Ben Zoma would contrast himself to the biblical Adam and say: “How many labors did primordial Adam have to work at before he found bread to eat? He plowed, planted, harvested and stacked the sheaves. He threshed, winnowed, sorted, ground and sifted, kneaded, baked, and after all this he ate. And I wake up and find all these done before me.”
Perhaps blessings, in addition to reminding us of the Divine, can also play a key role in helping us be mindful of the large number of people involved in helping us source our food, manufacture our electronics, produce our clothing, transport all our goodies, and source the fuel for transportation — people both locally and internationally. And perhaps from this place of awareness of all those who have helped us along the way, we will be motivated to help create and uphold conditions for fair treatment and compensation for everyone along the supply chain, acknowledging the large number of people, all created in God’s image, from whom we benefit every day.
May our lives be filled with many blessings and the blessing of awareness and gratitude for our blessings.
So named for the little bit of coffee added to a greater quantity of milk, turning the norm on its head, or perhaps for the order in which the ingredients are combined, Cafe Hafuch, upside-down coffee, is the Israeli answer to cappuccino. Though pleasant tasting and popular, these hollow calories are often the first to go when a diet is in order. Birthright Israel is increasingly showing signs of becoming the upside-down answer to promoting Jewish life and a much-needed paradigm shift cannot come soon enough.
Take young Jews, 18-26, on a free trip to Israel and they will return rededicated to Jewish life, says the conventional wisdom. They will develop a connection to Israel. As funder Sheldon Adelson expressed to an auditorium full of Birthright participants, they will engage in some “hanky-panky.” They will overcome the forces of assimilation and affiliate with the established Jewish community.
This wisdom, promoted by a philanthropic, well-intentioned, and above-all-else different generation, has proven itself outdated.
It isn’t working.
A 2009 study by Brandeis University, the first to comprehensively look at participants’ engagement five years following their trip, reported that “Participants...were not more likely to report feeling connected to Jewish customs and traditions or their local Jewish community” and that any increase in involvement was “only marginally statistically significant.” A 2012 update revealed that “Taglit [Birthright] participants and nonparticipants who are intermarried are equally likely to be raising their oldest children Jewish” and that while Birthright participants are more likely to belong to a Jewish congregation, to have a special meal on Shabbat, or to celebrate Jewish holidays, “the effects were small.” (http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/researchareas/taglit-publications.html)
This is not to take away from the “life-changing” experience that some Birthright participants have had, and indeed there are other ways to measure the success of these trips. Many participants report significantly elevated feelings toward Israel and the Jewish community upon their return, and many say they feel positive about being Jewish. True, yet with more than 330,000 young adults having participated in this trip at a cost of $3,000 per participant, the time to ask the now-billion-dollar question has come: Is feeling positive about being Jewish — without translating those feelings into action — worth such a significant expenditure of resources?
This model would have worked a generation ago. Jewish identity for the baby boomers — those funding Birthright — was built around memories of the Holocaust and a visceral defense of the State of Israel against the enemies seeking its destruction. Supporting Israel was a way to show, and in fact to be, Jewish. For too many millennials, though, and particularly those on the margins of Jewish life, the Holocaust is ancient history and Israel is seen as the aggressor rather than the underdog. These core elements, which once drove Jews toward Jewish life, are no longer the predominant reasons to be Jewish. Motivations are fundamentally different than they were just one generation ago, and our models of engagement need to change accordingly.
If we want to ensure vibrant Jewish life, and with it strong American Jewish support for Israel from among my generation, we need to invest more philanthropic dollars domestically in programs that reach the hearts of our 20-somethings: Social justice. Meaningful relationships taken offline. A moral existence beyond concern for the self. Judaism that can experienced and lived in the here and now rather than while on vacation, confined within the borders of the State of Israel.
This winter, the Jewish community in North America, Israel, and around the world will reach the $1 billion dollar mark in our support of Birthright Israel. Are the positive feelings that have been generated about being Jewish — without translating those feelings into action — worth such a significant expenditure of resources? Let’s try spending the same money domestically and see what happens. What won’t happen is an erosion of support for Israel — to the contrary: support for the Jewish State in my generation comes more often from a strong Jewish identity than Jewish identity comes from supporting the State of Israel.
When young Jews are engaged Jewishly, they will pay us to visit the Jewish homeland, and the dynamic will again be right-side up.
As you may have guessed from the incredibly close proximity of Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah this year, Hanukkah is also coming early — so early, in fact, that rather than coinciding with Christmas, its usual American holiday tango partner, this year it’s crashing Thanksgiving.
Yes, that’s right — as you may have heard, Thursday, November 28, 2013 is Thanksgivukkah 2013/5774 — the mash up of the first full day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving! (You know a holiday is official when it has its own website.)
Thanksgivukkah is as rare as its name is funky: According to an article by Maggie Goldman, writing for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Thanksgivukkahboston.com website in Boston, “the two holidays would’ve overlapped in 1861, but Thanksgiving wasn’t formally established until two years later, in 1863. That means Thanksgivukkah has never happened before — and it won’t happen again until 79811.”
This holiday being truly once in a lifetime, it’s certainly not an occasion to waste. Some bloggers have recommended taking full advantage of it by cooking fun Thanksgiving and Hanukkah mash-up dishes like cranberry sauce-filled sufganiyot or making your very own menurkey. There are even shirts for sale to commemorate the day.
But here’s a radical idea: This November 28, let us celebrate the serendipitous merging of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah by gathering together with family and friends to give thanks, and only thanks.
A Thanksgivukkah feast: Menorah meets mashed potatoes; sufganiyot alongside stuffing.
Yes, share a meal together. Yes, light Hanukkah candles and play dreidel. Yes, laugh about the overlap of the holidays and marvel at its rarity.
But rather than celebrating Thanksgivukkah by stuffing our bodies with crazy concoctions of turkey-infused latkes and showering our children with shtick-y presents, let us be inspired to take a moment to say the shehecheyanu for reaching this moment and just being together. As Stefanie Zelkind’s eloquent column on ejewishphilanthropy.com puts it, we can “move beyond the kitsch” that has inevitably accompanied this calendar coincidence, and instead “use Thanksgivukkah as a launch pad for learning, giving, and values-based family activities.”
For as Americans and as Jews, Thanksgivukkah represents the overlap of deeply held and shared cultural values: The importance of gratitude, fortitude, perseverance and blessing.
What greater honor can we afford the merging of these two holidays than a quiet moment, bathed in the light of our friends and family while the candles burn low, dedicated to the awe of our blessings?
Lauren Kurland received ordination and a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Lauren has served as associate director for educational resources at American Jewish World Service, and presently writes curriculum for supplementary schools through the Davidson School of Education. She and her family live in Seattle. This article originally appeared on the University of Washington Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ blog at jewishstudies.washington.edu.
When we had a high school class on Muslim-Jewish dialogue last year, I asked our Herzl-Ner Tamid students to agree or disagree with the following statement: “There will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Nine of the 10 students agreed. These are students who know that once America had slaves and now we have an African-American president. They know that women didn’t get the right to vote in this country until 1920. These things could change. But, Israeli-Arab hostility is permanent.
Of course, our students are not the only skeptics. Here are just a few of the good reasons to believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are a waste of time:
• The rest of the Middle East is a mess. For all we know, we could soon end up with radical Muslim states in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Is this any time to be making concessions?
• The last time Israel ceded territory, Hamas took over Gaza and began firing rockets at Israeli cities. If we give up the West Bank, and Hamas takes over there, radicals will be within easy missile range of Israel’s major population centers.
• How is Netanyahu going to negotiate a peace agreement when he doesn’t have the support of his own party? More and more Likudniks now reject a two-state solution and urge Israeli to annex the West Bank.
That’s the short list. So, why do I have hope? First, a brief Torah lesson. When God wanted to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah, God said to Himself, “I cannot hide from Abraham what I’m about to do.” Why? “Because I want the children of Abraham to be change agents in the world.”
So what does God do at this moment? He engages Abraham in a conversation about right and wrong. It’s as if God is saying to Abraham, “Do you want to change the world? Learn how to have this conversation. Yes, Abraham, there are going to be some situations where right and wrong are crystal clear. But most of the time, there is going to be at least a little bit of right and a little bit of wrong on both sides. You are going to have to learn to have a conversation with each other where both of you will find a way to move toward each other.”
Not only that. God also models with Abraham how to have that conversation. When God first tells Abraham about Sodom, Abraham reacts with passion: “What if there are 50 righteous people in this city? How dare you!” he says. “Can the judge of all the earth be unjust!”
If I were God in this situation, I would have walked out of the room and said, “This conversation is over. I’m not going to stand here and be insulted.”
But God does not walk out. God stays in the conversation. Ultimately, Abraham was not able to save the people of Sodom. So was this conversation an exercise in futility? I don’t think so. Bill Clinton has an expression that I love. He says there are certain ethical challenges that have such a high likelihood of failure, it is tempting not to attempt them at all. But, he says, “I’d rather be caught trying” than give up before he starts.
This past summer, I traveled to Bethlehem with a group called Encounter. Encounter takes North American Jews on trips to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian peace activists. Why did I go? To be honest, I was skeptical. But my daughter Shani works for Encounter and she convinced me to try, and I had an experience that surprised me.
A young Palestinian named Hashem especially impressed all of us. He was thoughtful. He was open. He seemed to want to change things.
When it was time for questions, a member of our group asked Hashem, “What is your dream for the future?”
“A bi-national state,” he responded. It was like icicles had entered the room. A bi-national state is a recipe for the destruction of Israel. I felt even myself begin to shut down.
One member of our group struggled to respond to Hashem in a way that didn’t sound like an attack. He didn’t succeed. But, while Hashem was speaking, I noticed that he believed if there were two states, neither side could enter the other one. He, for example, would never be allowed to visit Jaffa.
So I asked Hashem: “What if it weren’t like that? What if there were two states, one with a clear Jewish identity and one with a clear Palestinian identity? You could visit Jaffa, and an Israeli Jew could visit Hebron. Would that be compatible with your dream of peace?”
Hashem thought for a second, and he said: “Yes, I think it could be.”
Nobody in the room had expected that answer. I was ready to give up on Hashem and walk away on the basis of two words he used in a sentence. But because I hung in there a little longer, I found out that our differences were not irreparable. Within a few minutes we had gone from turning away from each other to listening carefully to each other and finding common ground.
There is never a perfect time to reach out. We can spend our whole lives waiting for Sadat, whether we are talking about two nations, or two family members. Peace is not made between perfect people. If we were perfect, we would not have to make peace in the first place.
The sky didn’t open up when I visited Bethlehem. I didn’t fundamentally change my views on the Middle East. Nor did any Palestinian I met jump up and shout, “I will go to Jerusalem.”
But over the course of the two days I spent in Bethlehem, there were several times I felt a human being on the other side who was listening as well as speaking. Could that feeling be expanded? I don’t know. But, I’d like to be caught trying.
For most Americans, November means Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, in an unusual confluence of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, Hanukkah falls out on Thanksgiving. According to my sources, it will only happen again in the year 79,811! This year’s reality, then, offers a unique opportunity to reflect on Hanukkah independent of the atmosphere of the American holiday season.
We are all familiar with the Hasmoneans’ unlikely military victory and the miracle of the cruse of oil. But if we delve deeper, we should ask: What was the root of the conflict between ourselves and the Greeks? Our sources state that on the Greek agenda was the spiritual annihilation of our people; since the Greeks knew us as the “People of the Book,” they attempted to rob us of this identity. In the words of the Hanukkah prayer Al Hanisim, inserted into the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon, the plan was “to cause us to forget Your Torah and have us transgress Your statutes.”
And yet the Greeks themselves, immersed in art, literature and philosophy, were anything but anti-intellectual. Why, then, does Jewish tradition characterize the Hellenistic influence as “darkness?” What was there about the Greek orientation that posed such a threat to the Jewish survival?
The answer may lie in the nuanced language of the Al Hanisim: We don’t assert that the Greeks opposed Torah learning per se, but that they threatened hukei ritzonach, Your statutes. The Hellenists supported Torah study only as a branch of Greek wisdom, as another intellectual discipline. Jewish resistance against such an orientation, and the ultimate rediscovery of the flask of oil, prompted the sages to institute the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah for eight consecutive days. Each Hanukkah night we celebrate “Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah or” — “A candle is a mitzvah, and the Torah is light.” The pure oil with the Kohen Gadol’s stamp mirrors the rekindling of an authentic, Godly Torah that had been withheld from us.
In the wake of the Pew Research Center survey on American Jews, many of us parents, educators and communal leaders have begun to re-examine the messages we are conveying and the direction in which we are taking our respective Jewish families and communities. Along with an emphasis on Jewish engagement and the appreciation of diversity within our communities, it’s now time to ask some tough questions: Are we, the Jewish leadership, also successfully conveying the eternal, immutable components of Jewish belief and practice? Are we effectively transmitting the profundity and beauty of a personal life built on Torah study and mitzvot? Are we igniting the uniquely Jewish flame in the souls of our fellow Jews?
In a recent blog post in the Times of Israel, Prof. Jeffrey Woolf of Bar Ilan University remarked on the stark contrast between the Pew findings and a parallel Israeli study. Prof. Woolf notes:
The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80 percent). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong.
Woolf observes that while Judaism protects and values the individual, it makes demands upon him. Instead of striking a balance between Jewish particularism and universalism, “American Jews,” Woolf laments, “have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores.”
On the eve of Hanukkah 5774, we as a Jewish community must consider certain existential issues that we have been avoiding until now. Comfortable in our respective “denominations,” preaching to the converted, many are realizing that we have been lulling ourselves into believing that everything will be just fine.
Question: If the Jews of the first Hanukkah took such an approach, what would the Jewish world look like today?
Rabbi Meyers is rabbi of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, head teacher of the new women’s learning program, “The Midrasha of Seattle,” and a rebbe of Talmud and Chumash at Northwest Yeshiva High School.
As I wrote this article, the House and Senate — after 16 days — finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling, narrowly averting a government shutdown.
Now talks must begin in earnest to figure out a budget acceptable to both parties. Washington’s own Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate budget committee, with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who chairs the House budget committee, must work with other House and Senate members to figure out how to negotiate a compromise.
Said Senator Murray: “Chairman Ryan knows that I’m not going to vote for his budget, I know that he’s not going to vote for mine. We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we can both vote on, and that’s our goal.”
Is it possible to find that common ground? And as Jews, and as a Jewish community, are there principles that can help guide us as we lobby our elected representatives while they try to determine how best to fund our society? While there is no place for any one religion in the legislation itself, there is a place for the wisdom of our tradition to guide and influence the public debate of what kind of society we are trying to create.
At its essence, Judaism envisions the creation of a more just world. It does not deny the realities of poverty, hunger, homelessness; on the contrary, it recognizes those realities and gives us a clear directive for how to respond:
If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which Adonai gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants. Be careful lest there be a hateful thing in your heart, and you say, ‘The seventh year, the sabbatical year, is coming,’ and you look cruelly on your brother, the poor person, and do not give him, for he will call out to God and this will be counted as a sin for you. Rather, you shall surely give him, and you shall not fear giving him, for on account of this God will bless you in all you do and all that you desire. For the poor will never cease from the land. For this reason, God commands you saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and the needy in your land.” (Deut. 15: 7-11).
As Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us in her book “There Shall be No Needy,” the text specifically refers to the person who is needy as “your brother;” by doing so, it requires that we see the poor person not as some anonymous other, but as a member of our own family. We bear a responsibility for helping that person, or persons, when he, she or they are in need. The word “ach” (brother) also disabuses us from any pretense that we are somehow inherently different from the poor.
Some 46.5 million people in America today live in poverty. When the federal government shut down, benefits to the neediest among us were cut: For example, had the shutdown extended past October, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC, would have cut off services to the 8.9 million women and children who live at or below the poverty line. Many did experience lower or eliminated benefits. Many low-income seniors did not receive their weekly food deliveries. Two weeks is a long time to go hungry.
As a country, we must do better. Our Jewish tradition teaches that we shouldn’t stop trying.
There is a wonderful story about a rabbi who would vanish every Friday during the month of Elul. The villagers in his town wondered, “Where could the rabbi be?”
They whispered among themselves: “He must be in heaven, asking God to bring peace in the New Year.”
One day, one of the townspeople decided to find out. Late one night he slipped into the rabbi’s home, slid under his bed, and waited. Just before dawn, the rabbi awoke, got out of bed, and began to dress. He put on work pants, high boots, a big hat, a coat, and a wide belt. He put a rope in his pocket, tucked an ax in his belt, and left the house. The villager followed.
The rabbi crept in the shadows to woods at the edge of town. He took the ax, chopped down a small tree, and split it into logs. Then he bundled the wood, tied it with the rope, put it on his back, and began walking.
He stopped beside a small broken-down shack and knocked at the window.
“Who is there?” asked the frightened, sick woman inside.
“I, Vassil the peasant,” answered the rabbi, entering the house. “I have wood to sell.”
“I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money?” she asked.
“I’ll lend it to you,” replied the rabbi.
“How will I pay you back?” asked the woman.
“I will trust you,” said the rabbi.
The rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.
After that, whenever anyone in the town would whisper that the rabbi had gone to heaven, the villager would add quietly, “Heaven? If not higher.”
Another teaching in Exodus Rabbah says, “There is an ever-rotating wheel in this world. He who is rich today may not be so tomorrow, and he who is poor today may not be so tomorrow.” I am my brother/sister, and he/she is me.
We should not lobby our elected officials to build a budget that ensures funding for such programs as WIC because we believe our civil laws should reflect Jewish law or values, any more than we would want them to reflect another faith community’s values. Rather, we can and should draw on our tradition to help guide us in our efforts to envision and create a more just society.
We can and should reach higher.
You’re late for a meeting. You pull into the parking lot, and it’s entirely full except for one illegal spot right near the entrance. If you park there, you’ll make it to your meeting on time. If you have to find another spot, you’ll be late.
This situation happened to Nobel Laureate and economist Gary Becker. He reasoned through the possibilities, conducted a cost-benefit analysis, and made his choice. This incident gave rise to Becker’s Simple Model of Rational Crime, or SMORC for short. According to SMORC, people commit crimes because they benefit. They examine the likelihood of getting caught, contrast it with the potential benefits or consequences, and make their choice.
During this time of year we review our mistakes and failings. Part of teshuva — repentance — is a commitment to avoid these specific mistakes in the future. Our view of decision-making is deeply tied to this process. Though SMORC may sound too robotic to account for the full range of human behavior, we often respond implicitly based on this model. We try to incentivize certain behavior, increase the likelihood of getting caught (increased police patrols) or increased punishments (increased sentence lengths).
Dan Ariely, an Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, questioned the validity of SMORC. He conducted a series of experiments into the phenomenon of cheating and dishonesty. In his basic experiment, Ariely had participants complete a series of difficult matrix math problems. They correctly solved an average of four problems. He paid participants 50¢ for each correct problem. However, when given the opportunity to self-report, participants reported completing an average of six correct problems, allowing them to collect $3 instead of the $2 they were entitled to.
SMORC predicts that as you increase the reward and decrease the likelihood of getting caught, there will be a corresponding increase in cheating. This turned out to be false. When Ariely increased the amount paid, as high as $10 per problem, people actually cheated a little less. All in all, something besides SMORC seemed to be driving human behavior.
Ariely proposes an alternate hypothesis to SMORC. He asserts that people are driven by two competing factors: What a person wants, and how a person wants to see him or herself. Most people see themselves as fairly good. While people recognize they possess some faults, they figure they trend overall on the good side. This helps them make certain allowances for less-than-desirable behavior. Thus, someone might be willing to fudge the number of problems he or she correctly solved at 50¢ apiece, but not at $10.
When we view ourselves overall as good, we are susceptible to what Ariely calls the “fudge factor,” the degree to which we are willing to fudge the numbers while keeping our positive view of ourselves intact. When we view ourselves overall as bad, we are susceptible to another phenomenon, which Ariely calls the “what-the-hell effect.” His research shows that people begin with a little bit of cheating, but at a certain point, the cheating increases steeply. People stop kidding themselves and just cheat as much as they can, because, “what the hell?” it doesn’t matter anymore.
Maimonides understood how powerful a person’s self-concept can be in dictating behavior. He writes, “A person should view oneself throughout the year as if he or she is half innocent and half liable, and so too the whole world, half innocent and half liable. If one performs a single misdeed, one tips the balance for oneself and the entire world to the side of liable, and causes destruction for oneself. If one performs a single mitzvah, one tips the balance for oneself and the entire world to the side of merit, and causes deliverance and salvation for oneself and for others” (Laws of Teshuva, 3:4).
Based on Ariely, we understand the pitfalls of viewing oneself as completely righteous or wicked. This simplistic view distorts our self-concept and our sense of our own behavior.
But what does it mean to view ourselves as “half innocent and half liable,” as if everything hangs in the balance? And why should we view a single misdeed or meritorious act as tipping the balance for oneself and the entire world?
Maimonides instructs us to view ourselves as developing and in flux, neither good nor evil. We should view our fate as undetermined, as if we have not yet been defined. While the future is unknown, we should look at every action as if it could define us, tipping the balance of our character. So, too, the world is neither entirely good nor entirely evil. It is dynamic and evolving. We are to act as if our individual actions define the world, which indeed they do.
In less than a week, we’re going to be in the thick of the High Holy Days. This might not be a time of celebration like Simchat Torah or Purim, but unlike those festivals, the High Holy Days — and especially the days leading up to them — force us to think deeply about how we interact with God, the world around us, our loved ones, and ourselves. This is what the month of Elul, the month we are in right now, is all about.
In case some of us haven’t yet begun the process of preparing for the High Holy Days, I would like to share a list of questions which might get us in the proper mindset of the yamim nora’im. If nothing else, this exercise could very well open our eyes and hearts to one specific area in our lives. These questions are meant for everyone to ponder regardless of age, Jewish communal participation or denomination.
• Am I walking as lightly as possible upon the earth? Do I pay attention to my consumption of resources and how I dispose of waste?
• Do I make myself aware of other cultures and peoples? Do I learn about other ways of living and seeing the world?
• Am I informed about pockets of intense suffering in the world and have I done what I can to contribute to easing that suffering?
• What role does Israel play in my life as a Jew?
• Do I participate in the life of my city? Do I know who the local political leaders are and what they stand for?
• Am I registered to vote and have I studied the issues that may affect my daily life?
• Do I support, in one way or another, the individuals and groups who are creating Jewish life in this city? Does my Jewish life extend beyond the walls of my synagogue, JCC, chavurah or university?
• Do I encourage and support those who have taken on the responsibility of Jewish leadership?
• Have I thought about taking on more leadership within my Jewish community?
Our family, friends and work
• How are my closest relationships? If any of them are strained, is there anything I could be doing differently to help improve them?
• Do I make time for the most important relationships in my life? Do I treat my siblings, children, partner and parents with respect? Am I able to see the image of God within each of them?
• Have I called my grandparents or in-laws recently?
• Do I have close friends in whom I am able to confide? Do I accept people as they are or do I try to change them? Have I made any new friends this past year?
• Am I satisfied with my occupation? Is my work an extension of a personal passion? Am I helping others in some meaningful way whether they know it or not?
• Am I making a difference as a retiree?
• Am I taking care of my body? Do I exercise enough? Do I eat properly? Do I get enough rest? Do I floss?
• Do I keep my mind active? Do I read good books? Do I talk about ideas and important matters with friends and family?
• Do I see myself as a child of God — someone completely unique and special in this world?
• Is music part of my life? What about meditation? Do I allow myself to deeply experience beauty in nature?
• Are there any hobbies I would like to take up?
• Do I pray? Do I speak to God without asking for anything in return? Do I take the time to listen for an answer?
• Have I thanked God for existence, for connecting with specific individuals, for food, for the whole array of mitzvot?
• Have I thought about my relationship with God and concept of God recently?
This is not a test. It does not matter how many yeses or nos you answered. This is just our annual check-up. Luckily for us, we don’t have to actually get on that scale or get our teeth scraped. But usually, after our annual doctor and dentist visits, we are told what we need to do in the coming year. (“Floss more” — that’s what I’m always told. When will I learn?) Well, no one is going to tell you what you need to do for this spiritual check-up. You are the doctor and the patient. You know what you ought to do. I hope it’s painless. And I hope you pay attention to yourselves.
I hope you have a meaningful Elul and High Holy Day experience. K’tivah v’chatima tovah, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
I’ll begin with three short stories. In June of 1967, I was sitting in the central Chabad Lubavitch Yeshiva at the famous 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y. At approximately 1:45 p.m., Yankel the Beder, who took care of the men’s mikvah, which I and others used beginning at 5 a.m. each morning, ran into the yeshiva and gave a loud shout: “Men sloked a Yid!” — a Jew is being beaten up!
Religious and racial strife was accelerating in those years in many Brooklyn communities. Within 15 seconds, the whole of the yeshiva was on the street, everyone asking breathlessly, “Where? Where?” Someone shouted, “On Kingston and Lincoln Avenue!”
We all ran, weaving through heavy traffic. A major altercation was taking place — even the police were already there. Everyone had instinctively responded to the call, to the extent that no one had closed his Gemorah (Talmud) or other religious book of study. No one asked the affiliation, level of observance, or gender of the Jew being beaten. We only heard “Men sloked a Yid.”
In the summer of 1968, the situation in Brooklyn’s Jewish communities was deteriorating. Our family lived in an apartment complex that housed mix of Chassidic, African-American, and Latino families. Gangs of young people lived there, and it was very dangerous, especially at night, to navigate the streets and even our complex. I had three younger teenage sisters (Rebbetzin Devorah Kornfeld is the youngest of my sisters), and other young Chassidic teenage girls also lived in the complex. We had a real problem.
The head of the gang was a young fellow by the name of José, and I made it my business to befriend him. Here I was, a Chassidic rabbinical student, black hat and all, only about a year or two older than he was. If you had dropped me in Manhattan, I would have had difficulty navigating back to Brooklyn. Our community was insular and did not assimilate with other cultures at that point. All I did was talk to him, ask him about school. He was a Dodgers fan, and I was a Yankees fan (full disclosure: I once played hooky to go to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to watch my baseball idol Mickey Mantle belt some home runs.) We schmoozed, and over time he became a friend. After that, whenever the teenage girls would walk through the halls, or the elderly Chassidim would walk down the street near our complex, José and his friends were mentschlach and respectful.
After I’d moved to Seattle as part of my regional responsibilities I began to travel to Alaska — first to Anchorage, where I have developed some lifelong friendships, and then to Fairbanks. In December 1979, it was a freezing, wintery day — and I mean freezing. By then we had organized a group, and it was their first evening with Chabad. Fifteen people showed up from a cross section of the general Jewish community. I tell my children and grandchildren that 15 people in Fairbanks, Alaska at that time is like having a crowd of 25,000 in Manhattan today.
After my presentation, which focused on the Chassidic philosophy of embracing all Jews with love and compassion in a non-judgmental way — and, for that matter, bringing the universal message of belief in God and the Noahide Code to all people — a man by the name of Mike stood up and asked, “Rabbi, do you belong to the group that burns the bus signs in Jerusalem?”
During those months, commercial signs with pictures of men and women in swim clothes were hung in Jerusalem’s very Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood and its environs. This caused consternation and anger among many members of those devout communities. Some of these signs were burned by individuals living there.
“Mike,” I responded, “I strongly condemn any acts like the ones you are describing. Especially in our Holy Land, and especially in Jerusalem.”
But then I added, “Mike, let’s have a conversation. The people living in those neighborhoods of Jerusalem are three, five, 10 generations of devout Jews, with their unique way of life, with large families. I condemn the burning of those signs — strongly. But where is the sensitivity? To come into these neighborhoods, where nearly 100 percent of those living there are devout Jews, maintaining their religious lifestyle for hundreds of years through devotion and self-sacrifice.” And then I asked Mike where he had lived before he came to Anchorage.
“Minneapolis,” he answered
“Did you belong to a synagogue?” I asked.
He responded that he had belonged to a temple.
“Mike,” I asked, “if during Kol Nidrei services, Yom Kippur eve, a man or woman had walked in dressed in swim clothes, and sat down — not bothering anyone — how would you feel? Do you think that would be appropriate? Would they not be asked to leave? Or to somehow find suitable clothing? Would that be respectful and sensitive — to you and the whole membership — on Kol Nidrei?”
I emphatically reminded him that I condemned the burning of those signs, that it was not how to have a discussion among brothers and sisters.
“But,” I concluded, “sensitivity goes both ways.”
“Rabbi, thank you,” Mike said. “I see your point.”
Now we get to the hard question. The hard question is — as one learns, as we all should, Rambam, Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter three, (it’s all in English today and it would be suitable for us to learn these laws before the New Year):
Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. [On the other hand,] if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by [Proverbs 10:25] ‘A righteous man is the foundation of the world,’ (i.e., he who acted righteously tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it).
How do we meet the challenge? How do we maintain mutual, loving, respect? As the gifted writer Peggy Noonan recently wrote in a column, and I paraphrase, “To tolerate doesn’t mean that you love.”
We’re not talking tolerance. We’re talking about mutual, loving respect. A person may say, “Yes, I support your right to choose the lifestyle that speaks to you. But I want you to understand my sensitivities — your choice as it relates to your feelings about Israel; your choice as it relates to the Jewish community; your choice as it relates politically in our Blessed Land; onward and onward, has a qualitative impact on my life.”
As the Rambam quoted above, it’s an equal balance. It’s a scale. One act either way has profound impact on all of us.
As the Rambam writes in another place, at the end of his monumental work Mishnah Torah, when the Messiah will come, and there will be the redemption of the world, there will “be neither famine nor war, envy nor competition, for good will flow in abundance and all delights will be [as common] as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.”
We all want a world where there is no famine, where there is no war, right? An essential part of creating such a world is to address this exact challenge — to develop mutual, loving respect. If this Person A’s choice impacts the quality of life according to Person B, we should do our best to be aware of and sensitive to that reality. On the other hand, being sensitive and aware of those that don’t share your traditional background embraces and validates their being part of the Jewish peoplehood nonetheless. One of us getting attacked immediately concerns all of us, regardless of their identity. Two individuals bonding over baseball can begin to create a real bridge between two divided communities.
It follows, as we prepare ourselves for the New Year, standing before the Almighty unified as one people in order to realize that unity, the challenge is to further develop and sensitize ourselves to true mutual respect. While we have some fundamental differences, mutual respect, although very challenging at times, is achievable. As my dear friend Dr. Rene Levy, who at a recent town hall meeting so eloquently made a passionate presentation for unity among our people, said, “By perfecting themselves, Jews can perfect their communities.”
The main thing in having these discussions is to feel that we’re all one family, that the other person is your brother or sister, and to walk the extra mile — all of us — in the areas of understanding, sensitivity, and love. And no matter what, to always feel like the old song from the ’60s, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Shana Tova to all.
Since becoming a rabbi, I have come to believe there really are five seasons to the year. There are the typical four: Fall, winter, spring, and summer, but for rabbis, there is an additional season called “pre-High Holidays.” It is the time of year when rabbis reflect on the messages we want to give our congregants and plan the services in observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As a Jewish educator, I spend this time preparing to open religious school for our almost 600 students, making sure our program is the best it can be.
This year, my attention is being spent on something much more mundane and, ironically, more stressful. With many school districts beginning at the same time as Rosh Hashanah, I find myself preoccupied with what to do about the fact my daughter will miss the first day of her high school classes. While I know our family belongs in synagogue, I also am keenly aware she will actually miss an exam being given on the first day. For many, this does not sound like such a big issue, but for my daughter, it is certainly a concern. While I understand that legally she cannot be penalized for missing due to religious observances, I also understand there are ways in which she will feel punished.
This is but one example of what it means to live as Jews in the secular world. Let’s face it — we don’t live in Israel or even a city large enough that secular school calendars are affected by the Jewish calendar. For many of us, we are the only Jew in our school or office. We are constantly being asked to balance our Jewish and secular identities, whether it is at school functions, with social engagements, or at work. The balancing act can be tricky at times. The larger problem is how this constant balancing often makes us feel like an outsider in our own community.
I recently overheard a teenage girl tell another how she does not like wearing her necklace with a Jewish star on it. She explained that wearing it made her look “too Jewish” and how she didn’t like to set herself apart from her peers at school. For many, being different is a positive, but for far too many, this feeling of being different is isolating. This isolation affects people regardless of age. Make no mistake — teens are not the only ones who struggle with this issue.
Unfortunately, the challenge of finding a balance between the Jewish and secular parts of our identity will not go away. Navigating these challenges as they occur will be an ongoing process. There will be times when we feel like the outsider, but the answer is not to turn away from our Jewish identity. Rather we need to turn to our synagogue or chavurah or youth group, to remind ourselves that we do belong, that we are not alone. When we belong to and are active in a synagogue, attend religious school or adult learning classes, take part in Jewish summer camps, belong to Jewish youth groups (regardless of which one) and are active with organizations such as Hillel, the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Service or Federation, we remind ourselves we are not “the other.” We are, in fact, together. By taking part in a vibrant Jewish community, we surround ourselves with other Jews and are invited into a sense of belonging often lacking in other areas of our lives. I repeatedly hear students tell me they love coming to religious school because, while they are the only Jew in their grade or school, they have community in our synagogue. They feel validated.
As a rabbi, Jewish educator and mother, this “pre-High Holiday” season is spent contemplating how important it is to live as a Jewish American — one who straddles both the Jewish and secular worlds and one who proudly belongs to both communities. It is exactly this pride I wish for all Jews to have so when choices must be made, it brings pride — not discomfort. May this New Year bring with it deeper connections within the Jewish community for each of us.
A waiter approaches a customer to take his order. The customer, thinking aloud, says, “Let’s see. This week is the Nine Days, so I have to eat dairy. I’ll take the fish.” The confused waiter goes back to the kitchen and says to the headwaiter, “There’s a strange guy out there. He thinks there are nine days in a week and that fish comes from a cow.”
Hebrew University professor Mike Rosenak told this story to a gathering of Jewish educators in the 1990s in Jerusalem. Mike, who recently passed away, was an outstanding philosopher of Jewish education. He told this mildly amusing joke to make a point of the centrality of Jewish literacy.
The joke requires a level of Jewish knowledge. The “Nine Days” preceding the 9th of Av, the date commemorating various Jewish tragedies and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, involve observing certain restrictions, like abstaining from meat, as an expression of national mourning.
It also requires knowing some rudimentary principles of kashrut. With this joke, Mike introduced a framework for Jewish education that transcended the liberal-traditional, secular-religious divides. His framework was “literacy” and “literature”: Without some basic literacy, it is impossible to be an active participant in the creation of “literature.”
Before Sam Israel passed away in 1994, he established the Samis Foundation to support K-12 Jewish education in Washington State and five program areas in the State of Israel: Archaeology; wildlife conservation; “widows and orphans, for those who have lost their provider”; immigrant absorption; and university scholarships for gifted, needy students.
Since inception, we at Samis have been privileged to distribute nearly $70 million, approximately 80 percent, to Jewish education in the Seattle metro area. Most of the funds have gone to day schools, overnight camping, and Israel experiences — intensive, immersive Jewish experiences that optimally convey the richness, timeliness and timelessness of the traditions of our people.
Recently, we at Samis stepped back to ask ourselves some big questions about our work. Would Sam be pleased with us and what we’ve tried to carry out in his name? What is the ideal Jewish community in which we seek to live, and what should educated Jews ideally know and believe, and how should they act? The visionary conversation within Samis is still going on, but I thought I’d take the opportunity JTNews has given me to share some of our thoughts thus far.
The Avi Chai Foundation’s vision is three-fold and resonates with Samis: Literacy, religious purposefulness, and ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew). The joke above illustrates these three elements, which are deeply interrelated.
Besides the obvious requirement of knowing the “what” of the Nine Days (literacy) the Nine Days framework carries along with it other key values and narratives that touch upon “religious purposefulness” and “love of one’s fellow Jew.”
According to Talmud and Midrash, the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the polar opposite of ahavat Yisrael. Our joyous festivals include the challenging words, “because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” Ultimately, we Jews take responsibility for our failures as a nation, which resulted in God destroying His temple as punishment for our sins and booting us from the land He promised to us and our ancestors, a land whose gift was always conditioned on our observance of the covenant and His commandments, including “love your neighbor as yourself.”
But what about Jews who are not knowledgeable or don’t believe in God? Does a vision that emphasizes Jewish literacy and religious purposefulness exclude them? For a foundation committed in practice to Jewish education, it seems absurd to envision a community embracing ignorance as an ideal!
This vision of ahavat Yisrael broadly includes all Jews. It is indeed a “commandment” (religious purposefulness: There is a commander!) for us to treat each other with profound respect, indeed, love. I’m reminded of the Midrash of the four species of the lulav, which compares the four species to four kinds of Jews. The Midrash asks the provocative question of whether God destroys them all because of the deficiencies in the group as a whole. The Midrash answers, “No, rather God binds them all together.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik defined collective Jewish existence in terms of two covenants: Brit goral, a covenant of fate, which binds all Jews due to common ancestry and history; and brit ye’ud, a covenant of ultimate purpose or destiny, commandments, and Torah, which is the reason God chose the Jewish people from all nations.
The three modalities of Jewish education to which Samis has devoted most of its education funding — day schools, overnight camps and Israel Experiences — provide participants with compelling experiences and learning opportunities embracing this three-fold vision. Day schools at their best provide students deep immersion into the classical texts and language of our tradition. Camps provide a 24/7 immersion into a full Jewish communal existence: Eating, playing, sleeping, hiking, all in a Jewish context, with a culminating Shabbat experience every week. Israel experiences immerse participants in perhaps the most intense educational experience of all, in the context of the energy, creativity, the palpable spark of the “beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” experiencing a fuller Jewish existence than can be experienced anywhere else.
May we at the Samis Foundation continue to merit being able to meaningfully support the wonderful day schools and camps in our community and to realize our aspirations for meaningful, purposeful Jewish life in our community.
Rabbi Rob Toren is the executive director of the Samis Foundation.
When I tell people I’m a Reconstructionist rabbi, I generally get this response: “I’ve heard of Reconstructionism, but I don’t know anything about it.”
Those of us who trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia are used to this. In fact, in our first class on Reconstructionist thought in the seminary, we are all assigned to write “The Elevator Paper” — a summary of an entire movement that can presumably be presented to someone during a brief ride in an elevator! Since America celebrated its birthday yesterday, I thought it would be appropriate for me to get in the elevator with everyone who is reading and introduce you to Reconstructionism, the only form of Judaism born on American soil.
The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), did not intend to form a new branch of Judaism. His goal, rather, was to introduce a process by which Judaism would be continually “re-constructed” so successive generations of Jews could find meaning in Judaism in the era and culture in which they lived. He was profoundly influenced by living in America (he immigrated with his family in 1889) and was inspired by the democratic principles upon which the country was founded.
Kaplan’s seminal work, “Judaism as Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life” (1934), put forth this important doctrine: “Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” Kaplan used the word “civilization” consciously. He was influenced by the then-new field of sociology and argued that Jewish civilization included history and culture, language, literature, art, ethics and values, and beliefs and practices. He insisted that Jews who were not connected religiously to Judaism but who had different ties to it were still part of the civilization.
But he himself was not a secularist. Kaplan’s view was that Judaism was the product of the religious experience of the Jews through the history of the Jewish people.
Kaplan rejected the notion of what he called a “super-natural” God. He viewed divinity as the coordinating, integrating factor in nature that allows for the actualization of justice, truth, and compassion. He taught that human beings seek the divine because doing so adds meaning and purpose to their lives.
Kaplan described the Torah as the “earliest diary of the Jewish people.” He believed Torah to be the record of our ancestors’ search for meaning as well as the repository of a society’s moral principles, values and laws through which we are encouraged to become fully human. Reconstructionist theology teaches that Torah is the Jewish people’s response to God’s presence in the world.
Kaplan taught that Jews living in democratic societies could and did “live in two civilizations.” I bristle when I hear the rather new appellation of “Jewish-American.” I’m not a Jewish hyphen American. I’m Jewish and I’m an American. I take part in American political, social and cultural life. American English is my native language. I celebrate Thanksgiving and the 4th of July and other American civic holidays. My father (age 99) is a veteran of World War II and served in the European theater. My husband was a reservist who served in the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia. How much more American can we get?
But we are also Jewish, and our personal calendars run according to Jewish rhythms. We are both: Jewish and American. Kaplan articulated this concept to Jews struggling with their new American identities and the old-world Judaism many had shed when they arrived on our shores.
Reconstructionism teaches that “the past has a vote but not a veto.” Like Reform Judaism, it is a post-halachic movement. Reconstructionists study Jewish texts to discern answers to today’s questions. Jewish tradition is the starting point for Reconstructionists, but it may not be the ending point. Teachings at odds with contemporary values may be rejected or “transvalued” — given new meaning to match the sensibilities of contemporary life.
Many American Jews of different denominations — or of no denomination — actually think about their Jewish lives much in the way Kaplan suggested without calling it “Reconstructionism.”
It has been quite a long elevator ride, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of Reconstructionist Judaism. I am a member of the third generation of Reconstructionist rabbis (the seminary was founded in 1968) and am one of about 335 Reconstructionist rabbis in the world. I wonder what Kaplan would have thought of our discussions of his theology at the seminary. Many of us are not “Kaplanians”; Reconstructionist prayer services would no doubt seem foreign to him. But Kaplan would probably be happy to see that Reconstructionist Judaism has continued to evolve.
After all, he shocked the world, including his own congregation, when his daughter Judith was called to the Torah to become the first Bat Mitzvah in 1922. America is the land of innovation, and Reconstructionist Judaism has found fertile soil here for its first 45 years.
Prior to our arrival in Seattle nearly 10 years ago, we’d heard about the warm, close-knit Jewish community, and in many respects we have not been disappointed. But we’ve also witnessed quite a bit of controversy relating mainly to our schools and synagogues. At times, we have been upset and even disgusted by the things we’ve heard.
The Jewish people are no strangers to internal conflict, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s unreasonable to expect the members of a community to march lock-step in agreement with each other at all times. Nor would we want them to, since healthy disagreements within communities expand their horizons and make them better. The important question therefore is: What is a healthy disagreement?
Our sages teach us that Korach’s rebellion against Moshe (recounted in this week’s parashah) is the paradigm for unhealthy and destructive conflict:
Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome. What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his entire company. (Pirkei Avot: 5:17)
According to our Mishna, the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict lies in our motive: Whether or not it is for the sake of heaven. Maimonides further clarifies that an argument to prove someone else wrong is “not for the sake of heaven,” whereas an argument intended to help someone discover the truth is “for the sake of heaven.” Which is all very clear, except for one problem: Have you ever seen an argument where everyone involved wasn’t convinced they were pursuing the truth?
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudic University of Florida offers a novel approach: I know that I’m arguing in a constructive manner, not when I believe that I’m pursuing truth, but rather when I believe that my adversary is.
Not everyone is motivated by a pure desire for truth, but most people genuinely believe they are right, and most, while not necessarily correct, have a perspective that contains elements of truth we can learn from. If I believe my adversary is motivated by a desire for truth, I will be open to what he has to say, which will ensure the argument remains constructive even when I continue to embrace my position.
Hillel and Shammai are the paradigms for healthy disagreement, because even though the law was generally decided in favor of Hillel’s opinion, the school of Hillel not only learned Shammai’s approach, but they made sure to learn it first. The search for truth doesn’t necessarily have to be the search for ultimate truth
. It can simply be an attempt to understand another person’s personal truth, because in so doing I not only learn, but I build a bridge of understanding that brings us closer and enables us to find collaborative and creative resolutions to our conflicts.
But what if my adversary is not a Hillel or a Shammai? There are dishonest people out there; some knowing and deliberate, and others driven by deeper agendas that even they may not be aware of. I can’t read people’s hearts to know their motivations, so how can I protect myself and avoid engaging in pointless and potentially destructive controversy?
The best way to determine if others are arguing for the sake of heaven is if they are willing to listen, stick to the issues, and refrain from personal attacks. Korach didn’t just present another point of view; he accused Moshe of being power hungry and controlling, which Moshe properly understood to be a projection of his own deeper motivation. Furthermore, our oral tradition points out that when Moshe tried to reason with Korach, he refused to respond because he knew he couldn’t win. It was then that Moshe realized that he had nothing to gain by arguing further.
As a resident of Seattle, I am amazed there are people who actually seem to believe that all conservatives are heartless, or that all liberals are mindless. As a member of the Jewish community, I am shocked and appalled by some of the things that have been said about people I know: Vicious attacks designed to turn adversaries into two-dimension villains, fitting subjects for a comic book series but bearing little resemblance to the characters I know. As a counselor working with couples, I’ve been blown away by some of the uncharitable assumptions husbands and wives make about each other that are miles from the truth, but are nonetheless accepted by the very ones who should know how baseless they really are.
Regardless of whether they are in the public realm or in the privacy of our own home, our disagreements must be based upon a sincere mutual desire for truth, fueled by a belief in the essential goodness of others. As soon as we or our adversaries lose sight of this fundamental fact, it’s game over. In such a case it is imperative that we, like Moshe before us, put an end to the conversation and whenever possible, appeal to a higher and more impartial authority.
Whenever I find myself outside Olympia speaking to a member of a local Jewish community, I will invariably be asked two questions. First, I will be asked, “How many Jews are there in Olympia?” When I respond that we have about 150 affiliated households, but we serve almost double that, plus more unaffiliated, I get a surprised look.
The second question is some version of, “Isn’t Olympia very anti-Israel?” To which I reply that although there is a local minority who are very vocal and who get a lot of attention, it isn’t really like that, and life in our state capital is quite comfortable.
Which leads me to believe that maybe I should say a word or two about our Olympia Jewish community and Temple Beth Hatfiloh.
This year of 5773 (2012-2013), Temple Beth Hatfiloh has been celebrating its 75th anniversary. The local Jewish families — mostly merchants — decided in 1937 to incorporate as a synagogue, and set out to build a synagogue building. In June 1938, the original building of TBH was dedicated at the corner of 8th and Jefferson in downtown Olympia and it served as our home for almost 70 years.
The history of our local Jewish community stretches back further than 75 years, though. Olympia is the home of the first Jewish settlement in the area, the first Jewish cemetery (still in use) and the first Jewish organization in Washington Territory, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Puget Sound, established in 1873 to create and maintain the aforementioned cemetery. TBH absorbed the Hebrew Benevolent Society in the 1950s and we continue to manage the cemetery.
In the decades following those early years after the establishment of TBH, the Jewish community remained relatively stable. The core of families who established the congregation continued to maintain and guide it, and slowly new families would arrive. The congregation began to truly grow in the 1970s with the growth of state government and the establishment of The Evergreen State College. After a long period of lay leadership and support from rabbis in Tacoma and Seattle, by the late 1980s the congregation sought its own rabbinic leadership, first with part-time Rabbi Vicki Hollander, then with full-time Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz. I joined the congregation 10 years ago this coming July.
As with any community there were growing pains and changes. A number of families left TBH to form a Conservative congregation. After many years of being unaffiliated, TBH decided to affiliate Reconstructionist. And by the 1990s it became clear that our sweet shul was not big enough to house our growing congregation and the number of programs — including a full religious school — we were offering. After numerous options were weighed and rejected, the opportunity arose to purchase the Christian Science Church, just three blocks from our original home. We moved in 2004 with a Torah walk and communal celebration, and spent the next several years in renovation and expansion until we dedicated the new space in 2008.
Today, TBH continues as a full congregation, very active in community and interfaith affairs, and serves a diverse community comprised of people who come from a wide range of backgrounds and approaches to Judaism.
I understand how some folks might not understand what is going on in Olympia, since our small Jewish community is sometimes off the radar screen. And when unfortunate events like the Olympia Food Coop’s boycott of Israeli goods occur, it overshadows the strong and vibrant Jewish community that exists here.
I will admit, though, that we sometimes do things a little differently here. For example:
• We don’t have High Holiday tickets or fees. We just publish the service schedule and open the doors.
• We hold a major fundraiser every year — Blintzapalooza — during which we welcome in the community and sell blintzes, bagels and used books. This year we raised $11,000. Then we give all that money away to local charities.
• We held a “Community Conversations” project in which we got a large number of people — both members and non-members — together to sit and share their personal Jewish journeys, not for any strategic planning process, but simply to have people meet each other.
So, yes, we do some things differently down here in Olympia. I like to think that being a smaller congregation we get to do some interesting and creative things. But mostly we just keep the flame of Judaism alive in the South Sound region, as we have been doing for 75 years.
And everyone is welcome to help us celebrate at our 75th Anniversary Street Fair on Sunday, June 2. Then you can see what we are all about!
On a recent Sunday morning, after morning services and teaching the daily Daf Yomi, the page-of-Talmud-a-day, I was looking forward to an invigorating Pacific Northwest bike ride. A quick weather check confirmed the ominous clouds predicted by weather reports. Not to be satisfied with such elementary evidence, I consulted several websites, which assured me that there was zero percent chance of precipitation until evening. I confidently mounted my bicycle and headed down the hill for a ride along our beautiful Lake Washington. About five minutes later I felt raindrops. Could this be real? Zero percent chance of precipitation! I had checked websites! Apparently, even scientists objectively interpreting scientific models are prone to error.
How much more so is this search for certainty and truth a challenge when confronting ethical issues. We human beings are so often swayed by subjectivity, pre-conceived notions, biases and emotions.
Our sages teach us in Bereshit Rabbah that indeed, “Love and hate disrupt the natural order.”
The horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon shocked the world. Three people were killed and over 200 wounded, many of them grievously. The alleged bombers had been welcomed to this country and had enjoyed freedom as well as the opportunity for education. As the suspects were being identified, friends of one alleged bomber spoke of how nice and kind of a person he seemed to be. Others described how in the days following the bombing the suspect resumed normal activities as if nothing had happened, working out at the university gym and appearing perfectly calm as others spoke of the terrible attack and its human toll. All of this, even as he and his brother were allegedly preparing to bomb a city and to wreak carnage and human suffering. So often hate of an individual, a group, an institution, a religion, a race or a country can lead one to engage in cruel and even self-destructive behavior. “Hate disrupts the natural order.”
In the weeks leading to the Shavuot festival it is traditional to study Pirkei Avot. The first statement of this tractate documents the chain of transmission of the oral law: “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly.” The question arises as to why this chain of transmission is placed here before Pirkei Avot, which is in the middle of the Mishna. It would seem more appropriate for this to appear at the very beginning of the entire Mishnah, before the first tractate, Berachot.
Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, a 17th-century Italian commentator on the Mishna, explains that previous tractates discuss ritual laws, including prayer, Shabbat and the festivals. People may more readily recognize that these are given by God. Pirke Avot discusses ethics. Every civilized society has a code of ethics and values. One may think that our ethics and morals are constructed by ethicists. This preamble teaches us that our ethics are based on what was divinely revealed at Sinai and transmitted through the generations: The eternal, immutable word of God.
As an Orthodox rabbi I fully believe that the Torah was given by God to Moshe and that all ethical challenges can be resolved by exploring the depths of Tanach, the Talmud, responsa literature and the codes of Jewish law. This is how a believing Jew finds answers to moral and ethical dilemmas. At the same time, I recognize that human beings, no matter how learned, are subjective creatures who are often swayed by predispositions and preconceived notions, especially in areas that are gray, which real-life situations often tend to be.
Many of you know that Jewish medical ethics is an area that I have spent much time studying. I have had the experience of serving on hospital and hospice ethics and critical care committees and have lectured at a number of conferences on these issues. I have done my best to assist families and other rabbis who have consulted me in difficult situations. Yet, when critical decisions needed to be made concerning the care of my own dear mother who has been ill, I felt incapable of evaluating the situation. I was too close. I was too emotionally involved. I called an esteemed senior colleague who is a leading expert in these areas, presented the issues and then asked a physician to describe the medical circumstances in detail. I told the rabbi, “I am too close to this to be objective. You rule as to what must be done.”
Rabbi Chaim Palagi, 19th-century Turkish Halachist and Kabbalist writes that there are certain areas into which the family of a patient should not venture as they are too emotionally involved to be objective. “Love disrupts the natural order.”
As we approach Shavuot, let us resolve to take the time to explore more Torah together. It is the eternal wisdom of the Torah that illuminates what sometimes appears to be the very opaque and murky spots of our life. I deeply believe and know it to be true that by doing this, we will be able to lead more meaningful, constructive and fulfilling Jewish lives and strive toward the goal God outlined when He gave us the Torah: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In last week’s Torah portion, we read the universally known affirmation: “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha — Love your fellow like yourself” (Lev 19:18). But this is not the only time in Torah that we are called to love. In the book of Deuteronomy, we find another “V’ahavta,” the one that commands us to love God (Deut. 6:5), and which is duplicated in our prayer books as part of the Sh’ma and its blessings.
We might be tempted to derive from these two Biblical verses that religion is there to teach us love and insist on compassion. But our sages recognized that love alone is not enough; compassion alone is not enough. They were concerned that teaching primarily about love might run the risk of keeping the focus of the practitioner exclusively on him or herself. Viewed narrowly this way, religion might simply become about the narcissistic pursuit of self-betterment — more about how one feels than about what one does. Ultimately, religion might end up solely an individualistic, exclusively personal practice, rather than also providing a communal framework that regulates interpersonal conduct.
Consequently, our rabbis teach us that “chesed,” the attribute of love and compassion, needs to be met with “gevurah,” the attribute of justice, to be in balance. Though we certainly must cultivate love within ourselves and live with an open heart and a forgiving attitude, at the same time it is both imperative and critical that we develop a strong sense of duty toward the other.
This balance between these two opposites is the gift I believe religion brings to humanity. In a world devoid of gevurah, people are left to act on the more primitive/baser instincts of self-preservation, with exclusive concern for one’s inner circle. Gevurah nudges us to broaden our humanity — extend ourselves — to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, even if we don’t feel like it.
Paradoxically, this insular concern may be what we are seeing as the new cultural standard of modern society, where the dominating worldview is one that sees all relationships as transactional, where extreme individualism is the norm, and the world is increasingly polarizing and alienating. In this environment, we don’t have to look far to see how we have, as a society, abdicated our mandate to provide services and appropriate help for those who are poor, sick and mentally ill. They are at best neglected if not downright abandoned by those entrusted with their care: Us.
We live at a time in history where the attributes of gevurah, of justice, are in dire need to be brought back to the fore. One of the ways our tradition has ensured that gevurah always came to temper the influence of chesed — of love — over the centuries, has been through the path of mitzvot. The system of mitzvot is designed to make us transcend the limitations of our emotional variability, to move us beyond the limits of love, and help us step beyond the narrow confines of the ego. Today, we all pick and choose to some extent our level of orthodoxy of practice, which minhagim, which halachot to follow, if any. But this also means that the path of mitzvot is alive and well and can be reinterpreted and embraced anew as a relevant guide to our postmodern global lives.
Our reclaiming the energies of gevurah through our renewed practice of such mitzvot as ba’al tash’chit (protecting our planet’s ecosystem), bikur cholim (meeting the need of those who are sick or mentally ill), kibud av v’em (caring for the elderly), kashrut (consuming humanely raised and sustainably grown foods as well as socially conscious products and services), or tzedakah (supporting others to help themselves) positions us as a counter-cultural force to today’s societal norm. Once again, the Jewish community is poised to reclaim its prophetic voice, calling for change, calling for justice. We have an opportunity to recreate ourselves as communities where an opposing set of values and priorities is practiced, to constitute ourselves as religious institutions that embody the kind of world, the kind of society we truly aspire to be a part of, and seek to see manifested for our children: Communities that truly embody love (chesed) and justice (gevurah) for everyone.
As we seek to transform our synagogues into microcosms of the holistic communities of tomorrow, we work to strike the balance between love and duty, compassion and responsibility, self-transcendence and communal care, and create institutions that respond to today’s yearning for congregations that teach and model a way of being whereby people know themselves to be arevim zeh l’zeh — responsible for one another.
I have a confession to make. It has been several months since I consistently visited Seward Park in the morning, which was a part of my daily routine from the very first moment we arrived in Seattle. The temptations were there to distract me: The winter was miserable; I wanted to spend more time with my family in the morning; I wanted to get just a few more minutes of sleep. Just as the weather gets more and more intolerable, as we eagerly anticipate spring to reveal itself, nature is a reminder that things do come back to life, despite the length and harshness of winter.
It was a walk through Seward Park that jogged my memory. Though I walked in very cold weather, which necessitated that I bundle up in several layers and put on my gloves, the trees and plants are blooming with beautiful colors, reminding me that no matter how harsh winter can be in Seattle, the cycle of life continues.
The reemergence of nature after several months of dormancy serves as an example of how life goes on. Though times are tough in our lives — we have worries about the continued economic crisis and other complexities of the world — we, as human beings, through our efforts, can reemerge. Or, as we popularly say, “life goes on.”
While it seems we have a “Groundhog Day” experience in Seattle, we emerge enlightened from season to season. Like a tree, we shed our leaves or a few branches, but the roots grow only stronger and trunks only thicker. In life our wisdom strengthens as we age. From a Jewish perspective, our understanding of Torah only becomes more complex and sophisticated. We learn from our mistakes and adapt to old and new circumstances.
In times such as these, when our problems seem insurmountable, a positive comes from a challenge. We grow in our wisdom, and make tough choices for the future. The roots, the Torah and other traditional texts, remain the same. But the commentary and perspectives we add serve to augment what has been handed down to us from our ancestors.
Our challenge is to remain positive and optimistic that things will get better. It requires a certain degree of faith, because we ultimately take the initiative. Like the cold and darkness of winter, there is seemingly little light to guide us.
But just as God continues to give us the seasons to remind us of the cycle of life, God is with us throughout the good and bad times as well. God provides the light for us; we have to allow it to guide us through dark and cold times. And we have to be thankful for it in good times as well, for this light does not depend on the seasons. God’s light, in other words, transcends the natural cycle of the earth and universe, and therefore, is there to lead us at every moment.
May God bless us with light in this season of rebirth. And may God’s light grant us the strength we need to make it through any season, both physical and emotional.
One of most beloved elements of the Passover Haggadah is the discussion of the four sons. The Haggadah identifies four children, each with a unique personality. Four short vignettes advise the parent how to best teach each child the story of our redemption from Egypt. Many lessons are embedded in this cherished selection of Jewish literature. Let’s consider a few.
We must teach the child who is actually before us. Every child has unique talents and faces personal challenges. The talents are not always the ones we wish for our children and the challenges are sometimes different from the ones we are prepared to confront. To successfully educate and nurture our children we have to separate our own egos as parents and try to understand the real needs of our children.
This imperative to honestly assess and respond to the needs of our children is based upon our commitment to the education of every child. This commitment must apply to our children’s general education and to their Jewish education. Even children who are not talented or precocious students must be taught the meaning of living Jewishly. Jewish learning is not like AP Biology. Some students take the course. Others do not see themselves focusing on science in college. They decide the course does not serve their needs or interest them. If their Judaism is to be meaningful, our children must be Jewishly educated — every one of them.
Parents need to provide guidance and set boundaries. The rebellious son in the Haggadah is not ignored. Neither is he indulged. His parent responds to him with a pointed and meaningful retort. The parent in the Haggadah sets a boundary and communicates an expectation. I am head of a high school. Often parents tell me about important decisions that they are leaving in the hands of their children — 13- or 14-year-olds. This includes which school they will attend and other decisions that will shape their futures. Often, these parents are struggling to define their roles in their children’s lives.
It is important to foster independence and responsibility in our children. Involving our children in a decision-making process is a great learning experience. However, as parents we have accumulated a lifetime of experience and a wealth of knowledge. But when we ignore our own experience and knowledge and act impulsively, we usually achieve less-than-ideal outcomes. We should be careful about completely delegating important decisions to our children who lack life experience and our accumulated knowledge. Parents must provide guidance to their children. As parents, we must also create boundaries. We must establish areas in which we assign responsibility and authority to our children. But we must also place limits upon our children’s authority.
Also, our involvement in a key decision communicates to our children the issue is important enough to demand our attention. Parents who place life-altering decisions completely in their children’s hands — for example, which school to attend — communicate to their children that the decision is not important enough to demand their parents’ personal involvement. Once the child perceives this attitude, how likely is it that he or she will carefully and thoughtfully consider the decision?
Parents are role models whether for better or for worse. In the Haggadah’s account, the parent is the teacher. This communicates two important lessons: First, as parents we are responsible to personally participate in the education of our children. We cannot discharge our duty to educate our children by delegating their education to professional educators and then absenting ourselves from the education process.
Second, when we personally engage in dialogue with our children, we communicate that the ideas, concepts, and values we are discussing are important to us. Children are influenced by their parents’ example. When parents delegate all aspects of their children’s education to the professionals, their children ask why the material learned in school does not deserve any of their parents’ attention. Of course, this is especially relevant to our children’s Jewish learning. When this learning is not a topic of conversation between parents and child, the child is left wondering how important Jewish tradition and learning is to his or her parents.
A parent of one of my high school students shared with me his thoughts on this aspect of parenting. He acknowledged that when he sent his daughter to Northwest Yeshiva High School he assumed the professionals would take responsibility for her education and assure that she would turn out more or less as he and his wife envisioned. Then he realized his daughter was watching them. Actually, she was scrutinizing them to determine the degree to which they actually subscribed to the values she was learning in school. He realized that teenagers are remarkably skilled at uncovering every one of their parents’ inconsistencies, which they often characterize as hypocrisies. His conclusion was that school can educate but parents must model. Neither alone is effective. Combined they communicate a strong message.
If these few paragraphs from the Haggadah can teach us so much, imagine the wisdom and insight we can provide our children through a serious and high quality Jewish education.
“May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”
— Peter Marshall
As American Jews, when we sit down to our Passover seders this coming week, we should keep this fact in mind: We are, hands down, the freest Jews to have ever celebrated a Passover seder. We are free to worship, move around, seek employment, seek public office, marry the people we love, receive the education we want and need, and participate in all aspects of civil society. What does it mean to sit down at our seder and retell the story of our people and feel that we too are slaves and we too have been redeemed, when our reality includes such unprecedented freedoms? How should this reality color our celebration?
Passover has several key purposes and deep moral messages. First and foremost, Passover functions to pass the story of our redemption to the next generation. The entire seder is constructed as an educational tool that speaks to the younger generations. The message of what it means to be a slave, the importance of freedom, and the miracle of our redemption must be passed on to youth in a way they can hear and understand.
In the past, tools like dividing the seder with four cups of wine or telling the story of the four sons or hiding the afikomen might have spoken in a very relevant manner to the hearts and minds of our children. This is no longer true. I am not recommending doing away with those traditions, but rather to add to them as free people who have access to libraries and the Internet and so many forms of technology.
It is our right and duty to make our seders engaging — there is no excuse for a boring seder. There is no reason to leave the kids at home or leave the seder early because it is “too much” for the youngest at the table. The message of the Passover story is too important to continue to do things exactly as they were passed down to you. It might be what you like as an adult, but if it is not speaking to the children — if they are not able to truly hear the story and the values passed down during this sacred rite — then you are failing.
I know this may be a harsh statement, but it’s important to say: A boring seder is a shanda. You are free to make different choices; it is therefore an obligation to embrace this freedom and to use all of your capabilities and resources to pass the story along in a meaningful and relevant manner.
This is all the more important, because Passover has a very important moral message about how we as Jews should live in this world. Being a free people means we have an extra obligation. Telling the story each year and going through the rituals of Passover has to mean more than just remembering. We were liberated from Egypt. We were liberated from Dachau. We have been enslaved and oppressed and then managed to see our way through to liberation so many times in our history.
This is not just a precious remembrance. This history is also a mandate. But to do what exactly? To make choices in our lives and encourage our greater community and society to make choices that are just, life-sustaining and kind. We were brought forth from Egypt so we might have the opportunity to live a life of Torah, to live our highest values as Jewish people.
As a Reform Jew, I acknowledge that living a “life of Torah” might look different to each individual. But at the same time, there is no denying that our tradition demands we create a just society and a society that cares for those in need. It also demands that we pass these traditions and values to the next generation. When we read “let all who are hungry come and eat” at our seder table, it really needs to mean something. When the children at that table hear you read those words, they need to know you mean it.
Passover is an opportunity to show yourself, your family, and our community what it means to live a Jewish life in 2013 and that you fully embrace all the blessings and opportunities you have as one of the freest Jews of all time. Will you sit down at your computer tonight and research ways to make your seder speak in a more authentic and creative way to the next generation? The resources are out there. Will you take time to consider how you can make the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” a reality in your community? I know that Passover embodies many more deep moral messages than I have the space to address. Will you bring the topic of the practical and moral messages of Passover as a conversation piece to your seder?
To my delight, I have noticed an encouraging trend of people who might not be religiously observant nevertheless observing the commandment of wearing tefillin.
Why is it important for every male Jew, no matter what level of observance, to consider donning tefillin? For one, it is a mitzvah (a commandment). Every mitzvah is an act of love that binds us to God. But tefillin is the paradigm mitzvah in that we literally bind ourselves to the will of God. Tefillin represents a total dedication and union with the Almighty.
As the Torah says, “Bind [these commandments] as a sign on your arm, and as totafot [frontlets] between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8).
Tefillin consists of two black boxes, one of which is worn on the bicep, the other on the forehead. Attached to each box are black leather straps. Inside each box is parchment containing four Torah sections: The obligation to remember the Exodus (Ex. 13:1-10); the responsibility to transmit Judaism to our descendants (Ex. 11-16); the Shema, the proclamation of God’s unity and the mitzvah to love God (Deut. 6:4-9); and the implications of our fulfillment of the Torah (Deut. 11:13-21). The outer structure of the tefillin contains three Hebrew letters, which spell out one of God’s names, Shaddai.
Sometimes people won’t know about tefillin, but they know about phylacteries. This is a term used by the ancient Greeks who referred to them as “phylakterion,” which means a protection or a safeguard. Apparently, the Greeks misunderstood the tefillin to be some sort of amulet or charm. Actually, tefillin has nothing to do with superstition, but is considered as a genuine connection to God.
What’s the purpose of tefillin, of wearing a sign on your arm and on your head?
On the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites were about to go forth on their journey to freedom, God gave them a number of instructions. Among them was: “V’haya lecha l’eot al yad’cha, ul’zikaron ben enecha” — “It shall be to you as a sign upon your arm and a reminder between your eyes” (Ex. 13:9). Tefillin are to be an insignia on your arm and a crown upon your head, a daily reminder of what God did in redeeming us from the slavery of Egypt.
Tefillin is a daily reminder of the potential for evil within every one of us, personified by the slavery in Egypt, and a sign of our God-given potential for goodness and holiness as personified in the holy scrolls from the Torah within the tefillin boxes.
But why do we have to wear them? “le’maan tih’yeh Torat Hashem be’ficha” — “So that the word of God may be in your mouth” — so that you will be inspired to speak up about your own experiences as if you were in Egypt experiencing the evil of slavery, and help bring God’s light and goodness to the world.
The two boxes represent the two ways we serve God in this world: Thought (the head) and action (the arm). When putting on the arm tefillin, we focus on devoting our strength to the Almighty. It is placed at a level opposite the heart to teach that all our actions must be done with heart and mind. The head tefillin imbues us with the idea of subjugating our intellect for the love of God.
Dr. Steven Schram, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, wrote a fascinating article in the Journal of Chinese Medicine in October 2002 called “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription For Mental Clarity.” Schram points out that when worn properly, the leather straps and boxes of the tefillin stimulate acupuncture points associated with improved concentration and inspiration. The contact points of tefillin are exactly those points at which acupuncture needles are inserted in order “to increase spirituality and to purify thoughts.”
Schram was not a particularly observant Jew and hadn’t worn tefillin since his Bar Mitzvah. He went to a rabbi for a refresher course. For a while, he would put tefillin on in the morning, sit on his adjustment table, say the Shema, and meditate. Schram wrote, “I hope that more people will do tefillin…I think tefillin is a tool for enhancing consciousness, and I would like to see more consciousness.”
Some have likened tefillin to a sophisticated device that receives “spiritual-electronic” signals. If one wire or transistor is faulty, the entire system does not function.
It is important that one wear tefillin in 100 percent good condition. Every letter of the parchment inserted in the tefillin boxes must be halachically acceptable, written in the right order that appears in the Torah, and not cracked or faded. The ink must be black, not faded to brown or green.
Therefore, if you have an old pair of tefillin (perhaps that you inherited from your grandfather), you should have it inspected by a scribe. In general, it is a good idea for tefillin to be checked at regular intervals. One should only purchase tefillin from a sofer, a scribe and God-fearing Jew, who knows the quality of tefillin.
Why put on tefillin? As the Torah tells us “so that the Torah of God shall be in your mouth.” So that you will be inspired and live an inspired life. Besides, what a great way to start the day.
Rabbi Benzaquen is a scribe and authorized to check sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot. If you would like him to inspect your parchment, call him at 206-200-6829.
“Nostalgia,” Yogi Berra once quipped “isn’t what it used to be.” His insight probably referred to the ever-shifting ways we remember good experiences, but a recent development in Jewish life shows that the ways we remember tragedy can change just as much.
According to recent reports, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California is developing technology to create holograms of Holocaust survivors telling their stories and sharing their thoughts
The team is hard at work. Dozens of survivors have agreed to sit before an array of cameras, recount their experiences, and respond to about 100 likely audience questions. The recordings will be far more vivid than those of the 3D extravaganzas at today’s movie houses. Here, the images will appear not on a screen, but projected into real space, allowing the survivors to take a virtual seat at the table as they tell us their stories. Afterward, the loaded Q&A memory banks will allow survivors to offer Siri-like replies to follow-up questions. It will be as if R2-D2 were to open his hatch and reveal not a fictional 3D Obi Wan, but a real person telling real stories of a real time of utter darkness — Star Wars meets Yad Vashem.
Preserving the survivors’ stories is important, of course — we dare not forget the evil they witnessed. Still, this new technology begs some important questions: Why the gimmick? Will the three-dimensional versions of survivors’ recollections really be any more jarring or memorable than the two-dimensional ones? Will our ersatz “conversations” with the survivors succeed in conveying their stories more effectively than purely narrative accounts? Do we really think this futuristic technology can describe what happened any better than the technology we’ve already got?
Furthermore, while Holocaust survivors represent a disappearing Jewish world, there are other vanishing Jewish cultures, too. Has anyone considered holographically recording memories of Jewish life in Muslim lands? Or of small-town Jewish culture in the American South? Or of the tenement world of Jewish immigrants to New York? Certainly the Holocaust survivors faced evil that was far more systematic and horrific than the others, but in remembering our past, why is it that the memories we want to recall most vividly are precisely those that are the most horrifying?
The answer, I think — at least in part — is that even now, almost seven decades after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, we haven’t figured out how to remember the Holocaust. We live today in a golden, glittering age of Jewish culture, but a dark cloud of unanswered Holocaust questions still dims its brilliance: How? Why? Could it happen again? Are we Jews ever truly at home? Our family trees show branches that were abruptly lopped off in the 1940s, killing not only our aunts and uncles, but also the cousins we never had. What should be our response? Would any response be adequate? What, when it comes right down to it, does the Holocaust really mean?
We yearn for answers to these questions, but those we find are often pithy slogans rather than guiding truths. They leave us full of words, but ultimately speechless in our quest for understanding.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch once described the Holocaust as “a theological ‘black hole’ so dense that it fails to emit even a single ray of light.” We live in that darkness as we seek to remember, searching desperately but in vain for light and understanding.
And as our search continues, we realize the survivors — those who best help us remember — will soon be no more. We want to grasp their stories and never let go. And to do it, we’ll use every tool we’ve got — even high-tech cinematic wizardry.
The technology will certainly be awesome, and it’s important to record survivors’ recollections, whatever the format. But there is something sad about this attempt to vivify our memory of the Holocaust. We’re unable to grasp the magnitude of its loss; we insist on keeping its memory alive; we think adding a third spatial dimension will help us succeed.
Ultimately, the two-dimensional survivor-memories of page and screen are just as significant and vivid as the three-dimensional ones of modern technology. Holocaust holography is the kind of thing that happens when we undertake the daunting task of trying to remember the unfathomable. It is a high-tech stab at a profoundly spiritual monster.
Instead of focusing on whiz-bang technologies, let’s simply acknowledge the darkness and the fear we encounter as we confront the Holocaust. Maybe the Holocaust really is unfathomable. Maybe we never will fully grasp the enormity of our loss. And maybe our memory of it will fade as it recedes farther and farther into the past. Indeed, it probably will.
All we really can do is hear the stories, hoping that one day some light will emerge after all. We don’t need holograms. All we need are compassionate hearts, open minds, and a good dose of courage to continue listening despite the overwhelming bewilderment we face.
Judaism has contributed a great deal to world civilization. We introduced the concept of ethical monotheism and were among the first peoples to encourage universal literacy. Our tradition speaks of freedom and liberty for all — not just for an elite — a society based on law rather than power. We have much to be proud of.
But have we run out of gas? Does our tradition today offer anything more than a private and temporary “shelter in the storm” from an increasingly material-oriented, crisis-torn world? Is there anything in our millennia-long story that makes any difference any more? Is our charge to “be a light unto the nations” now obsolete, part of the distant past?
Or is the best yet to come?
Perhaps our least appreciated resource (outside, of course, yeshiva enclaves) is our Talmudic tradition. Among the many ways we can describe it, it is a two-millennia cooperative art project, a living system that continues to develop. It’s also a systematic unfolding of the Infinite into the physical world of boundaries and limits. It serves as the foundation, source material, and methodology for deriving halachah — defined as “a going” (i.e., a path toward spiritual development) — ritual and liturgical law, as well as Jewish civil and communal law. The detailed descriptions and analyses of the written Torah text and of our Temple services have inspired us and fired both our imaginations and our yearning, contributing greatly to our miraculous and unique survival as a homeless people.
But is that really all it is?
Beyond the various “internal” (limited to religious/ritual/halachic) benefits Talmud study provides, the process itself is unique, powerful and multi-layered. Transcending all specific subjects, it trains our minds to think in very advanced ways. As we zero in on a point, we suddenly find ourselves examining other phenomena, which might share only one non-obvious similarity to our original subject. Sometimes we’ll return to the main point, other times we’ll continue exploring and examining a chain of associations. We examine everything from multiple points of view, both in isolation and in relation to other ideas and opinions. Sometimes we’ll solve the puzzle, but other times we’ll just leave the question for the time being, marking it as, indeed, difficult — kushiya (“that’s a hard one”) or teyko (“we’ll wait for Elijah the Prophet announcing the imminent arrival of Messiah to explain”).
If we take a step back, something even more curious emerges. Although the Talmud is based on questions and answers, it soon becomes apparent that the answers were already well known before the discussion even begins. For example, the very beginning of the Oral Torah, the first chapter of the first tractate, Berachot, begins by asking from what time can we begin to say the evening Shema. Obviously, the rabbis of the Mishna davened every day of their lives, as did their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They knew exactly when to say the Shema.
In fact, this is really our first clue that something much more important is going on — we’re being taught and drilled in an advanced methodology of thinking. Daily Talmud study resembles nothing so closely as daily gym workouts or daily musical scale practice. Intense immersion in Talmud study, in addition to the religious and even the spiritual benefits, develops our minds to work linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, serially and associatively, all at the same time!
Although the Gemara (Berachot 6b) defines its actual benefit as learning how to reason, I have no quarrel with those who want to limit their study to questions of halachah, nor with those who study in order to, in indescribable but actual ways, merge their intellect with the Divine Intellect in order to deepen their relationship with God. But I want to propose an entirely additional direction.
Our world is a mess! Between almost universal economic meltdown, endless environmental disasters, continual wars and culture clashes, starvation, resurgent disease and probably more people living under slavery than at any time in the past, we’re all in a heap of trouble! To add even more urgency, our former problem-solving strategies no longer seem effective.
One reason for this crisis, I propose, is our exclusive reliance on science, based entirely on empiricism. Even ever-advancing computing power doesn’t really help, since it’s the same binary-only fallacy, just at much higher speed.
I propose applying Talmudic methodology to these challenges. Let’s introduce rigorous Talmud study to our finest science, economics, law and government students, Jewish or not, with or without religious belief, in order to learn and master this powerful tool. By this I mean serious, yeshiva-level, immersion training in Talmud — I’m not talking about a superficial overview or an academic survey class. The goal is not to be able to talk about “Talmudic methods,” but rather to acquire an entirely new modality of thinking, a true working knowledge.
Let’s also try to engage our finest yeshiva scholars, with lifetimes spent already honing these skills, in real-world issues. Not only would that be a significant step in healing divisions within our people, it just might, from an unexpected direction, rekindle the fire that will allow us, once again, to become that “light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Harry Zeitlin’s Torah thoughts can be found at rabbizeitlin.wordpress.com.
The Pacific Northwest was greatly honored this past month by a visit from the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Richard Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs has quickly distinguished himself as a powerful visionary in an evolving contemporary Judaism, a leader who seeks to enable 1.5 million American Jews to practice liberal Judaism seriously, and as an ardent Zionist who practices what he preaches: “Am Yisrael chai!” — “The people of Israel lives!”
Back when I was a newly minted rabbi, Rabbi Jacobs was one of my first bosses. I am the better for having learned with him as he transformed a synagogue in New York into a vibrant, serious home of Jewish lifelong learning and practice for over 1,000 Jewish families.
One reason we brought Rabbi Jacobs to our congregation on a Sunday morning was because the Reform movement is concerned with the national issue of the “disappearance” of Jewish kids after Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We wanted him to see the large, vibrant Jewish youth culture that prevails at Beth Am with over 100 post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah teens electing to serve as teen educational leaders each Sunday morning in our religious school “madrichim” program.
At Beth Am, a teen may only enter the madrichim program if he or she is enrolled in our religious education program. Each year, in spite of our best efforts, a certain number of students do exit our program at some point in the year after Bat or Bar Mitzvah, and each departure is personally upsetting. At the same time, though, we have grown a powerful all-ages community, and we know that large numbers of our students graduate 12th grade with a strong Jewish identity based on a combination of their Jewish home experience and their religious communal experience at Beth Am, Jewish summer camp, and our regular Israel trips.
So, that’s what I wanted Rabbi Jacobs to see on a Sunday morning in January. At 9:15, we planted him at the front entrance to our building, and over the course of the next 20 minutes he shook hands with an extraordinary number of teens streaming through our building. As I tried to personally introduce him to as many teens as possible, I started to notice their great diversity. Some of these students come from interfaith homes where both parents have made a commitment to raise exclusively Jewish children. A number of the students are biracial. Even more were adopted at birth from other countries, particularly from Asia and Africa. A couple of students are uncertain whether they are male or female. A few of them already know they are gay. Some of our teens have learning disabilities or emotional disabilities or are somehow different than a stereotypical Jewish kid. Standing by Rabbi Jacobs as each student smiled and shook his hand I was overwhelmed by a diversity I had not noticed before.
During his community address, Rabbi Jacobs relayed a true personal story in which he found himself in a crowd rushing down a street in Manhattan. On either side of him were strangers, each of a different skin color. A man on the street holding tefillin looked at all three and asked Rabbi Jacobs, “Are you a Jew?” The moral of the story: As we worry about shrinking numbers of Jews worldwide, let us not overlook those Jews who do not look exactly the same as our old notions.
Let us all reflect on the diversity of the many faces of Jews in our time. There was once a stereotype of a white person of European descent with pale white skin and dark, curly hair. Now, that is simply one of so many looks that a Jewish person might have. Many of us will still look at a person of color in our shul reciting the prayers and wonder, “Is that person really Jewish?”
For the sake of a healthy Jewish future, it is vital we recognize that Jews come in all colors, nationalities, abilities, disabilities, sexual orientations and backgrounds.
Rabbi Jacobs spoke to the Jewish community about the importance of welcoming all who bring strength to the Jewish people. I am proud of our efforts here in the Pacific Northwest to empower all varieties of Jews to grow as Jews. Watching the larger Jewish community move in the direction of welcoming Jews of all different backgrounds can fill us all with great hope for the future of American Judaism.
Many cultures observe a festival of lights in the darkest days of winter. For us it is Hanukkah, for others Christmas; as well there are Pagan festivals of light in the winter. For Jews and Christians, the winter festival also represents salvation.
This winter, however, no amount of candles, LED lights or bonfires will lighten the darkness in our hearts. In mid-December, there were at least three mass shootings in public areas. The most heartbreaking, of course, is the loss of all those precious children at the school in Newtown, Conn.
In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a, we find: “Man was created alone, to teach you that whoever takes a single life... Scripture ascribes to him the guilt of having destroyed the whole world; and whoever saves a single life... Scripture ascribes to him the merit of having saved the whole world.”
The world of those parents in Connecticut, as well as in other places of mass murder, has in fact been destroyed. No parent should ever have to bury a child; that it was from senseless murder makes it that much worse.
There is no answer in Torah for such acts of violence. The Torah tells us we were created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in God’s image. The Torah also commands that we shall not murder. These acts of murder, in essence, serve as an attempt to destroy God from the world.
On December 19, 2012, President Obama gave a charge to his cabinet to find answers and real fixes for several problems in our country. I would like to elaborate on what I see are the issues, and how we can address them:
1. The glorification of gun violence in movies, TV and video games: Just as it is not legal, according to interpretation of the First Amendment, to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, other incendiary speech should be limited too. This includes, as I see it, limiting the glorification of gun violence in the media.
2. This country has become, in the last few decades, morally bankrupt. We no longer teach ethics, values and personal responsibility in schools. I firmly believe that these topics can and should be taught, without resorting to the Bible or other religious teachings.
3, With the current trends in healthcare, mental health care has become very difficult to afford or access. We need much more available mental health care in this country.
4. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has, based on my experiences as a teacher, forced far too many students into inappropriate mainstream settings. The schools are not equipped or staffed for this, and most teachers do not have the requisite special training needed. By mainstreaming such children, they are then shunned by their classmates, leading them to be socially isolated, and often hated for the disruptions they cause due to their difficulties. If these students were taught in special-needs programs with similar students, they would be able to function at a higher level, and would be more socialized. This would result in such developmentally or educationally disabled people feeling more at home in society. Some Chabad schools have been very successful with this.
So, what can we do about this horrible trend? I have seen many calls for more gun control laws. In my opinion, adding broad-based gun control is really tilting at windmills. In the case of the Newtown shooting, the rifle was apparently legally obtained. One thing to observe is that these weapons are sold as semi-automatic, which means one shot per trigger pull. Amazingly, while gun shops cannot legally sell full-automatic (one trigger pull, many bullets) versions of these rifles, they can sell the conversion kit to switch to full auto separately. This is certainly one area where gun control might have effect.
However, rather than putting a spot Band-Aid on an arterial bleed, we need to stay focused on the root causes — guns are the tool but not the source of the violence. None of the ideas I have suggested are easy. Making mental-health care accessible would be expensive, as is special-needs instruction in schools. We need to provide motivation for good people to go into these fields with scholarships for advanced degrees in mental-health care and special-needs education, with the recipients committing to at least four years of public service to pay for their scholarships.
It seems to me that we have been placing a value on human life by refusing to confront these issues, which are mainly economic. It is a very cynical calculus when people monetize the value of human life. Please consider talking or writing to your state and federal legislators to fully fund the fixes to these issues, so that we can restore some sense of freedom and safety in our lands, and restore value to human life, instead of having greed be the capital we operate on.
Rabbi Jaron Matlow is a veteran pastoral counselor in Olympia. He has taught in Jewish day schools, in classrooms with students with special needs in the mainstream, and has seen first-hand how difficult mainstreaming can be.
Bronnie Ware, a registered nurse in Australia, did a fascinating study a couple of years ago. She spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last few months of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies and put her observations into a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently she writes, “common themes surfaced again and again.”
The number one regret was, “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
At the moment of utmost clarity people wished that they had spent more time pursuing a life true to themselves and their feelings. In other words, they wished they had spent their years living, rather than acquiring the materials for future living, which they so often don’t get the chance to have. These people’s biggest regret was that they were repressed, whether by themselves or others. They never truly expressed themselves.
How do we assure ourselves that our lives will be different? What can we do today that will inspire and direct us to be that certain individual with a goal — pursuing happiness, meaning and gratification?
I would like to share a story with you:
In December 1995, Boston businessman Aaron Feuer¬stein had just returned home from his 70th birthday party, when a phone call informed him that his Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Mass., burned down. Twenty-six employees had been injured, some seriously.
Three thousand people worked at Malden Mills. When the employ¬ees saw the devastation wrought by the fire, they assumed, as one worker put it, “The fire is out of control. Our jobs are gone.”
The fire was indeed out of control, but Feuerstein was not. A pious Jew who studied Talmud every day, Feuerstein recalled how his father would quote the Talmudic aphorism, “In a place where there is no man, be a man” (Pirke Avot 2:5). In the immediate aftermath of the fire, he met with 1,000 employ¬ees and told them, “When all the textile mills in Lawrence ran out to get cheaper labor down south, we stuck. We're going to stay and rebuild.”
Two days later, wages were due. “Pay everyone in full,” Feuerstein ordered — and on time. Along with the payroll checks, Feuerstein included a $275 bonus for the New Year season, and a note: “Do not despair. God bless each of you.”
The following day, Feuerstein convened a meeting of his employ¬ees and announced, “For the next 30 days, it might be longer, all employees will be paid full salaries.” Thirty days became 90 as he arranged for temporary facilities. The total cost of supporting his people after the fire came to $25 million.
Did either American or Jewish law require Feuerstein to act as he did? No. That is why his generous actions received national acclaim, and were the subject of numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.
In addition to feeling compassion for his employees and want¬ing to rebuild his business, Feuerstein exemplified the most exalted Jewish value: Sanctifying God’s name (kiddush Hashem).
The Talmud tells a story that illustrates the meaning of this term. The sage Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach found a precious stone hanging around the neck of a donkey he had bought from a non-Jew. Refusing to yield to the requests of his disciples who urged him to keep the treasure Providence had sent to him, he returned the stone, saying, “I bought a donkey, not a precious stone.” The non-Jewish witness to the sage’s integrity thereupon exclaimed, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shatach.”
God’s name becomes sanctified when those who claim to have a relationship with Him act in such a manner that makes it evident how faith transforms a life. Shimon ben Shatach would not have endangered his reputation nor violated the national law if he had decided to keep the stone. In returning the stone Rabbi Shimon moved a man to say, “If this behavior is the child of faith, then faith is worth having.”
When non-Jews with whom you interact know that you are Jewish, you are no longer merely an individual. For better or for worse, you become an ambassador of the Jewish people to the non-Jewish world. When you act nobly and ethically, you bring honor and purpose to yourself, the Jewish people, and God Himself.
Looking back over the past 2,000 years we have never had such amazing opportunities, when Judaic virtues have been more admired by non-Jews. We are admired for our strong community life, the warmth of Jewish family, our passion for education, our growing commitment to philanthropy. Today we have the chance to be an outstanding voice in the moral conversations of mankind.
Indeed, we all have a special calling. At the heart of the covenant at Mount Sinai the Jews were summoned by God to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
As Jews we are summand to engage in tikkun olam, “perfecting the world” under the sovereignty of God. We are commended to become “partners with the Holy One Blessed Be He, in the work of creation.” Hence we each possess the capacity to positively influence all people, elements and events of our world; we can become “a light onto the nations” by saturating our life with holiness and nobility. Through the integrity with which we conduct our business or professional lives, by the grace that we bring to our relationships, by the beauty that radiates from our homes, by the way we use words to heal and not to hurt, every one of us can sanctify God’s name in the world.
President John Adams put it in these words: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.”
There is an old Jewish saying: “When it is very cold, there are two ways of keeping warm. One is to put on a fur coat. The other is to light a fire. Put on a fur coat and keep yourself warm; light a fire and you share your warmth with others.”
As Jews we have been charged to share our warmth with others and light the fire of God and compassion throughout the world. This is our calling. This is our destiny. If you are truly engaged and encompassed in this life pursuit, not only will you change the world around you, but at the end of time you will have no regrets!
Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky is the executive director of The Friendship Circle and host of Shmooze Radio and the Rabbi’s Message, KKNW AM 1150.
This past year, I had the opportunity to take a four-month sabbatical, spending two months in Israel and two months in Warsaw, Poland. In sharing the plans about our upcoming trip with friends and members of the congregation, almost everyone had the same question: Why Poland?
It was obvious why a rabbi and his wife would spend time in Israel (especially since our son was studying in the Sachler Medical School program at Tel Aviv University). But why would any Jew in his or her right mind choose to spend any time in Poland, let alone two months. The Poles, after all, were notoriously anti-Semitic, not just during the war, but after the war as well.
“Are there Jews still living in Poland?” some asked.
We learned that there are indeed Jews still living in Poland who are passionate about Judaism. It is currently estimated that there are 5000-10,000 Jews living in Poland, but the number of individuals with Jewish ancestry is clearly much larger. And many adults are discovering their Jewish ancestry, which their families suppressed, and embracing their Jewish roots.
My wife Barbara and I agreed to teach adult students in the Shatz program at Beit Warsawa, a Reform congregation in Warsaw. These students are learning to become sh’lichei tzibur, lay worship leaders, for their synagogue and groups of Jews interested in Judaism in other cities in Poland. We worked with two classes: Second-year students who had completed their studies of Shabbat liturgy and nusach (liturgical melodies) and were now studying the High Holy Day liturgy, and first-year students, many of whom were just beginning to learn the alef-bet.
The second-year students were a particularly impressive group: One is working on his Ph.D. in post-Holocaust theology at University of Lublin; another recently began her studies as a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and a third was accepted into the cantorial studies program at Abraham Geiger College in Germany.
But as impressive as their academic credentials were, the stories of their discovery of their Jewish roots and their journeys to reclaim those roots were even more incredible. The Polish Jewish community was not only decimated during the Holocaust, but any attempts to revive Judaism were repressed during the subsequent 40-plus years of Communist rule. And there are still many Jews who do not openly share that they are Jewish, even with co-workers or friends.
Yet, we heard moving stories of those embracing their Jewish roots. One student told of going through her parents’ belongings after they died and finding a menorah, a kiddush cup, and other Jewish ritual objects. Another told how his family insisted they were not Jewish despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Most of these students had little Jewish knowledge and many were not Jewish according to halachah, so their journeys have included Judaism and Hebrew classes leading toward conversion. Their passion for Judaism and Jewish learning is unmatched. Because Beit Warsawa suddenly found itself without a rabbi at the end of last January, Barbara and I stepped in to teach the Step-by-Step classes in February, March and April. The students were eager to learn how to bake challah and make Passover treats, as well as learn the historical backgrounds of the holidays.
In addition, I stepped in to lead Shabbat services along with the second-year Shatz students. The congregation, which usually numbered about 40 to 50 on Fridays unless there was a visiting group, sung the Hebrew prayers with gusto, even though many of those who attended were not Jewish and could not read Hebrew. The services were followed by a catered Shabbat dinner. A smaller group gathered each Saturday morning for services and, after a Shabbat lunch, for Torah study. It was inspiring to see the students light up as they understood the relevance of the Torah portions to their lives.
There is clearly a revival of Jewish life in Poland. This revival is reflected in the annual Jewish festival in Krakow that draws tens of thousands each year, many of them non-Jews. But it is also reflected in congregations such as Beit Warsawa, which are emerging in Warsaw and other cities as individuals discover and begin to explore their Jewish roots. And it is reflected in the eight women who recently completed their return to Judaism by going before a Bet Din in Krakow and then immersing in Poland’s only mikvah.
We returned from Poland inspired by what we saw and encouraged about the future of Judaism in Poland. You can read more about Beit Warsawa at its English language website: http://www.beit.org.pl.
Several weeks ago, Israeli police arrested and imprisoned Anat Hoffman, a founder and organizer of Women of the Wall, and director of the Israel Religious Action Center. What was Hoffman’s crime? Simply wearing a tallit and praying the “Shema” with hundreds of women participating in the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Hoffman’s arrest is an affront to religious freedom and tolerance. The Western Wall, called the Kotel in Hebrew, belongs to all Jews, not just those who interpret Talmudic passages most narrowly. The Kotel is a symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty, and a religious site that must be open to all people who seek to pray there. Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, eloquently captured the loss for all Jews: “What could have been a national symbol to connect Jews from all over the world is now only an Orthodox synagogue,” he said.
In 2003, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that “local custom” at the Wall did not allow for practices involving women wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, or tefillin, or reading aloud from the Torah. Police routinely remove women from prayer services, bring them to local police stations, detain them, and fingerprint them. As Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network said, “These actions are deplorable anywhere, especially in the State of Israel.”
If we delve into the textual basis of these shameful acts, we find that those who seek to deny the equality of all Jews base their argument on the concept of “kol ishah,” the prohibition against women praying aloud. There is only one statement in all of rabbinic literature that considers a man’s potential distractions while reciting the Shema: “If one gazes at the little finger of a woman, is it as if he gazed at her secret place? No, it means at one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema” (Berachot 24a).
This passage elicits merely three responses in all of Talmudic literature. The first is from Rav Hisda (Berachot 24a): A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers” (Isaiah 47:2) and it says afterward, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame shall be exposed” (Isaiah 47:3).
The second is from Shmuel (Kiddushin 70a): A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14).
The third comes from Rav Sheshet (Y. Hallah 2:1): A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats” (Song of Songs 4:1).
Rabbi Judith Abrams clarifies that this passage discusses things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema. Most would agree that any man would be distracted by seeing his partner naked before him while attempting to pray. But what follows in the Talmud is a list of what different sages find most enticing about women, ancillary to the main conversation. Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him. Thus, the prohibition against Kol Ishah is based on a flimsy pretext, which, in context, does not ban women from praying aloud at all.
The Tanach and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly. Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).
Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic sources testify that women sing publicly and liturgically. Only one groundless statement from a sage is used to justify the prohibition against women praying or singing publically. But in context, the Talmud does not ban women’s voices at all! Rabbi Abrams aptly concludes that there are far more textual sources affirming women’s right to sing in public and at services than there are for banning it. “May the sounds of joy and salvation be heard in the tents of the righteous!” (Psalms 118:15).
Moreover, as Jews committed to equality and kavod — respect for all — we are called to challenge a principle that conceives of women as sexual predators who need to be contained and isolated because of our seductive power. What does it mean to respect versus fear women? And what of casting men as unable to exercise self control?
Our Jewish homeland must embody freedom, justice, and peace, valuing the democratic participation and religious commitment of all Jews. May the Israeli government and right-wing groups who ground their discrimination and injustice in “local custom” realize the true message of our sources — that the Kotel, no less than the Shema, is a blessing and a privilege for every Jew.
What is it about heroism that moves us so much? Why is it that when we witness human beings putting their lives on the line to help another we feel so inspired that we tell their stories long after they are gone? We write books about them, and memorialize them in film. Why?
There is no way selflessness, heroism, and sacrifice could bring us to tears if it wasn’t connected to something at the very core of who each of us is and why we are on this earth. When we see another person going beyond himself, it awakens our own dormant hero. That part within us rejoices in the purity of giving to another without any thought of personal gain or recognition.
I am blessed beyond what I can express with being surrounded by those people in the Jewish nation who were in circumstances where, without exaggeration, this kind of pure heroic giving took place every day. I’m talking of course about the injured hayalim — soldiers — I have met through my involvement in Hope for Heroism. I realized recently, however, that there are those among the Jewish people whose heroism and selflessness is no less great than our injured soldiers, albeit largely unrecognized.
In 2006 Captain Roi Klein was involved in one of the most brutal battles in the second Lebanon war against Hezbollah terrorists. Roi and his soldiers were caught in a terrible ambush in the village of Bingbel. Space in this article does not allow me to go into detail of the battle, but of the dozens of grenades thrown by the terrorists at Roi and his soldiers, one suddenly landed right in the midst of them. Imagine for just a second that you were there. In that terrible moment, what happens next?
Without hesitation Roi did what he felt he must do to take care of his soldiers. He leapt on the grenade in an attempt to protect their lives.
Two of the soldiers who were near him at that moment told me that as Roi landed on the grenade, he said the “Shema Yisrael” prayer, with the fervor and passion “they write about in the books of the Prophets.” Roi remained alive for a few seconds after the blast. He instructed his soldiers to radio what had happened to their commanders and then passed from this earth, leaving behind his wife and two children.
In Israel, after Roi was buried, his chevruta (Torah study partner) began to write down all of the Torah insights Roi had come up with while they were studying. He published them under the name “With All of Your Heart,” a line from the Shema prayer Roi recited before he died. I often study this small book of writings on Shabbat; it’s incredible.
Aside from all of Roi’s soldiers, there are other heroes in this story, but I want to focus specifically on his wife and his mother. Are they, and all the wives and mothers of these soldiers, not heroic and selfless in ways we could never understand? They are giving their children and husbands to Am Yisrael so the rest of us may be safe. I don’t think I could possibly put into writing the level of daily sacrifice they make for the rest of us. The wives and mothers of our injured soldiers are the silent heroes of the Jewish nation. Their level of giving can only be described as at the level of “what they write about in the books of the Prophets.” They are the living Jewish heroes of today, and when Jewish history is written, their chapter will shine as brightly as any.
“When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.”
—David Ben Gurion
David Gruen’s transformation into Daveed Ben Gurion, from European socialist to Zionist utopian, reflected his potent awareness that outward perception impacts inner identity. And the individual experience echoes the larger, societal one. The pioneering prime minister’s seemingly cynical sentiment, an aspiration for a base normalcy, was a necessary counterpoint to the messianic idealism that fueled the realization of the Zionist enterprise.
Yet lofty hopes still inform all that the modern State of Israel embraces, especially when faced with the annihilationist vision of nuclear aspirants and the messy compromises of contemporary statecraft. But there has been a new, pernicious strain of realism afflicting a society bearing the transcendent dreams of global Jewry.
While Israel has borne its comparably small share of extremist tragedies, recent abominations of intolerance, particularly among the young, bode ill with the prospect of an emerging new era of bigotry. The desecration of monasteries and mosques, the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi by B’nai-Mitzvah–aged assailants, and the brutal beating of a Palestinian youth by Jewish teen thugs in the heart of Jerusalem before a mob of hundreds reveal an unprecedented, virulent strain of Jewish xenophobia. More broadly, the growing appearance of anti-immigrant graffiti, and the more frequently expressed nativism it signifies, reflect a significant departure from the inclusive regard for the other by this young nation only a few generations removed from its roots as refuge for the stateless.
It is no coincidence that increases in violence percolate from the darkest corners of the religious settlement movement. As Israeli society confronts the growing divide between the negotiated demands of modernity and the theocratic visions of fundamentalists, the intractable resist change and growth with greater ferocity and ignorance. But unlike most evolving, Western cultures, Israelis are permitting the marginal to erode the mainstream.
As scrupulously documented by journalist Gershom Gorenberg in his controversially incisive book, “The Unmaking of Israel,” years of cynical complicity in the spread of settlements by the leadership of all political persuasions has created not only a permanent caste of territorial intransigents, it has empowered maximalist ideology to permeate all facets of Israeli culture, including, and most disturbingly, the IDF. The recent spate of violent racism is but one symptom of this growing infection of the democratic body politic.
And while the secular Israeli education system has confronted these tragedies with a systematic heshbon nefesh (self examination) that could most likely not be found, or would most likely never be adopted by, the majority of Palestinians or any Arab state’s education system, to compare Jewish moral sensibilities to the undistinguished track record of three generations of radicalized Islam is to set the bar uncomfortably low.
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, the scion of a religio-political dynasty, lamented what he decries as “Israel’s fading democracy” in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. Burg mourns the devolution of the covenant between Israel and America, formerly founded upon humanistic values, but currently metastasized into the mutual interests of “war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.” For Burg, Israel’s support for the most destructive expressions of religion and capitalism, paired with an increasingly aberrant brand of democracy sorely lacking the constitutional checks and balances necessary for civic health, paves a path for Israel to become just another Middle Eastern theocracy.
In the midst of the last decade, the leadership of Israel’s right, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, building upon the surprising conciliation of previous reactionaries like Menachem Begin, took critical steps to cede territory toward the creation of a Palestinian state, not out of an appreciation for the self-determination of this beleaguered people, but from the very practical awareness of demographic pressure: To maintain Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, it could no longer occupy the land of a growing Arab population. And while Palestinian recalcitrance and Islamic extremism have spurned opportunities to create a viable state, these courageous gestures, and the mindset underlying them, remain critical to Israel’s secure and stable future.
But there is an equally important existential confrontation that lies ahead. Someone once noted that for the first 50 years Israel focused on insuring its safety; the next 50 would be about securing its soul. Israel is currently in a battle for its soul. The next few years will determine whether Israel can extract itself from becoming a permanent occupying force, excising territory that threatens its security and well being, and impacting its essential identity as an unparalleled experiment in Jewish democracy. Or, will Israel ingest the occupation existentially, empowering its soul-crushing character to irrevocably alter the nation’s moral and spiritual DNA?
The prophet Isaiah inspired Israel to perceive itself as an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations. Throughout most of its proud, tumultuous history, Israel has fulfilled this mandate, resisting the base standards of the rest of the world in its enlightened conduct of war, its regard for the vulnerable and afflicted of all nations, and its unqualified pursuit of peace in the face of ongoing nihilism, terrorism and global prejudice. This exemplary history renders this recent, widespread descent into base intolerance, nativism and religious radicalism even more troubling, disappointing and dangerous. It is rightly difficult, even an existential challenge, to rise to the task of lighting the nations. It is far easier to be lit by the sensibilities, standards and expectations of others in an increasingly divided world. Will Israel continue to be a source of light to illuminate the world that can be, or will it become yet another pale reflection of the world as it is?
Picture your grandparents. Try to visualize them. Now try to picture your great-grandparents. Try to visualize them wherever they came from and, if you can, set them in a synagogue. Imagine them singing while holding the Torah scroll in their arms during Simchat Torah.
Now go back a generation — to your great-great-grandparents. You probably have not even seen pictures of them. But try to imagine what they looked like and imagine, if you can, them speaking to you and you to them while sitting in a sukkah.
And now go all the way back to your great-great-great grandparents. That would take you back to the late 18th century. Imagine them listening to the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
And now go even further back and imagine your ancestors who might have lived in the 17th century in Poland, or the 16th century in Germany, or the 14th century in Spain, or the 8th century in Babylonia, or 2,000 years ago in the land of Israel.
And now, go back further to the days of Jeremiah the prophet, and, holding the hand of a great-great ancestor, you see Jerusalem in flames.
And now further, to the days of King Solomon, you are standing in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem listening to the high priest on Yom Kippur.
And now further: You are hot and tired. The sun is beating down on you. You are standing with your family at the foot of a hill just east of the Jordan River. You want to cross over the river into the Promised Land, but your ancestors tell you that Moses wants to deliver a message to the entire people before they cross over to take possession of the land promised to God. You look at your ancestors and you see they are crying. You ask why, and they explain that Moses said he will not be able to cross the Jordan River with you, but that, after delivering his last message, he will climb up the mountain and die.
Thousands of people crowd in around you, and it is absolutely silent. You clutch the hands of your ancestors, and you listen to the voice of Moses. He calls on both the heaven and the earth to hear his words, to be his witness. Moses urges the people that in the new land they must establish a just society based upon the teachings of the Torah, and that it is the responsibility of each Jew to hand the Torah down from generation to generation.
Moses is concerned that the teachings of Judaism should never be forgotten by his fellow Jews. Jews who fail to transmit the teachings of the Torah will break the chain of tradition and will preclude future generations of Jews to be connected with our ancestors who stood before Moses.
Now imagine your descendants, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and imagine them being linked with your ancestors.
The best way to remember and to honor our ancestors is to study Torah. I am convinced that the Jewish people survived because of the Torah, and frankly, I do not understand why many Jews refuse to study it. Those who criticize it as antiquated and outdated have never seriously studied Torah. Trust me, the Torah is more than a book of cute stories.
Our family’s history, the Torah, is the number one bestselling book of all time. We should be proud of that fact.
We have a moral obligation to study Torah and to teach Torah to our children. Our failure to do so could disconnect our descendants from our ancestors. When so many generations of Jews died in order to preserve the Torah, do we want to be known as the generation that discarded the Torah?
Recently I had a dream. In my dream, I walked into the sanctuary for services and it was packed with people. I greeted everyone with “Chag sameach…Happy High Holidays.” One person turned to me, with a puzzled look, and said to me, “Rabbi, it is not the High Holidays, we’re here to study Torah.” Like I said, it was a dream.
Please do not break the chain of tradition that links our ancestors with our descendants….please study the Torah.
I returned recently from a wonderful summer in Israel, where I had the privilege of serving on the faculty for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program. It was a total treat to teach the group of 26 fellows — high school seniors from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and communities across North America.
Each morning, the program began with a shiur, a Torah study session, and faculty members were encouraged to pick a text they loved to teach. I chose to do a close reading of the biblical Book of Ruth with the fellows. The themes that emerged from our conversations — including loss, intimacy, and loyalty, to name but a few — all felt incredibly relevant and contemporary.
Returning to Seattle in this election season, I realized an even clearer application of this text: Referendum 74, the voter referendum in favor of marriage equality. The Book of Ruth and its interpretive tradition provide one of the clearest illustrations of how the Jewish tradition has historically been willing to overlook or overturn a scriptural injunction in order to adjust to reflect changing moral expectations and world views. I believe that today there is a clear parallel in the movement to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions.
Ruth herself is the quintessential outsider-turned-insider. She begins her life as a Moabite in the land of Moab but, following the death of her Israelite husband, willingly chooses to align herself with her mother-in-law Naomi, returning with Naomi to her ancestral land in Bethlehem.
Throughout the remainder of the book, Ruth is more or less treated as a member of Naomi’s extended family, yet her status is not 100 percent clear. The text seems to assume that the Torah’s commandments — including the mitzvot of gleaning, redeeming property, and levirate marriage (to the extent that they apply at all in this family’s situation) — apply to Ruth as they would to any Israelite. However, throughout the book, Ruth continues to be referred to as “Rut haMoaviyah,” “Ruth the Moabite.” Has Ruth become an insider, or does she forever retain her outsider status?
To see the insider-outsider tension even more clearly, it is helpful to read two texts in juxtaposition with one another. We begin with the coda of the Book of Ruth, chapter 4, verses 18-22:
This is the line of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.
Although Ruth’s name doesn’t appear in this all-male genealogy, it is clear from the context of the narrative that “Ruth the Moabite” (the wife of Boaz and the mother of Obed) has really made it: She is the great-grandmother of King David! But how can this possibly be the case, given Deuteronomy’s attitude toward the Moabites, in chapter 23, verses 4-5?:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt…
Reading the Deuteronomy text, it seems almost impossible that the Book of Ruth can end on such a positive note, given Ruth’s Moabite origins. However, the interpretive rabbinic tradition considers Ruth the first convert to Judaism, with numerous midrashim emphasizing her inner qualities such as modesty and loyalty and generally casting her in a very positive light.
At the end of the day, Ruth’s Moabite origins never totally disappear from the narrative, and yet she seems to be fully accepted as an Israelite. As I said above, this tension and resolution is one that I believe has a parallel in our own day and age; this fall, in particular, I can’t help but read this text in light of the campaign for LGBTQ inclusion in our American society and, more specifically, for marriage equality in the State of Washington.
Many of the opponents to Referendum 74 claim to speak in the name of religion, using a verse from Leviticus to demonstrate that the Bible does not accept homosexuality. However, as the Ruth case reminds us, our textual tradition is not monolithic, and the weight of our religious texts and traditions can also be brought to bear to support precisely the opposite conclusion. In the case of marriage equality, it is easy to think of numerous relevant Jewish values: That all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha (the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself), the principle of k’vod ha-briyot (human dignity), the calls for us to empathize with society’s underdogs based on the principle that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
The Ruth example provides us with a model for how we can approach our own contemporary version of this question of boundaries and inclusion vs. exclusion. Just as the Ruth text and subsequent rabbinic interpretations seem to outweigh the punitive attitude of the Deuteronomy verses, I believe that the weight of our Jewish traditions and values around interpersonal relationships — which emphasize principles like inclusion, humility, dignity, and equality — can and should be heard over a single verse from Leviticus.
I am proud that the Seattle Jewish community has largely banded together in support of marriage equality and Referendum 74, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and Election Day in November. As we head into this High Holiday season, I hope that we will have the opportunity to reflect on and be inspired by our own tradition. The challenges of creating and maintaining a pluralistic and open Jewish community are very real; our Jewish texts have bequeathed to us a complicated and often contradictory set of traditions and guidelines. It is my hope that we will learn from the way that “Ruth the Moabite” has come to take her place in our canon, in the genealogy of King David, and in the line pointing us toward redemption.
In this election season, may Jews from across the widest possible spectrum of our community take the lead in ensuring that our American society can offer the possibility for finding sanctity in heterosexual and homosexual unions alike.
Rabbi Raphael Levine was a great mentor to me and many other rabbis and ministers over the years.
Rabbi Levine came to Seattle and Temple De Hirsch in 1942, and served the temple until his death in 1985. Beginning in 1960, Rabbi Levine with Father William Treacy and a rotating panel of clergy led the weekly TV program “Challenge,” which for 15 seasons discussed issues of the day in a multi-religious context.
He was one of the foremost advocates for interfaith dialogue in our nation and he was duly honored for that during his long life. One of the most important lessons he taught and lived through example was that there was no room for undue deference in true dialogue. He was always proud of his Jewish faith and never minced words or kowtowed to anyone, whatever their status.
I believe, as he did, that respectful interfaith — and indeed, intrafaith — dialogue serves an important purpose; but only if it conducted on a level playing field. He was adamant that he would not be set up as a straw man or be anyone’s patsy, which is not uncommon when asked to represent Judaism in a Christian or Muslim setting.
Recently, we hosted a Muslim group at our synagogue as part of a joint Tisha B’av/Ramadan pray and break-the-fast event. It was among one of the first times these two holy days of Judaism and Islam, respectively, were marked together. As we began to plan the gathering, I was direct and absolutely clear that it had to be a gathering of equals and that each faith must have a balanced role in terms of time and content.
It worked out quite well, given the challenge. My remarks focused on the strengths and beauty of our heritage. My Muslim counterpart spoke poetically and clearly. However, there was one difference which was to be expected. He asserted in a subtle way that Islam is an improvement on Christianity and Judaism and that their prophet was superior to those who had come before and that there would be no one greater in the future.
Islam is a proselytizing religion and that is part and parcel of its message. Fair enough. I knew that while some Jews might be offended, there was virtually no chance any would embrace Islam. It is fair to say that we believe that Judaism is the best religion, but we do not feel the need to assert that or to try to make converts. It really is a matter of style and not of substance.
But the principle is important: Insist on balance and equality. For example, if there is a presentation of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, do not accept that it will be in the order of origin: Judaism, Christianity and then Islam. That implies a kind of hierarchy. Historically, Christianity portrayed itself as the fulfillment of Judaism; just as Islam says the same about the other two. I insist that we flip a coin or draw lots to determine the order.
In a similar way, when the Summit at First Hill invited an Orthodox rabbi and a Conservative rabbi along with me to discuss the meaning of life (a light topic) I similarly insisted that we be listed alphabetically in the publicity — which turned out O, R and C — no hierarchy implied.
Some people might argue that such interfaith and intrafaith gatherings are so much “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Maybe so. I prefer to believe that we can learn from one another and be a source of light and not just heat. We can model respect while maintaining our own sense of integrity and strength.
That is what Rabbi Levine was able to do in the 40-plus years he served our community as our emissary to the larger community. We who engage in interfaith follow in his footsteps as Joshua and Caleb did in those of Moses.
A few weeks ago, the children were all home after the last day of school, and we were getting ready for the start of a long summer vacation. After dinner we had a roundtable discussion regarding the upcoming months at home.
The discussion bumped into a rough moment when we began to discuss the hot topic of “screen time.”
My wife and I don’t like the idea that our children are in love with our computer. We feel that being overly exposed to the Internet is not healthy and a bit dangerous, especially for children who — at their age — lack a sense of responsibility. In our home the computer is in the center of the dining room with the screen facing the kitchen. When the children come home from school they each get a half hour of filtered Internet access, when they are free to surf websites of their choice under our supervision. We make sure the content is appropriate and positive.
Our oldest son, Menachem, who is almost 9, is a bright young man and upon hearing about the half hour of screen time immediately began to negotiate: Why are we so strict regarding the usage of the computer? Why don’t we give him private time to navigate the Internet?
I answered with a metaphor. I told him to imagine himself driving a car, all alone, on a very busy highway without any driving experience. Would that be safe? The Internet is an extremely busy road with curves, bumps, and hasty drivers who sometimes drive a bit too fast. One needs to have lots of guidance and inner strength to navigate the web and make it back home safely at the end of the voyage. At his age, he needs his parents to drive him around. We are his drivers who guide him and give him the tools to make responsible choices; we are responsible for his physical and mental well-being.
Whether or not he happily accepted our words is still open for a debate; however, the rules did not change here at the Farkash home.
Let’s have an “adult” conversation about that for a moment.
Should we allow our eyes and ears the freedom to see and hear everything we desire? Should we give ourselves a “hall pass” when it comes to these two precious senses?
Kabbalah teaches that a person’s eyes are the “windows of the soul” and that the ears are entrances to the human psyche. When you see or hear something, it makes an immediate mark on your heart and mind. On Shabbat before we begin reciting the Kiddush we look at the flickering Shabbat candles to bring the light and spirit of Shabbat into our souls.
This week’s Torah portion is parshat Shoftim. It begins: “You shall appoint judges and police officers for yourself…in all your gates that God, your God, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
“Your gates” represent the organs that form the interface between you and your environment, like the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. “You should appoint judges…in your gates” means that the senses (one’s “gates”) should be controlled by “judgment” from the Godly soul. Our neshama (soul) should be fully in control of what enters through the “gates.” We should ensure that only positive and kosher influences enter our psyche.
The damage of unguarded eyes and ears can be so destructive that the Torah gives us the mitzvah of reciting twice daily the Shema prayer, where we say, “you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.” Rashi explains the idea: “The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression” (Midrash Tanchuma 15).
We are now in the month of Elul, the month of repentance and forgiveness. It’s a good time to really think about this. Let us take a moment and speak to our children and to ourselves about the decision to tighten the security of our gates by being careful with what enters them, while enjoying the great resources the Internet has to offer as a tool to stay connected with family and friends, to study Torah, to give charity and, of course, to get great online deals.
Wishing you all l’shana tova umetuka tikatevu vetichatemu.
One of my goals for this summer has been to expose my 6-year-old twin daughters to hiking. Over the past couple of weeks, we have gone out hiking twice. The first time, I picked an easy walk. This easy trail started out fine, but after five minutes the whines and demands for infinite breaks began and the interest in the hike waned. Tasty treats along the way and the promise of ice cream got us farther, but were not enough to get us to the end of the 45-minute hike without incessant whining.
Determined that exposure to the wonders of the natural world is good for us, a week ago we set out on our second hike. This time, wanting a more positive result, I strategically invited another family.
This time I was delightfully surprised to see my kids happily running up the trail ahead, eagerly pushing themselves and trying new challenges, calling out in excited cries, “Ima, did you see the shape of that tree?” “Ima, listen to the birds.” “Ima, it’s so beautiful here.”
Ma nishtana? What was different (besides now venturing on a four-hour uphill hike)?
I came prepared with better snacks, but more importantly, we weren’t alone. I followed the advice of Yehoshua ben Prachyah from Pirkei Avot (1:6): “Aseh lecha rav, ukneh lecha haver.” “Select a teacher for yourself; acquire for yourself a friend.” I found another family of experienced hikers and let them be our teachers. And I made sure my kids had haverim, friends for the experience.
This teaching is usually understood to explain that our Torah learning is sharper and stronger when we study with a partner. While this is very much true for studying Torah, it is also true for every other type of learning, whether we want to learn how to be more reflective individuals, better parents, or just open to new possibilities.
If we had gone alone on this hike, a self-fulfilling prophecy would likely have clicked into place. I would have expected my kids to behave in a certain way, and likely they would have fallen into our well-ingrained patterns of family dynamics. However, the variable of an additional family opened up the possibility of our leaving our entrenched patterns and helped us travel new paths, ascend to new heights (literally), and create the space for new possibilities to emerge.
Since the success of this second hike, I have been reflecting on what lessons can be learned and applied from this experiment. How do we navigate to direct toward more positive experiences and the ability to ascend to new heights?
Sadly, bad experiences or negative dynamics often become worse instead of getting better. Right now, we find ourselves in the Jewish calendar in the midst of the somber period of the three weeks (also called “bein hameitzrim,” between the narrow places), which falls between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (observed this year on July 8, the night of July 28 and the day of July 29). We go from the minor fast of the 17th of Tammuz (which marks the day a number of calamities befell our people) to the major fast day of the 9th of Av (which marks a number of even worse calamities that befell our people). Can we imagine what would have happened if we had been able to successfully respond to the calamity of the Romans scaling the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz and avoid their destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av?
On August 19 we will begin the new month of Elul. With Elul begins the official traditional Jewish call to be reflective (though all year long is also appropriate timing), to do soul searching and to consider which relationships need improvement and which habits are harmful. It urges us to change them for the better. We are reminded that improvement is possible, that we don’t need to be stuck in the narrow places or descend to new lows, but that new heights can be achieved. As former Israeli Chief Rabbi Lau recently reminded us on his visit, we don’t need to accept “ma yehieh” — whatever will be — but can orient ourselves to practice “ma na’aseh” — what will we do to make it better?
My experiments with hiking this summer demonstrated that by changing the expected dynamics and adjusting our family’s normal relationship bonds, the bad did not get worse (which might have been expected as the hiking became longer and harder), and did not even stay bad. Instead, the result was a delightful surprise and accomplishment, a removal of the obstacles and blinders we had placed upon ourselves, allowing us to experience new beauty and connection.
While it is easy to assume the continuation of negative patterns, habits and relationships as inevitable, the possibility of improvement and growth is equally possible and waiting around the corner, perhaps even accompanied by wonder and waterfalls. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that it can be there, and work toward it, and figure out who the haverim (friends) and rabbanim (teachers) are we need for our journeys. And luckily for us, our religion has a way of making sure there are lots of edible treats and fine food to sweeten the journey.
May we truly experience the sweetness of the New Year with renewed and strengthened relationships, habits and outlooks on life.
I have been blessed to be involved in a number of opportunities for interfaith dialogue over the past several months. In a variety of settings, laypeople and clergy from a number of different religious traditions have discussed matters ranging from marriage equality to the epidemic of violence in Seattle to homelessness and poverty. Invariably, at some point in these discussions, a facilitator has asked the question, “What brings you to the table?” The question represents an attempt to explore what brings a person of faith to want to spend time and energy on such issues.
As I consider the responses I’ve heard at these various gatherings, they are frequently variations on a similar theme.
“I am here,” the participants say, “because my faith exhorts me to perform acts of social justice, because my scriptural tradition teaches that I must reach out to correct societal inequalities and assist the less fortunate and underprivileged in our community, because my religion abides by a golden rule that inspires my actions.”
The Golden Rule. An ancient construct, it is nearly as old as civilization itself. Early Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings all record versions of this precept, and every modern mainstream religious tradition has its own iteration. We all may have variant concepts of how to apply this ideal to our daily interactions with others, but at the end of the day, there would seem to be consensus about our human responsibility to act justly.
This being the case, the question then arises: Why does inequity persist in the world? Discounting for a moment the fact that Seattle is deemed one of the most “unchurched” regions of the country, statistics suggest that our nation overall has a high rate of religious affiliation. If so many of us are people of faith, and all of us agree that our faith tells us to perform acts of loving kindness — to do unto others as we would have others do unto us — why are we not living in a messianic age?
I don’t think the blame for this lies in the laps of those who are “secular” or not deeply immersed in their chosen faith. Rather, I think we have gotten away from having the tenets of our faith inform our daily behavior. Rich Stearns, CEO of the evangelical social-service organization World Vision, writes in his book “The Hole in Our Gospel” that many Christians have lost sight of the true intent of Jesus’ ministry: To advocate for a renewed focus on attending to the welfare of the downtrodden in our communities. As Jews, we take our cues from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, yet the message remains the same. Unless we can begin to make ethical decisions through the lens of our scriptural teachings, until we integrate the teachings of Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and their counterparts into our daily deliberations, we are not living to our highest potential. For the “Golden Rule” to have meaning in our lives, we must not merely pay it lip service.
Once again I find myself writing my guest article for the JTNews while serving on faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Kalsman in Arlington. This week, more than 100 campers, in the midst of their typical camping activities, are engaging in shiurim in which they are discussing what it means to be a Jewish superhero. Together, campers, counselors, and staff are discovering that, in Judaism, heroics derive less from feats of strength or the ability to fly and more from the performance of middot and mitzvot that lead to tikkun olam. We hope they will return to their homes ready to perform simple acts that will work for the betterment of their communities.
The point is not to prescribe a list of required mitzvot and middot, or to suggest that one is more worthy than another because of the quality and/or quantity of commandments and traditions that he or she is able to fulfill. Rather, I think it’s about consciousness: The more these young people — and indeed, all of us — can pause in their lives and consider, “did I treat that person with as much respect as I should have?” “could I have assisted that person in any way?” the more we can build toward deliberately living our lives according to the Golden Rule.
Rabbi Alan Cook is an associate rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. He spent last week visiting Camp Kalsman, where his wife, Rabbi Jody Cook, is camper care coordinator, their son Gabe, 6, is dining hall manager, and their daughter Orli, 3, is resident princess.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach instigates a mutiny against Moshe Rabbeinu. Throughout history, Korach has been vilified as someone who was corrupt and had no fear of God. However, if we look at his argument, it doesn’t seem all that bad.
Korach asked Moshe: “The whole nation of Israel is holy; why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of God?” Seemingly, Korach was not corrupt, but was fighting elitism, which could very well have been a noble cause for him to champion.
As an American, I love the statement in the Constitution that “all men were created equal.” It’s something ingrained in Jewish ethics, in the way we were brought up, that all human beings deserve equal opportunity.
Korach, the Midrash tells us, asked Moshe: “Does a tallit that was made entirely of techelit (special blue wool) need to have strings made of techelit as well?”
Korach was saying that all the Jewish people were holy, so there was no need to make a distinction between them (white vs. blue). I doubt this is what the Founding Fathers meant when stating that all men were created equal.
Tomorrow, Shabbat, is the 18th anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s (R’ Menachem M. Schneersohn) passing. The Rebbe, as he was lovingly known, taught that Korach’s error was that although all men are created equal, we each have an individual mission in changing this world into a place of goodness and kindness. We’re all equal yet distinct, and each one of us is unique.
Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one that you are capable of living.”
In Ethics of our Fathers (Chapter 4), it states: “Do not scorn any person, for there is no person without his/her hour.” Every human being, every creature, every object, has its unique purpose. Let us learn from Korach’s mistake and treat every human being as an equal, yet respect our differences, and help one another reach the goal of making this world a place that God would be proud of.
When I was in my early 20s, I went through a period of several years when I set Judaism aside. I had been raised with the best Jewish upbringing you can imagine: My father was a Conservative rabbi; our family was shomer Shabbat and our home was kosher; I had attended a Jewish day school through high school. Yet for several years, I experimented with living as if I’d had none of this Jewish influence. This period of my life coincided with a lot of personal soul searching on my part. I was unsure of my direction, especially what career I wanted to pursue. Even after I entered rabbinical school, I was far from clear on what I would do when I completed my training.
Shortly after I entered rabbinical school, my father gave me a copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Messengers of God.” The inscription my father addressed to me on the inside cover has often come back as an example of the power of words of Torah to impact us in a very personal way. The inscription began with the words of Moses to God. When God sent Moses to rescue the Jewish people from slavery, the first reaction of our people was excitement. But then Pharoah increased the already-crushing burden on the Jewish slaves and anticipation quickly turned to despair and anger. The Jewish people complained to Moses that it would have been better if God had never sent him in the first place. Their lives are even more miserable because of his interference.
When the Jewish people cry out to Moses, Moses in turn cries out to God: “Lama harei’ota la’am ha’zeh. Lama zeh shlachtani?” “Why have you brought suffering on this people? Why did you send me?”
These were the opening words of my father’s inscription, followed by God’s somewhat cryptic response, “Vayomer adonai…ani adonai” “And God said…I am the Lord,” and then Rashi’s interpretation: “V’lo l’chinam shelachticha” “And I have not sent you in vain.”
My father was a gifted writer. He knew a thing or two about words. Yet, my father chose to speak to me in a deeply personal way in words that were not his own. They were words of Torah. What was my father saying to me? He was reassuring me that everything was going to be all right.
“Look at Moses,” he was telling me. “Can you imagine a more meaningful and successful life than his? Yet, as a young man, Moses had profound doubts about himself and his mission in life. If even Moses had his moments of uncertainty, the rest of us are entitled to our own period of confusion. It worked out for Moses. It will work out for you, too.”
Of course, there was more. The words “v’lo l’chinam shelachticha” were the words Rashi imagined God speaking to Moses. Now my father was speaking them to me. He was telling me he had not sent me into this world in vain. I had a purpose, my life had a meaning. I hadn’t found it yet, but in time I would.
Looking back over the years, I’m still amazed by how deeply affecting a message my father was able to convey to me in words he did not compose. He let me know he had faith in me. He dignified my own confusion by anchoring it in the history of our people. He showed me that the lessons of our Jewish path could speak to the most personal issues of our own lives.
Not least of all, my father was responding to my questions about Judaism itself. Years of Jewish learning had given both my father and I a language of communication: The language of Torah. If we can learn to speak it, this language can connect us intimately to Jewish history, yet at the same time it can enable us to express something absolutely personal. The words my father wrote to me were meant for me and me alone. No one but my father would have used those words the way he did. Yet in speaking to my heart in Rashi’s words, my father was reminding me of how much we are connected to each other, and how our lives can mean so much more if we can find in them an echo of the lives that came before us.
There was a time I believed that to be myself, I had to define myself in contrast to my family, my community and my heritage. With three simple words, my father showed me that the deeper our connections to others, the richer are our tools for self-expression.
The interplay between Passover and Shavuot
Various theories are advanced in our classic literature as to why on Passover, chametz — leavened products — are so reviled: Some suggest they represent haughtiness, while the Talmud views it as symbolic of man’s “evil inclination” that draws him away from adhering to the Torah. Once a year, we are bidden to “clean house” and reassess the degree to which such forces determine the direction of our lives.
Perplexing, though, is that after the 49-day count from Passover to Shavuot, the Jewish community of the Temple period was expected to offer a korban, a sacrifice, made of fine flour — and baked into chametz loaves! If Shavuot is the culmination of a process that starts with Pesach — we were freed from bondage so we could receive the Torah — why is chametz forbidden with the exodus from Egypt, but allowed — even celebrated — a mere seven weeks later? Not only to eat — but as an offering to God?
Shavuot has another strange element: Usually, the Torah mentions what day a specific holiday is on, and then it instructs us what to do on that day. Shavuot is just the opposite: The Torah says to count — and then bring the special chametz sacrifice on Day 50. Only then does the Torah mandate that the day be a yom tov, a holiday.
In other words, we don’t offer a korban on Shavuot. Instead, we observe the festival on the day that we bring the offering!
Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rabbi Ezra Bick offers this explanation:
When challah dough is left to sit for a while, especially in a warm place, it rises. Left in the oven without supervision or intervention, it inflates and grows. The dough’s hidden potential is expressed, it becomes manifest. Obviously, actualizing potential is positive, not a negative thing. In fact, it would be fair to say that the Torah’s whole agenda for our people is to bring out our potential as individuals and as a nation...
That said, the development of something, when left on its own, without guidance, can have disastrous results. Without structure, premature expression of potential may well lead to anarchy. In the Passover context, one who suddenly becomes free — should not allow all of his previously suppressed drives and inclinations to run wild, to express themselves. It is at this point — the moment of freedom — that a person must eat matzoh, must hold himself back, while he slowly develops a sensitivity and awareness of his potential.
Seven weeks had to pass, counting every day, while the Israelites waited for the giving of the Torah. During this time, they meditated on the infinite possibilities lying before them.
Nachmanides notes that after the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. It captured the spirituality of the Sinaitic experience. In the course of time, that Mishkan arrived in the Land of Israel and ultimately transformed into the Bet Hamikdash, the Temple.
Our sages teach us that every synagogue today is a mikdash me’at — a miniature Temple.
On one level, mirroring the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, the synagogue is an educational center. Just as at Mt. Sinai, we learned Torah. To know how to behave as a nation, we come to synagogue to learn Torah.
On another level, mirroring the function of the Mishkan, the synagogue is a house of worship. We come to spiritually connect with God.
The synagogue also serves a third function: In the Haggadah we sang, “If you had brought us to Har Sinai and not have given us the Torah — that would have been enough for us!”
But why would it have been enough for us? What good would standing at the foot of the mountain have been had it not been followed by Matan Torah?”
The answer is that at Sinai, we also coalesced into one nation — as one man with one heart. We became a people. The synagogue is a beit haknesset — a gathering place for the community.
In every congregation there are those who are drawn primarily to Torah study; others, though they value Torah study, connect more to the tefillah, the prayers, their customs, tunes and melodies. A third group is drawn by the simple feeling of kehilla, the community a synagogue provides.
Whatever one’s focus, the time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time for us to orient ourselves toward the synagogue as the center of our community, a time to slowly ponder our priorities — as each of us — with the help of the kehilla to strive to actualize his potential.
On January 4, 2012, I had the privilege of participating in an historic event at the state capitol, when Governor Christine Gregoire announced she would introduce legislation to ensure marriage equality for all people in Washington State. It was exciting and moving to be present that day, surrounded by legislators and other community leaders and activists who had worked hard for years on this issue.
Standing at the podium, Gov. Gregoire shared her internal struggle, as she had tried to reconcile what her faith tradition taught with her own beliefs about what was right and just. She said she had called her priest that morning to tell him of her decision. As she spoke to us and the press, her words were firm and unequivocal: The time had come, she said, for the state to stop discriminating against one group of people by denying them the rights that other citizens enjoyed. During that legislative session, she said, she would back legislation guaranteeing marriage equality, and she was confident the proposed legislation would pass.
As we all know, she was absolutely right. From that moment on, everything unfolded very rapidly. First the Senate and then the House passed the legislation, and then Gov. Gregoire signed the bill into law (Senate Bill 6239) on February 13, 2012, making Washington the seventh state in the country to grant those who are LGBTQ the right to marry.
Opponents of marriage equality quickly went to work. They filed their intention with the Secretary of State’s office to put a referendum on the ballot, which has been designated as Referendum 74. If the opponents gather a sufficient number of signatures (more than 120,000) it will be placed on the November ballot, to be voted upon by the public. At that point, Ref. 74 must be approved by the public by 50 percent plus 1; otherwise, the marriage-equality law will be repealed. Failure to approve by 50 percent plus 1 essentially vetoes what the legislature and the governor already approved.
As Jews, we are guided by a number of core values in determining how we treat others and the world around us. First and foremost is the concept of tzelem elohim, the belief that every human being is created in the image of God, as it states in the Book of Genesis 1:2: “And God created the human being in God’s image in the image of God did God create the human; male and female God created them.”
Underlying this principle is the belief that all people, regardless of their race, religion, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or any other distinguishing characteristic, have an inherent right to dignity, or kavod. I believe that such dignity includes the right to love whom one chooses to love, and to sanctify that love in a way and manner that reflects one’s own deepest religious beliefs and practices. No person, institution, or government has the right to deny another person that dignity.
Another value that guides us as Jews is the concept of adam yachid. According to the sacred text of our people, the Torah, one human being — Adam — was created originally so no one can say, “My parent [father] was greater than your parent.” (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). In other words, all people are equal, and deserve to be treated equally.
But Judaism should not determine our civil law, just as it should not be determined by Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any other religious tradition, for us or for others. Therefore, as Americans, we must insist that our civil laws be guided not by any one religious tradition or interpretation, but by the founding principles of this country, which declare: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. Italics mine). And, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (Amendment 1, Bill of Rights, ratified December 15, 1791).
Under the U.S. Constitution, the state may not require religious groups to officiate at, or bless, same-sex marriages. A clergy person may refuse, therefore, to marry an interfaith couple without any fear of liability. At the same time, however, it is not the state’s function or role to sanction one set of religious beliefs or practices over another. For the state to prevent the legal recognition of marriages of same-sex couples because some faith traditions object is to violate the religious liberty provisions of the Constitution.
Back to Judaism. As Jews we know that, in addition to the above concepts/values, we are also guided by the mitzvah, the sacred obligation, of “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” — “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Pursuing justice means ending discriminatory practices that have been unfairly directed against any one person or any group.
Gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people are citizens of this country and citizens of this state; they require the same rights as all other citizens. It is part of our sacred obligation as Jews to redress the injustice perpetrated against this one group for too long. Justice, justice, we will pursue, until all people, (whether coupled or single, gay or straight), are treated with dignity, kavod, and with an equal application of the law — with all of the rights and responsibilities thereof.
I urge all those who share my view to join me in speaking out in support of the recently passed marriage-equality law. Together we can ensure that same-sex couples can legally marry, while clergy and faith traditions can decide for themselves whether they will recognize and solemnize these legal marriages. As for this rabbi, I look forward to being able to sign legal marriage licenses for same-sex couples in the near future. I know my congregation enthusiastically supports my decision.
Years ago I passed a signboard whose message has remained with me. “Religion is what happens after the sermon.” Simple and powerful.
We are at the tail end of Passover. The rituals of the seder are behind us — or are they? I think the true impact of the seder is not on the one or two nights it is observed, but rather as a booster for the entire year. Take these days, a halfway point on the Jewish calendar to Rosh Hashanah, as a marker for what you want your year — or your life to be. Follow up on the message of Passover.
A scan of just four Passover ingredients, elements of the seder — though there are many more — will lead us in this direction.
Bedikat Chametz: The search for leaven — for that which puffs up. Just as yeast left to sit and rise puffs up baked goods, so too arrogance and pride can inflate a person if ignored. At Passover we seek out the leaven in our homes as a way to create distinction. How healthy it is, spiritually and physically, to consciously rid ourselves of conceit. Passover is an opportunity to look inward — into the home of our souls —and to adjust our own living.
Ha Lachma Anya: This is poor people’s bread. We declare this at the first appearance of matzoh at the seder. Who would order an item made solely of flour and water at a festive meal? At Passover we identify with those lacking food choices, who cannot choose what they will eat. How are we going to see to it that others have food to eat? Do we contribute to MAZON — A Jewish Response to Hunger? Do we contribute to Leket Israel, which distributes 220 tons of food a week to the hungry in Israel? Do we work at a food bank? Do we grow food and distribute to others?
Dayenu: It would have been enough. This is our paean to freedom. We recount the steps of liberation. Each one would have satisfied us, so long as we would have left Egypt — Mitzrayim. In Hebrew the word literally means the most constricted of places. How are we fortifying others to depart their own internal or external mitzrayim? Are we working collectively to end slavery, which still exists in Sudan, in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast, or the brothels of Cambodia and even in the streets of American cities? How are we partnering with others to release economic shackles and bring about justice?
Birkat HaMazon: Blessing after a full meal. This is intended to remind us to acknowledge the gifts and blessings that we have, rather than focusing on what we lack. In a larger sense, it calls us to awareness and to express our appreciation — to the Divine and to each other. Seek out opportunities for expressing gratitude. This not only increases social capital, but more important it changes our own internal compass, directing us toward our gifts and responsibility to others.
The Talmud teaches that one should only pray in a room that has windows (Berachot 34b). One can read this as an admonition to know what is happening in this world even as one reaches out beyond one’s self. Passover is an extended prayer. Keeps your eyes — and your mind — open. Celebrate Passover fully. May it last figuratively long after your seder is complete.
If you look at a glass of wine closely enough, you will see the entire universe.
–Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate physicist
The Passover seder is one of the most widely observed religious services. It recounts the Jewish people’s socio-political progression from slavery to freedom, as well as their spiritual progression from idol worship to monotheism. It has a universal appeal that spans the full range of religious affiliations and levels of observance.
Seder literally means order. The Haggadah orders the retelling of the Exodus in a specific sequence, punctuated by the drinking of four cups of wine. The seder counts and recounts the specific divine miracles, including the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. It concludes with the Hallel service, psalms that praise those miracles and the divine mastery over nature.
The universal messages of freedom from oppression and redemption have broad appeal. Miracles, however, have fallen out of fashion. Culturally they are often associated with superstition and mysticism. How do we relate to miracles in a scientific age? What is the traditional Jewish approach to the miraculous?
The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) quotes the opinion of Rabbi Yose, who states that he wishes to be among those who recite Hallel daily. A contradiction to this opinion is introduced in the text, stating that those who recite Hallel daily belittle and blaspheme the Almighty. The Talmud reconciles this contradiction by distinguishing between two distinct meanings of the term Hallel, praising the miraculous. The 20th-century luminary Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known reverentially as the Rav, elucidates these two types of Hallel or praise. The first type of praise, advocated by Rabbi Yose, refers to an appreciation of the awe-inspiring and miraculous natural world around us. The second type of praise, criticized as belittling, refers to the daily praise of miraculous departures from reality or suspensions of the natural order.
Rav Soloveitchik notes that Judaism is not a religion founded upon singular miraculous experiences, that a religion based on the supernatural cannot survive in the natural world. Only a religion that provides a framework for everyday reality can sustain itself from generation to generation. Thus the Talmud criticizes an overemphasis on the miraculous. Turning the miraculous into a religious philosophy is antithetical to Judaism. It belittles rather than glorifies, for the order present in the natural world is far more awe-inspiring than the intermittent suspension of this order.
What then is the import of the miraculous? Nachmanides, the 13th-century philosopher, addresses this question in his commentary on the Torah relating to the 10 plagues. He states, “from the openly miraculous a person comes to appreciate the subtly miraculous” (Commentary on Shemot 13:16). Restated, the momentary suspension of natural law ultimately elicits an appreciation of the miraculous character of the perfectly functioning system of nature. This inspired perception is a superior realization of the divine role in the natural world.
Perhaps the best expression of this experience in modern parlance is provided by Albert Einstein: “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”
Rather than looking for miracles to serve as evidence, Einstein found the fact that the cosmos is ordered, that it follows laws, that we can comprehend its structure, filled him with awe for a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.”
Einstein portrays the ideal religious experience, reaching an understanding and awe of the natural laws of the universe. This is indeed the approach advocated by Rabbi Yose in the Talmud, which was codified into the daily morning service (in Psalms 145-150). King David’s portrayal of the awe that results from the observation of the natural world is indeed humbling and moving. Alternatively, as the Talmud points out, praising the miraculous occurs only on specific celebrations, such as Passover. A sprinkling of the miraculous can be inspirational, but it is not designed to be a primary basis of religious philosophy. The response to the suspension of the laws of nature must yield to an appreciation of the vast and awesome systematic order present in the universe.
Feynman’s cup of wine evokes an appreciation of the universe as a whole. “The twisting liquid, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. It evaporates depending on the wind and weather. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition, [we see] the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars.”
Anyone can be moved by witnessing the 10 plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea. But it requires a different outlook to be moved by everyday phenomena. Passover is not only designed to bring an appreciation of divine power for a given time and place in the history of a people. Ultimately, it brings us to an appreciation of the divinity implanted within everyday life. The four cups of wine on Passover remind us of specific miracles. But the miracles in turn orient us toward the magnificence and elegance of the natural world in which we live, reminding us that it too is miraculous.
Several weeks ago, I traveled to New Jersey. I journeyed across the country from Bellingham to Princeton University to deliver the memorial address at the annual Service of Remembrance, which is part of each year’s Alumni Day schedule of events. It is the university’s custom, I learned upon receiving the invitation, to invite an ordained member of the 25th reunion class to serve as the preacher during the Alumni Day Service of Remembrance. As a member of the Class of 1987 and an ordained rabbi, I am, indeed, an ordained member of the 25th reunion class.
I had not been back to Princeton in 20 years — not since my 5th reunion. Twenty years is a long time, years filled with learning and work, love and loss, relationships and moves — life and its moments, riches of experiences. In so many ways, Princeton and my experience there felt like a very distant and mostly dormant part of the past. And then, after 20 years of absence, I returned to that magnificent campus. I returned to Princeton not only to deliver the memorial address but also to engage in my own work of remembrance. I returned to further integrate the various parts of my life experience, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. That is what remembrance is.
After all of the Alumni Day events had concluded, I had some time to walk around campus and the town of Princeton, recalling places, experiences, friends. It was a beautiful day, and as I sat in the sun outside the Woodrow Wilson School fountain, I experienced a deepening of awareness of what a pilgrimage is. On a journey of return, I was walking the landscape of a place I had experienced long before. In the process, something inside me shifted and settled. I experienced opening and integration, as well as a sense of wholeness and reconnect.
On the Jewish calendar, we are moving toward the season of spring pilgrimage. Two of the three pilgrimage festivals, the shalosh regalim, take place in the spring. Pesach is just weeks away, and Shavuot will follow seven weeks later. Pilgrimage is a powerful spiritual practice.
In Mishkan T’filah, the Reform movement’s prayer book, the festival morning service includes a poem by Yitzhak Yasinowitz that reads:
One does not travel to Jerusalem,
the road taken by generations,
the path of longing
on the way to redemption.
One brings rucksacks
stuffed with memories
to each mountain
and each hill.
In the cobbled white alleyways
one offers a blessing
for memories of the past
which have been renewed.
One does not travel to Jerusalem.
What is pilgrimage? It is a powerful spiritual practice of Judaism as well as many other religious traditions. It is a vehicle of transformation. Pilgrimage is external and internal, geographic and existential. Pilgrimage is a journey of return and remembrance that allows us to integrate the various parts of our life experiences, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect.
With Pesach’s approach, we once again prepare ourselves for pilgrimage. We prepare our homes and our selves, our surroundings and our inner beings. In preparation for our journey to freedom, we make decisions about what we take with us as well as what we clean out — what gets left behind. On the physical level, we clean out our hametz. This can mean food items as well as other matter ripe for spring cleaning ready to be released and will lighten our load. What types of clutter in your life waits to be cleared? On the spiritual level, we ready ourselves to begin again.
Pesach is the first of the spring pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot invites us to journey, too. Beginning with the second night of Pesach, we will begin our counting of the Omer. Sefirat haOmer and its Kabbalistic contemplations is a vehicle to prepare ourselves spiritually for Shavuot and standing together at Sinai where we renew the Covenant, when we reconnect and recommit to Jewish peoplehood and partnership with the divine presence in our midst.
Individually and together as a collective, we enter the season of spring pilgrimage. We journey out from Mitzrayim, our places of constriction, into the wilderness of freedom and onto the mountain where we meet God, receive Torah and touch the truth of our experience and deepest connections. What will you take with you during this season of spring pilgrimage? Who will journey with you? What memories and experiences wait to be integrated? What pieces ask to be brought together? How will you reconnect and renew?
What a blessing it is to return, to begin again.
It was the summer of 2008, on a Shabbos afternoon in Brooklyn, New York, in the Hebrew month of Elul. It was the Shabbos before the yahrtzeit of my paternal grandfather Zeida Shmuel. I always make a special effort to be in New York during his yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, to accompany my father to Rabbi Shain’s shul on the block where my parents live.
Following davening, our morning prayers, there is always a kiddush. Being the guest shaliach with a greying beard, the “young people” ask me to farbring. (A farbringen is a Chassidic gathering where words of Torah, Chassidic stories, and old Chassidic melodies are shared.)
There are two usual stages to a kiddush. During the first, the whole shul stays to eat, say l’chaim, and converse. After many have left, the second stage usually begins. The remaining chevra gather in a more serious manner, for more l’chaim, and deeper, more personal reflection and discussion, interspersed with Chassidic words of Torah, insight, and song.
A few hours later into the second stage of the kiddush, after I had already walked my father home and returned, a young teacher said to me, “Reb Sholom Ber, you were privileged to stand by ‘The Mountain’ all your life, by our beloved and holy Rebbe, of blessed memory. You saw, you heard, you merited to be chosen to be a shaliach of the Rebbe, to be his personal emissary to Seattle and the entire Northwest. But I am ‘just a simple melamed.’ I don’t feel fully accomplished and fulfilled.”
The entire room fell silent, as the 30 to 40 yungerleit and yeshira bochrim turned to hear my response.
“How long have you been a teacher?” I asked.
“I’ve been a second grade teacher for 15 years,” he responded.
“How many students do you have?” I asked him.
“About 22 to 25,” he replied, “7- and 8-year-old boys.”
I said to him, “So in the 15 years of your career, you have interfaced daily for one school year, between six and eight hours a day, with between 350 and 400 students. You taught them Torah, provided inspiration, serving as a model that they hopefully will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I cannot, in all my years in Seattle, point to 400 adults that I have taught Torah, for even just one year, for six to eight hours every day.”
The young rabbi seemed taken aback as I continued.
“Do you know the birthdays of all of your current and former students?” I asked him.
“No, I do not,” he replied.
I then said, “Could you imagine if a young teenager named David, Chaim or Boruch would receive a call from their former teacher, wishing them yom huledet same’ach, happy birthday? Can you envision the impact on a young man’s life that a former teacher remembers, and cares enough, to call him and wish him a happy birthday and ask how life’s treating him? That call, at that moment in his life, can truly be a turning point, lift him out of despondency, or inspire motivation.”
I continued in this vein, elaborating on the impact. When I concluded, I saw tears in the young man’s eyes. He rose to his feet, and in front of everyone declared, “Rabbi Levitin, I hereby make a hachlata [commitment] to begin the process of writing down my current students’ birthdays, and track down my former students’ birthdays as well.”
We embraced, and the whole chevra joined in a warm, lively, spiritual Chassidic dance, cementing the “deal.”
During the course of the farbringen, I had mentioned the date of my birthday, being the 28th of Tevet, which corresponds to the 20th of January in the year of my birth. Six months later, during a cold, rainy Seattle day, I received a call on my birthday. “Rabbi Levitin, happy birthday!”
Not recognizing the voice as belonging to any of the boyhood friends that remember to call, or any of my family, I asked, “Who is this?”
“I am the young rabbi you inspired,” he said. “I marked your birthday on my list.”
Just as I had counseled regarding his students, I too was moved by his call.
Now, whenever I see this rabbi during my trips to New York, he says to me, “My list is always growing. Thank you for adding a new quality to my shlichus [vocation in Jewish education].”
This past summer, he took me aside and related to me the following story. In the summer of 2010, he called a former student of his out of the blue, to wish him a happy 15th birthday. The student was very touched, and they conversed for many minutes. This summer, when he called to wish him a happy 16th birthday the boy’s mother answered the phone.
“Rabbi Fuller,” she said, “my son has been waiting for your call a whole day.”
So my friends and fellow educators; rabbis and rebbetzins, Bar and Bat Mitzvah teachers, friends and family; imagine how the world would be impacted, especially those who are involved in the noble profession of being educators to our young men and women, if we all dedicated ourselves to reaching out on special occasions like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. Emails are good, but not nearly as good as a phone call. Imagine the profound impact we would have by simply calling our friends and especially former or current students to join us for a Shabbos meal, or just to get together and chat. The effect would be profound.
There are many waiting for your call.
A seasoned Jewish educator at a large Reform congregation once asked his religious school parents about their most meaningful Jewish childhood experiences. Without a doubt, attending Jewish camp was at the top of the list. There is no question that one of the most successful American Jewish educational models is the Jewish camp experience.
Thousands of Jewish children attend camp on an annual basis, returning year after year for a memorable summer of fun. Jewish communities, such as the greater Seattle area, pour considerable resources into encouraging kids to go to Jewish camp, as they understand that camp is a formative Jewish experience.
What is it about the Jewish camping experience that resonates with so many of our Jewish children? Many of us know the answer to this question. Jewish camps allow us to be immersed in a Jewish day, holiday or Shabbat experience, explore Judaism through all five senses and live exclusively among other Jewish children in a safe environment.
Not only do our children form lifelong friendships with other Jewish children, but they also come away with a sense of pride about their Jewish identity. Getting away and being outdoors allows our children to acquire a truly integrated Jewish educational experience. In a nutshell, our youth live and breathe Judaism during their time at camp.
While our youth leave camp with a strong sense of connection to Judaism, they are often disappointed when they return home, unable to reconnect to their communities. It is almost as if there is a step missing in the process: Bringing camp home. Translating the camp experience into something tangible in our home congregations and day schools is critical to the ongoing development of a youth’s Jewish identity.
Understanding that Jewish camps and Jewish day schools/supplementary schools have a vested interest in building Jewish community, the AVI CHAI and Jim Joseph Foundations in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp created six partnership grants to hire top-notch Jewish educators to build a year-round consistent Jewish educational experience. Each seasoned Jewish educator will work to bridge the gap between the religious school/day school and camp environments by taking an in-depth look at the curricula of the two organizations in the partnership.
We are lucky to have one of the six partnerships in the greater Seattle region between Temple De Hirsch Sinai and Camp Kalsman. We are joining together to reevaluate how we approach education in both of our programs, by building a consistent educational vision that will provide a holistic approach to our youth. By creating a year-round Jewish experience, our youth will perceive our organizations not as segmented but as one, making the transition seamless from camp back to our Religion School. And engaging parents will be an integral part of the process, as debriefing the experience first takes place on the car ride from camp back home.
Our ancestors willingly established a covenant with God at Sinai, promising to pass it on from generation to generation. How we engage a future generation of Jewish youth will be critical to the ongoing vitality of the Jewish people. Creating a year-round Jewish experience for our youth, building on the success of the Jewish camp model, will ensure the future of the Jewish people.
Daniel A. Septimus is associate rabbi and director of congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
Much has been written lately in these pages about Professor Martin Jaffee’s final (alas!) column, his and the editor’s apologies, letters of praise and castigation. One letter inspired me to look into our traditional Jewish sources, providing a “teachable moment,” an opportunity to learn some Torah.
Mr. Perry Weinberg, in the January 13, 2012 issue of JTNews, wrote: “Is there no room in all this for forgiveness? One thing I would hope we could all agree upon…is to allow each other to acknowledge our sins, to make teshuvah, and to start again.” Mr. Weinberg’s initial question is obviously rhetorical, since he immediately answers affirmatively, as he calls out for teshuvah and starting over.
There are many statements throughout the amazingly rich history of Jewish thought attempting to distill Judaism’s rich fabric into an essence or a few fundamental principles. According to Maimonides, repentance is one of our tradition’s fundamentals. Repentance is also inextricably bound to the concept of free will, that we humans are free moral agents.
God commands and we obey or disobey; we are rewarded or punished for our choices, good and bad. When we disobey, when we make mistakes, God grants us the opportunity to restore our relationship with Him and those whom we have wronged through the process of teshuvah, whose root meaning is “turning” but functionally has come to mean repentance.
Teshuvah involves several steps: Recognition of the wrong, repairing or compensating for the wrong when possible, asking the injured party for forgiveness, committing to not repeating the bad action, and confessing the specific transgression before God. Our tradition supplements the purely ethical on the human plane with the concept of atonement, the process through which we sinners can be reconciled with God.
Do we humans indeed have the capacity to choose? Does free will exist or is it a fiction we use to convince ourselves that life is meaningful, that the choices we make are indeed real choices, and that we genuinely and authentically can hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions? In the Jan. 28, 2012 Wall Street Journal, Gerald Russello, reviewing Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis, observes:
Proponents argue that free will does not exist; seemingly free or intentional actions can be explained from materialistic causes. Because these causes affect every organism, there is no difference between “human consciousness” and that of animals and everything can therefore be explained as either a set of physical responses or the workings of some hidden genetic code.
In other words, these proponents argue there is no free will. However, Tallis, the reviewed author, vigorously argues in favor of free will. The review continues:
He [Tallis] takes on the “neuromania” [belief that we are our physical brains and nothing more] and “Darwinitis” [the insistence that our consciousness can be reduced to evolutionary terms] in a robust defense of the unique nature of human consciousness…Experiments that try to isolate specific actions to show that we are only reacting to stimuli…are misplaced…Such irreducibly complex reasons [for actions] are indicative not of biological avatars without free will but of something even more mysterious: ourselves.
The Midrash, supplementing the Genesis narrative, places in Cain’s mouth a similar defense when confronted by God over his murdering his brother, Abel (I paraphrase): “You, God, rejected my gift to You. You created in me this Evil Inclination, making me capable of murder. What do you expect?”
Essentially, Cain complains to God that his murder is God’s fault, not his own. It is this matter of choice, the uniqueness of human consciousness, which is of significance to the concept of repentance, as Maimonides states, writing 800-plus years ago: “This (teshuvah) is a great fundamental and pillar of the Torah and [the concept of] Mitzvah as it is said (Deuteronomy 30:15), ‘See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil’” (Laws of Repentance 5:3).
The Book of Genesis tells us that we humans are created in God’s image. This esoteric statement has been interpreted in many ways, one of which is our nature as thinking, freely choosing beings. We humans are not compelled by our nature to act in prescribed or predetermined ways. Obviously and eventually in the Midrashic narrative I paraphrased above, God does not accept Cain’s rationalization for his fratricide. We may be inclined by our inherent personality characteristics, or those that have been developed within us through education and experience, to act in certain ways. But justice systems of the civilized world are based on the assumption that people are freely choosing moral agents. Both Jewish law and our criminal justice system allow for exceptions where individuals such as the mentally incompetent are incapable of acting freely. They cannot know right from wrong and therefore cannot be held criminally accountable for their actions.
One of the great challenges of Jewish thought is how to reconcile an all-knowing and all-powerful God with human free will. If God knows what we’re going to do since He’s all-knowing, how can we be said to be freely choosing and thus responsible? Similarly, if God is all-powerful…well, then we have the problem of evil. Why does He allow such horrific suffering? Our ancient rabbis do not shy from confronting this challenge: God indeed creates everything, including good and evil in the world, allowing us humans to struggle along, providing the Torah as a “spice” or “medicine” to help us contend with such nasty problems as the evil we are inclined, but not forced, to commit.
Repentance, which involves seeking forgiveness, is one aspect of the moral stain of transgression and sin. The other side involves the injured party and his/her obligation to forgive. Again, Maimonides is quite clear and strong on this issue of forgiveness: “One is forbidden to be cruel, resisting being appeased; rather he should be easily pleased and difficult to anger. And at the moment the transgressor seeks from him forgiveness, he should forgive with a whole heart and generous spirit. Even if he has inflicted much pain and sinned against him grievously, he should not seek vengeance and retribution...Such is the way of the Jewish people” (Laws of Repentance 2:10, emphasis added).
Maimonides’s Hebrew for what I’ve rendered “the Jewish people” is zera Yisrael, literally, “the seed of Israel.” This is an unusual formulation for Maimonides. Indeed, the only other relevant instance I could find in Maimonides’s law code is in a similar passage, dealing with the case of one person physically wounding another. According to Maimonides, even if one has financially compensated the wounded person, that compensation is not sufficient to gain atonement, atonement being the restoration of the relationship between God and the transgressor, or the separate act of divine forgiveness. The one who has damaged must ask the wronged person to forgive the transgression in order to gain “atonement.” Financial compensation is necessary but not sufficient.
Jewish tradition is thus concerned about the spiritual well being of the one who has committed the physical damage. Just as in the aforementioned Laws of Repentance, Maimonides goes on to say that “the wounded person should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness, for this is not the way of the Seed of Israel” (Laws of Wounding and Damaging 5:10). The term “seed of Israel” suggests that this path of granting forgiveness is in some way nearly biological or genetic, “hard-wired” as we might say, in the Jewish people (“seed”), a notion quite unusual for Maimonides. Also note that to not forgive is considered an act of cruelty by Maimonides.
Yes, Mr. Weinberg, you are correct in noting the importance of repentance; it is indeed a fundamental pillar of the Jewish way of life. You are also correct that we Jews are bidden, by the very fact of being our being Jews, the “seed of Israel,” to forgive. Only through repentance and forgiveness are we granted by God atonement (or, to play with this word, at-one-ment).
Several weeks ago, I received an email from husband/wife rabbi friends announcing the arrival of their firstborn child, a son, after many years of disappointment. The proud father wrote, “We honor the miracle of IVF and thank God for the miracle of childbirth at our late stage in life.”
A Modern Orthodox rabbi friend and his physician wife similarly welcomed a baby boy two years ago, after having long since given up the hope that they would become parents.
“Hashem,” said the new mom, “evidently has a sense of humor…we will be ready for retirement when our son is ready for college!”
All of us who have welcomed precious children into our lives, whether our own or those of close friends and family members, know the fierce love and protective instincts that these small people engender. Thus I find that a sense of dread overtakes me when Parashat Bo occurs each year in our Torah cycle. This section of text, known as “the Plague Narratives” and begun last week in Parashat Vayera, is painful for those contemporary readers of Torah who cannot help but become increasingly horrified by the thought of the human suffering which must have accompanied each plague as it overtook the land of Egypt. What cumulative terror must have visited the Egyptians as they suffered through the horrific roll call of plagues? The entire population must have been completely traumatized, even before the ninth plague of three terrifying days of complete darkness descend. But the worst is yet to come:
In the middle of the night Adonai struck down all the first-born [sons] in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians, because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. (Exodus 12:30)
I believe that this narrative is meant to shock us, to wound our sensibilities, and to knock us out of our complacency. The “loud cry in Egypt” reminds us that all people suffer, and the same Torah that celebrates our redemption through God’s outstretched arm also asks that we not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against his own people’s anguish until, at last, the final plague arrived in his own home.
Are there loud cries in our world today to which we must respond, modern-day plagues that call out for us to intervene? I keep circling back to those first-born sons, perhaps longed for, like the sons of my dear friends. Many were children, babies even. The death of innocents is never acceptable, and we should be shocked, deeply wounded, and spurred to action when we hear of it.
And hear of it we do. The developed world has become alarmingly aware of the plague of gender inequality, and we must not stand idly by. Tragically, while first-born sons (and all sons) in many parts of the developing world continue to be cherished, baby girls in these lands are too often unwanted, and I suggest that until the entire world values all of its children equally, humanity has not yet achieved true liberation.
As journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn reported in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, “gendercide” in the developing world has killed more girls in the last 50 years — only because they were female — than were killed in all of the battles of the 20th century. More girls are killed today in what is termed “routine gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all of the genocides of the 20th century. This statistic should give us Jews pause, as we know a thing or two about genocide.
Half the Sky tells the heartbreaking, personal stories of unwanted girls whose lives are as desperate as were the lives of our ancestors who suffered the cruel bonds of slavery. But as the book details, with a little of the world’s attention, a modern-day miracle occurs: The shackles of injustice shatter.
Let us not stand idly by the blood of the millions of girls and women who are unloved, mistreated, abandoned, enslaved, and even killed because of their gender. Let us vow together to create a world in which no one’s hearts are hardened against innocent boys and girls and where all children are loved and cherished.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in an unlikely place: The Bavarian city of Bamberg, in the medieval cathedral of that German town which avoided significant damage during World War II. The cathedral guide proclaimed that among the treasures of the church is a famous sculpture depicting the primacy of Christianity over Judaism. It does so by representing the church as a beautiful woman, holding a sturdy staff, the light of her eyes gazing toward the future, while Judaism is presented as a woman with her eyes blinded by a scarf, unable to see, leaning on a shattered staff.
This perception of Judaism as being an inconveniently persistent relic of the past was of course not just limited to medieval Christianity. Arnold Toynbee and Karl Marx also posited that our time had come and gone, while the Nazis tried to ensure that such was the case.
And yet there I was, in that place, to participate in a ritual that would show that despite the best efforts of those who would deny us a future, we persist as a vibrant people, with ideas and values we share with the surrounding civilizations and not just in the confines of our own intellectual and spiritual ghettos. In this age, we as a Jewish people have become whole again. Our staff was perhaps never broken, but by strengthening the renewal of Jewish community in various parts of the world, we are better able to part the seas of complacency. Today our eyes cast the light of the Jewish spirit, love of learning, and belief that all people, created in God’s image, can partner with holiness to bring healing into a world so clearly in need of it.
The ritual was the fourth ordination of rabbis from the new progressive German rabbinic seminary, the Geiger School located near Berlin. I was in attendance because a student from Seattle, Paul Strasko, who has an amazing personal story, was about to become a rabbi. He had invited me, as his former rabbi, to participate.
The Geiger School does something that at the beginning of my rabbinic career I would never have thought possible. They train men and women for the rabbinate for the express purpose of serving the needs of the European Jewish community — especially in the German-speaking world and the former Soviet Union. I used to believe that in our time Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe was indeed a relic of the past; that Hitler and Stalin had for the most part succeeded in making Europe a place where the staff of Judaism was broken and where we Jews should not live.
But in Germany and Eastern Europe, Jews have chosen to make Jewish life a continuing presence and have started to recreate significant Jewish community. Chabad, God bless them, recognized this reality a while ago, but so did the principals of the Geiger school, two charismatic Jewish leaders — one German, Walter Homolka, and one American, Walter Jacob — rabbis who understood that liberal Judaism would play a necessary role in this revival of European Jewry. This year’s graduates will all serve European communities, with my student Paul, who converted to Judaism here at Beth Am, working with Francophone Jewry in Geneva, Switzerland in a growing congregation.
I hope Seattle Jewry will be inspired by the example of those Jews who had the vision to create and support this new European rabbinical school as we realize the pivotal role we can take in shaping the Jewish future. We are no longer an outlying community, looking to New York or Los Angeles for direction. We have visionary leaders, from those in our Jewish Federation who are developing a new way for all the community to come together and support each other to rabbis and teachers — and scholars — in our universities and thriving synagogues.
This Jewish community is poised to become a significant center of Jewish life. What we still need, however, are business visionaries and philanthropists to step forward and take their place as communal leaders to help to inspire the dynamic renewal of Jewish life both locally and nationally. We are blessed to have the wealthiest Jews in Jewish history living in this town — captains of industry who have transformed how we communicate, how we make third places over a hot beverage, leaders in the distribution of goods. It is a situation not unlike what Isaac Meyer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, found in Cincinnati in the 1800s, then the Seattle of its day. He was able to convince Jewish leaders in the business community to support his vision of creating a transformative, progressive Judaism for America. Now we desperately need that kind of visionary commitment to step forward and fund a Jewish Gates Foundation in Seattle that could help us create the foundation of the New Jewish future, to support our synagogues and the work we are doing, to fund the rabbinical schools — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist — that serve all of our communities, to create centers of Jewish music and creativity, including a Center for Jewish Heritage here in this beautiful city. In our own ways all of us in the synagogue and non-profit Jewish communities strive to do this, but on a paltry budget, because our funding is limited. Just think what we could do to bring on the real Golden Age of this generation if we nurtured historic philanthropic leadership in this community that is so capable of producing it.
I have been here for 17 years and have yet to meet those who would help us reach that next level — but I am inspired by what I experienced in Germany. There I was reminded that the staff on the statue of Jewish life is beginning to become whole again and it is our privilege in this great Jewish city to be able to continue to strengthen it!
A few weeks ago, I found myself in an unlikely place: The Bavarian city of Bamberg, in the medieval cathedral of that German town which avoided significant damage during World War II. The cathedral guide proclaimed that among the treasures of the church is a famous sculpture depicting the primacy of Christianity over Judaism. It does so by representing the church as a beautiful woman, holding a sturdy staff, the light of her eyes gazing toward the future, while Judaism is presented as a woman with her eyes blinded by a scarf, unable to see, leaning on a shattered staff.
This perception of Judaism as being an inconveniently persistent relic of the past was of course not just limited to medieval Christianity. Arnold Toynbee and Karl Marx also posited that our time had come and gone, while the Nazis tried to ensure that such was the case.
And yet there I was, in that place, to participate in a ritual that would show that despite the best efforts of those who would deny us a future, we persist as a vibrant people, with ideas and values we share with the surrounding civilizations and not just in the confines of our own intellectual and spiritual ghettos. In this age, we as a Jewish people have become whole again — our staff perhaps never broken, but now strengthened by the renewal of Jewish community in various parts of the world, is better able to part the seas of complacency. Today our eyes cast the light of the Jewish spirit, love of learning, and belief that all people, created in God’s image, can partner with holiness to bring healing into a world so clearly in need of it.
The ritual was the fourth ordination of rabbis from the new progressive German rabbinic seminary, the Geiger School located near Berlin. I was in attendance because a student from Seattle, Paul Strasko, who has an amazing personal story, was about to become a rabbi. He had invited me, as his former rabbi, to participate.
The Geiger School does something that at the beginning of my rabbinic career I would never have thought possible. They train men and women for the rabbinate for the express purpose of serving the needs of the European Jewish community — especially in the German-speaking world and the former Soviet Union. I used to believe that in our time Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe was indeed a relic of the past; that Hitler and Stalin had for the most part succeeded in making Europe a place where the staff of Judaism was broken and where we Jews should not live.
But in Germany and Eastern Europe, Jews have chosen to make Jewish life a continuing presence and have started to recreate significant Jewish community. Chabad, God bless them, recognized this reality a while ago, but so did the principals of the Geiger school, two charismatic Jewish leaders — one German, Walter Homolka, and one American, Walter Jacob — rabbis who understood that liberal Judaism would play a necessary role in this revival of European Jewry. This year’s graduates will all serve European communities, with my student Paul, who converted to Judaism here at Beth Am, working with Francophone Jewry in Geneva, Switzerland in a growing congregation.
I hope Seattle Jewry will be inspired by the example of those Jews who had the vision to create and support this new European rabbinical school as we realize the pivotal role we can take in shaping the Jewish future. We are no longer an outlying community, looking to New York or Los Angeles for direction. We have visionary leaders, from those in our Jewish Federation who are developing a new way for all the community to come together and support each other to rabbis and teachers — and scholars — in our universities and thriving synagogues.
This Jewish community is poised to become a significant center of Jewish life. What we still need, however, are business visionaries and philanthropists to step forward and take their place as communal leaders to help to inspire the dynamic renewal of Jewish life both locally and nationally. We are blessed to have the wealthiest Jews in Jewish history living in this town — captains of industry who have transformed how we communicate, how we make third places over a hot beverage, leaders in the distribution of goods. It is a situation not unlike what Isaac Meyer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism found in Cincinnati in the 1800s, then the Seattle of its day. He was able to convince Jewish leaders in the business community to support his vision of creating a transformative, progressive Judaism for America. Now we desperately need that kind of visionary commitment to step forward and fund a Jewish Gates Foundation here in Seattle that could help us create the foundation of the New Jewish future, to support our synagogues and the work we are doing, to fund the rabbinical schools — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist — that serve all of our communities, to create centers of Jewish music and creativity, including a Center for Jewish Heritage here in this beautiful city. In our own ways all of us in the synagogue and non-profit Jewish communities strive to do this, but on a paltry budget, because our funding is limited. Just think what we could do to bring on the real Golden Age of this generation if we nurtured historic philanthropic leadership in this community that is so capable of producing it.
I have been here for 17 years and have yet to meet those who would help us reach that next level — but I am inspired by what I experienced in Germany. There I was reminded that the staff on the statue of Jewish life is beginning to become whole again and it is our privilege in this great Jewish city, to be able to continue to strengthen it!
On November 28, the first day of the special session of the Washington State legislature, I had the honor of delivering the invocation in the House. This special session is called to deal specifically with the budget issues facing the state. I took my position at the rostrum and delivered some words of reflection in advance of the difficult job our leaders are called upon to do. I then went outside and took a different position, on the steps of the capitol with the throngs of protesters demanding a fair and just budget.
It was an interesting day of protests. Many different groups were represented, and several different rallies were held. Teachers unions, health care worker unions, those opposed to cuts for higher education, those advancing the needs of the disabled, and more, were present and raising their voices. And bringing it all together was the Occupy movement, which made its presence strongly felt.
The coming of the special session provided an outlet and unique opportunity for the Occupy movement in our state that is not necessarily replicated elsewhere. While originally established to provide support to the Occupy Wall Street protests happening in New York, which brings the general message of uneven distribution of wealth, income inequality and overall issues of poverty, the Occupy movements in Washington now have a particular direction to face that argument: Toward the legislature, which is convening to find a way to balance the state budget. The Occupy movements across the state came together in an “Occupy the capitol” action, with the Occupy Olympia protest serving as host. (The Occupy Olympia “chapter” itself has been camped out in Heritage Park here, in the shadow of the capitol building.)
The message is timely and appropriate, for many of the budget cuts on the table are geared toward those most vulnerable in our midst. Thousands may be cut from Basic Health and left without health insurance. Cuts to education of our youth and the disabled are proposed. A member of my congregation who runs a local social service agency for youth was quoted in our local newspaper as potentially having to cut a program which provides outreach and services for homeless teens, since the program relies on state funding for support.
One proposed “solution” thrown about is that non-profits in general and faith communities in specific fill the gap. But faith communities, synagogues included, can only do so much — we do not have the skills or the resources to provide the social services necessary to support people. In Olympia, our local interfaith organization has used a city grant to open an intake center for homeless adults — an important and powerful development. As an individual congregation, my synagogue hosts a temporary shelter, volunteers at the food bank, and other such actions, but we are not capable of, for example, providing health insurance for one who is too poor to afford any.
This issue, I believe, is beyond politics. I am not saying it is Jewish to support the Occupy movement, or Jewish to support any one party or policy over another. What is Jewish is recognizing that we have obligations to others. We make our own choices, have our own individual responsibility in this world (as I remind our B’nai Mitzvah students about the meaning behind the ceremony, that becoming an adult means personal responsibility).
Yet our Torah teaches that we are responsible for one another as well, protecting the “widows and orphans,” the poor and vulnerable in our midst. Wealth in and of itself is not the issue. We learn in the stories of Genesis that our spiritual forefathers and foremothers were wealthy people. What one does with that wealth is the issue.
This, to me, is the message that Occupy brings. Some sour notes hit us at the protest: Calls to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were out of place at a rally for the state’s issues and seemed like an unnecessary and unfocused tangent. Swearing during chants and stump speeches only serves to alienate and undercut the message. But these glitches should not dismiss the message as a whole. Occupy is important because it is changing the national conversation on who we are as a nation, and what individual citizens could and should expect of its institutions and each other.
As Jews we know we do not live solely for ourselves. Our lives are, by definition, tied in with one another — from the partnerships and families we create to the communities we build. We cannot pray outside of a community, we cannot mourn outside of a community — our spiritual well-being rests with others. And while we may argue as to how to do it, we cannot deny the fact that our physical and economic well-being rests with others as well.
Very soon we will gather around the Hanukkah lights. In light of these challenging times, perhaps we can look upon the miracle of Hanukkah as this: Faced with a projected [oil] shortfall, a group was able to have faith and spend those resources anyway [by lighting the menorah]. The result was growth and increased light for all.
The recent revelations concerning allegations of deeply disturbing acts at Penn State University focus attention on the difference between technical legal requirements and moral obligations. The laws in Pennsylvania are less rigorous than those of most states concerning mandated reporting. Some of those aware of the allegations may have fulfilled their narrow technical legal obligations. Others did not.
There were strong motivations not to make waves. Penn State grosses $70 million annually in revenue from its football program. All of those in authority allegedly fell short in terms of doing what is right to protect the vulnerable, as opposed to what is dictated by expediency.
The Torah lens on this issue is unequivocal. The dictum from Vayikra, “You shall not stand idly by as your fellow’s blood is shed,” dictates that everyone be a mandated reporter. One is not permitted to know of someone being hurt and not act. There is an imperative to intervene.
I am proud that during my tenure as president of the Rabbinical Council of America we were able to address the issue of child abuse in a serious way. After lengthy discussions and careful weighing of the issues, we unanimously passed a strongly worded resolution that states in part: “The Rabbinical Council of America reaffirms its halakhic position that the prohibitions of mesirah and arka’ot do not apply in cases of abuse.”
Let me explain the implications.
Throughout the centuries, mesirah, the informing of one Jew on the other to governmental authorities to be tried before arka’ot, a non-Jewish court, has been an anathema, a serious violation warranting isolation from the community.
There are those who point to this issue as an excuse as to why they don’t report a Jew implicated in abuse. Our resolution states that it is the position of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world, that this prohibition is not applicable in cases of abuse. The victim must be protected.
This is what the Torah demands of a Jew. Are there expectations of a non-Jew? The Torah portions from Bereshit we have been reading these past weeks on Shabbat give us important insights into these issues. Concerning the inhabitants of the city of Sodom, who were of course not Jews, God declares that if “they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me — then destruction” (Bereshit 18:21).
Our sages in the Talmud explain that this refers to the outcry of a young woman tormented by those in power. No one heeded her cry for help. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains the outcry is “the cry of the oppressed, crying out and begging for help from the arm of wickedness.” God cannot abide when those who are vulnerable are oppressed by the powerful and when others fail to intervene.
It is not always easy to make the right choice. We humans sometimes vacillate when faced with complicated scenarios. There is a rare cantillation, a musical note for Torah reading called a “shalshelet,” that appears only three times in the book of Bereshit. The voice of the Torah reader rises and drops three times. It indicates inner conflict and hesitation.
The first time is when Lot “lingers.” The angels tell him he must leave Sodom and he hesitates, reluctant to leave his wealth behind. He is paralyzed into inaction. The angels intervene to whisk him away.
In the second instance, Eliezer, the faithful servant of Abraham, is sent on a mission to bring a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family. The shalshelet teaches us that Eliezer hesitates; he is conflicted because he wants Isaac to marry his own daughter. He overcomes this and finds Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife and then the matriarch of our people.
In the third instance, Joseph, while just a teen, has been sold into slavery in Egypt. He becomes the manager of his master’s household. His master’s wife tempts him and threatens him with great harm if he does not submit to her seduction. Expediency dictates that he should comply. “Vayemaen,” — “and he refuses,” is chanted to the note shalshelet. Joseph is torn. He hesitates and he is conflicted. But he has the strength to refuse. He does what is morally correct despite the fact that as a result of this, he is condemned to spend years in a dungeon.
The Torah explores how people make decisions. When Abraham and Sarah come to the land of Plishtim, they claim that Sarah is Abraham’s sister. They fear that due to Sarah’s extraordinary beauty, if it is known that Abraham is her husband, he will be killed. Avimelech, the king, seizes Sarah and releases her only after Divine intervention. Avimelech challenges Abraham, “What have you seen that you did such a thing?” (Bereshit 20:10).
Malbim, in his commentary, explains that Avimelech argues that the land of Plishtim is a civilized society with laws and mores. How can Abraham think they would kill him to take his wife? Abraham responds, “Only the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me because of my wife” (Bereshit 20:11).
Abraham’s response was that Avimelech was correct — his was a civilized society with a legal system. Yet, when confronted with a moral dilemma, this alone cannot be relied upon. People tend to rationalize and do what is easy or what they desire. Fear of God can help one prevail and make the right choice, although it may be difficult. This too is no guarantee that one will do what is right.
While it is clear what the Torah expects of us should we find ourselves in circumstances such as those faced by the officials at Penn State, it is not at all certain that we will make the right decision when we face complex dilemmas. So often in life we confront situations that are punctuated by a shalshelet. We are challenged by choices. We are conflicted between doing what is appropriate — albeit difficult — and what is easier. We have the benefit of being guided by Torah, the eternal and immutable word of God that illuminates the way and inspires us to meet the challenges that arise throughout the vicissitudes of life. Let us hope that when tested we will have the wisdom and strength of character to make the right choice.
A surprising turn of events happens in next week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. We read: “Abraham breathed his last and died in good ripe age, old and satisfied, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” (Gen. 25:8-9)
What are Isaac and Ishmael doing here together? This is the first we hear of them since each of their traumatic experiences at the hand of their father. Some 73 years earlier — as far as Ishmael is concerned — Abraham attempted to kill him by casting him and his mother out to die in the wilderness. He and his father had remained estranged ever since.
The same holds true for Isaac after the Akedah, his binding and near sacrifice. Despite the fact that an angel intervened in the last moment to stay Abraham’s hand, Isaac saw that his father was ready and willing to sacrifice him. Arguably, from Isaac’s perspective the angelic intervention didn’t make a difference. Even though the blade of the sacrificial knife never touches him, it may as well have, as their father-son relationship was severed for good. Isaac does not come down from Mount Moriah with Abraham; in fact, there is no record of the two having contact ever again.
For Isaac and Ishmael to be able to bury their father together suggests that they each had made peace with his past, and both were able to forgive what Abraham had done. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened or denying it ever took place; but, rather, we are no longer bound by our past, able to cast off our anger, resentment and upset vis-à-vis those who have hurt us; and that our pain and suffering no longer define us. In that space, we are able to let go of the stories we have created about these events and free ourselves from their burden on our lives.
This possibility of forgiveness is the model of what Isaac and Ishmael’s offering could represent. The two half-brothers, wounded by the same source, pitted against each other by the circumstances of their lives, show here a willingness to rise above their personal stories and support one another even as they literally lay to rest the person who represents the source of their pain. Can we, Jews and Muslims alike — inheritors of Isaac and Ishmael’s legacy — learn from their example?
Just days before Rosh Hashanah, I tuned in to watch Abbas and Netanyahu address the United Nations. As Abbas spoke I was hopeful that he would extend an olive branch toward Israel; that he would at least hint at recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state alongside a future Palestinian state. He did not. Instead, he re-told the old party-line narrative accusing Israel of being led by a brutal apartheid regime whose goal is to oppress the Palestinians and rob them of their homeland.
Perhaps Netanyahu would rise above the rhetoric of the status quo? I hoped he would take the high road and commit to ordering a freeze of all West Bank settlements, dismantle illegal ones, and put a halt to any construction in East Jerusalem as a gesture of good will and a serious commitment to peace. But he did not. He, too, redrew the same old caricature that depicts all Palestinians as unrepentant terrorists hell-bent on the total destruction of Israel.
Each side is deeply stuck, bound to a path of destruction in the self-righteous name of their own exclusive narrative. The cost to both people is impossibly high. To be sure, such rhetoric will lead not only to other destruction, but just as surely to self-destruction; as to remain enmeshed in these intransigent stories perpetuates the cycle of misery and collective nightmare, endless cycle of violence and deaths that they and we co-create.
One of my favorite philosophers, Ken Wilber, asserts: “As a general rule, no one is smart enough to be wrong 100 percent of the time.” Can we, then, leave room for the other to be wrong only 99 percent of the time? Because in this 1 percent lies a world of possibilities. By allowing that 1 percent we open a door to hearing a different perspective; we start with the assumption that our truth is not absolute truth but, rather, that there exist many relative truths; that there is no given reality but only perspectives on that reality. By moving out of our entrenched positions we not only become better able to see or hear the other’s position, but also better able to see our own self and our own stories objectively.
Perhaps it is time — as Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham — for us, for Israelis and Palestinians, to reframe our stories about the past and stop pretending that these old narratives must define our future. This is not to deny the violence, deaths, and deep wounds that each side has inflicted upon the other in the many decades of this conflict. No — what happened, happened. But we can let go of the stories that each side has created about it.
A real healing process has the possibility of success not when either side expects the other to recognize the totality of its story any longer, but when each is able to shift its perspective slightly and acknowledge the truth of just one aspect, a sliver — that 1 percent of the other’s narrative.
Indeed, this is not only the work of a country’s leaders; it must begin with each of us. What are the beliefs, the positions we are wedded to in our own lives? What are the stories we are bound to that are reflected by the resentments, upsets, and anger we experience when these stories are challenged? What is it we know ourselves to be so “right” about that we are unable to hear a different point of view? We too must become aware of our entrenched attachment to our stories, to question our assumptions, and gently open ourselves to hear different perspectives.
Isaac and Ishmael were able to forgive. They came to recognize that the historical circumstances of their lives did not have to determine their future. For the democratic values that Israel holds dear, and all peoples in the Middle East, I pray that we, too, will awaken to this recognition.
The other morning I checked in with my 60-something-year-old mother. She seemed very tired.
“I was up all night,” she told me. “I did not sleep at all.”
When I asked her why she did not sleep her response was simple: “I could not sleep until I knew he was safe. I could not sleep until he was home.”
My mother, it turns out, was up all night watching the news waiting to see the feet of Gilad Shalit touch Israeli soil once again. She waited up for him and worried for him as though he was her own son. And this worry, this sense of connection she and so many other Jews around the world felt for this one young Israeli man, reminded me that the world, the non-Jewish world, understands so little about our people’s relationship to eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, and am Yisrael, the people of Israel.
We do a disservice to ourselves and the future of the Jewish State when we neglect to speak of our cultural, artistic, agricultural, religious and spiritual connections to the land of Israel and our deep love for Israel. Too often when we defend the state of Israel, we speak in purely political terms. The world knows and accepts, for the most part, our modern history. They know about European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, our refugee status and our immediate need for a safe homeland in the 1940s. They know about our continued struggle for safety in Israel today. But do they know about our ancient spiritual connection to the land of Israel that has kept hope alive in our hearts, even during the darkest moments of our people’s history?
In my work combating the efforts of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Olympia, I came to understand that many people who work toward the dismantling of the state of Israel have very little knowledge about our rich religious, cultural and spiritual connection. They think Zionism is merely a modern nationalist movement. They have no idea that we pray for the peace of Israel daily in our traditional liturgy and have done so for generations. They have little idea that so many of our holidays are based on the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel.
We celebrate the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shevat, in February. Almond trees don’t bloom in Seattle in February, but they do in the land of Israel. We smell the etrog and wave the lulav during Sukkot in Seattle but the smells and textures of these sacred plants are those of Israel.
Our symbols, like the pomegranate, the lion, and the olive tree are all connections back to our ancient and sacred homeland. Israel might have become a modern state in 1948, but our connection to the land and to each other goes beyond memory.
Zionism is a modern manifestation of a very old, very deep and very special connection we have as a people to our home: eretz Yisrael. It is also the manifestation of a deep and special connection Jews throughout the world have to each other. When we pray our call to worship prayer, the Barchu, we all face east toward Jerusalem. I often imagine that in that moment all Jews all over the world are turning toward each other, facing each other, and coming together in holy assembly to honor God. We did this before we even knew there was such a diverse and widespread global Jewish community.
We all prayed toward Jerusalem before Jews in Poland knew about Jews living in India or China or Morocco or Yemen. Daily we all faced each other when we faced the holy city of Jerusalem. We faced each other, even when we could not imagine the face of our fellow Jew so far away, because we are family and our hearts are untied through eretz Yisrael. We have faced each other, prayed for each other, and cared for each other across time and space for thousands of years. This is our spiritual legacy and it runs strong to this day.
It is this strong spiritual connection to the land and our people that has kept us alive. It kept us alive and together in the mellah, in the ghetto, in the concentration camp, in good times and in times of horrific tragedy. The hope and dream of living peacefully and securely in our home, our land, has been a bright light and source of beauty and joy and hope for thousands of years.
Israel Freelander writes that the love of eretz Yisrael:
Kept the torch that illuminated the thorny path of our people. It was the anchor that kept our ship from drifting out into the boundless ocean. And when the eternal wanderer seemed to sink under the burden of his suffering he looked up into the sky and saw the light that shone from Zion and with the renewed courage he continued his journey.
This is what the world needs to know: How we really feel about Israel. Yes we are defensive, we are protective, we are scared, we are proud, and we are justified in our fight for self-determination and security. But most of all, we are in love. We love this land and the people Israel. We love the trees, the soil, the birds, the rains and the mountains. We love the babies, the elderly and the soldiers. We love Israel so much we are willing to give up parts of it so we can live in it peacefully. We love Israel so much we fight for it. We labor for it. We love Israel so much we support it no matter where on this planet we live.
Our love crosses time zones, our love breaks down boundaries, and our love keeps us up at night. Each citizen is like our own close family. And this is why my own mother, who has not lived in Israel for over 40 years, was up all night. Her love kept her up. She could rest until she knew this young man was home.
We must all work to support Israel in our own way. I am a fan of J Street. You might be a fan of AIPAC or some other political organization. I am a fan of Israeli food and film. You might love Israeli dance and poetry. Each of us must keep our connection strong and our love visible for the entire world to see. And our love should keep us up at night because we should not rest until all Jews are living in security and peace.
While shopping at the pharmacy last week, I couldn’t help notice they were selling home security cameras. These cameras are to be installed outside of one’s home to monitor any activity day and night for security purposes. Some cameras were expensive and some were very cheap. I took a closer look at both options and noticed that the much cheaper security cameras were exact replicas of the expensive cameras, but they weren’t able to monitor or record anything at all. Even though they looked exactly the same as their expensive counterparts, and were made by the same company, there were in fact just decoys — empty cameras. A very interesting chance to take.
As a rabbi, I started thinking about the first home security system used by the Jewish people. They were first installed on the Jewish homes in Egypt. The upside of these primitive yet very effective units was their simplicity of installation. Lamb blood on the door posts with hyssop branches. The downside of these units was that they were in service and effective for one night only, known as the beginning of “yetziat Mitzrayim,” the rapid exodus from Egyptian slavery. The Angel of Death just couldn’t penetrate these force fields of security and was forced to pass over onto the next domicile.
It is interesting to note that the Jewish people might normally have thought of keeping themselves secure by hiding their Jewish identity and especially not bringing any attention to their homes. During Passover, it was quite the opposite. God commanded them to proudly identify themselves as a group and stand up (or, more accurately, stay home) and be counted as one. Their security came via an identification with the community at large.
Fast forward some years, and the system was upgraded with the commandment of mezuzah.
The Biblical source for the commandment of mezuzah is found twice in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. The Torah states in two entire paragraphs: “And you shall write these words on the entryways of your dwellings and your gates.”
The Oral Law, which God taught Moshe at Mount Sinai, teaches that these first two paragraphs of the shema are to be affixed to the right side of the doorpost. The two paragraphs of the shema contained in the mezuzah, include the declaration of God’s Oneness and the basics of reward and punishment, two fundamentals of the Jewish faith. The mezuzah is finally affixed to each doorway of our homes, schools, synagogues, and some place them on their businesses. These parchments are to be written by a traditional “God-fearing” scribe, according to strict codes of Jewish law. They must be written with special black ink and with a quill on one piece of specially prepared and scored parchment. The mezuzah is carefully checked for textual errors and incorrectly formed letters by an expert who knows the strict laws of tefillin and mezuzot. It is carefully rolled and inserted into the mezuzah case.
How does the mezuzah provide us with the sense of security we so desire from our high-tech monitoring gadgetry? The great sage, rabbi, doctor and philosopher, Maimonides writes in his magnum opus, the Mishne Torah, “Every time a person enters and exits (and encounters the mezuzah) one automatically contemplates the Singularity of the Name of God. He recalls his affection for Him. He will then awake from his sleep and his obsession with the daily grind, and come to realize that there is nothing that lasts for eternity except for the knowledge of the Creator of the world. This will motivate him to regain full awareness and follow the paths of the upright. Tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah are one’s true reminders and security guards.”
In reality then, it is not only the mezuzah that watches over us, but it is our watching of the mezuzah that can bring us to a level of consciousness like no other, which can empower us to decipher the secrets of the universe.
So, how does the mezuzah compare to the modern-day security-monitoring camera system I stumbled upon at the pharmacy?
For one, there are also two models. A mezuzah that contains a kosher parchment is connected to a recording system and actually writes the data to a spiritual hard-drive, which some refer to nowadays as “The cloud.”
There is also a much cheaper model, from the same company, but it’s only the case. It might look serious, but it’s just a decoy.
This too is a very interesting chance to take, especially during this time of the year. For the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many people do a lot of soul searching and introspection for an increased level of consciousness. Though I don’t install security cameras, I do install and check the parchments of mezuzot. Feel free to contact me if you would like additional monitoring systems.
In late February 1946, Captain Seymour Pomrenze of the United States Army rode in a Jeep through Frankfurt, Germany. A blizzard howled through the city, and through the snow, Pomrenze could see bullet-ridden walls and the bombed-out remains of a war-torn city.
His driver that day was Lieutenant Leslie Poste, a librarian and archivist whom the army had charged with the task of processing books and archival material looted by the Nazis during the war. Poste told Capt. Pomrenze their destination that day was Offenbach, a small city just across the river from Frankfurt. There, in an old warehouse once owned by the I.G. Farben chemical company, was a collecting point where the army gathered looted books and papers the Allies had discovered at war’s end.
There was, Poste explained, a lot of material to process. It was a well-known fact that the Nazis had a penchant for burning Jewish books (as well as those of other oppressed groups). Less known, however, was that the Nazis had also saved many of these works, and some of what they saved was quite valuable.
The Nazi campaign to preserve Jewish books was largely the brainchild of Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi intellectual, ideologue, and military leader. In early 1940, Hitler announced that Rosenberg would be assembling material for the “Hohe Schule,” a research institute for the study of Jews and Judaism to be established in Bavaria after the war, with a library of 500,000 volumes. As the Nazi rampage gathered steam, the idea grew to a chain of 10 or more institutes located in cities throughout the Nazi empire. Soon afterward, the Einsatzab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Rosenberg task force) was formally established as the organization in charge of confiscating books and papers in newly conquered Nazi territories.
Poste explained that Allied forces had recently sent such material discovered in American-held areas of the former Third Reich to Offenbach. Poste had overseen the initial processing himself, but to date, no books had been returned to their owners. Now it was up to the more senior-ranking and experienced Pomrenze to take over.
The Jeep carrying the two men pulled up to a heavily guarded concrete building. Pomrenze may have glimpsed some bookcases through the doorway as he approached, but when he entered and beheld the full scope of the building’s contents, what he saw astounded him.
“My first impressions of the Offenbach Collecting Point were overwhelming and amazing at once,” he said in a 2002 speech for the Association of Jewish Libraries. “As I stood before a seemingly endless sea of crates and books, I thought what a horrible mess! What could I do with all these materials? How could I carry out my assignment successfully?”
The “seemingly endless sea of crates and books” that greeted Seymour Pomrenze in the old warehouse consisted of of more than 1.5 million volumes looted from hundreds of Jewish libraries throughout Europe, and by the end of the decade, a total of more than 3 million volumes would pass through the warehouse doors. Some came from major collections, such as the Rothschild Museum in Frankfurt, the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, and the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris. Others were from small-town libraries — shtetls with names like Bedzin, Chelm, and Plock. There were old sets of Talmud, modern secular novels, and archives documenting the history of Jewish communities throughout Europe. There were medieval manuscripts, centuries-old Torah scrolls, and prayerbooks with pages thumbed gray from years of use.
It was the literary remains of a decimated Jewish civilization. And if a collection of stolen books could properly be called a library, then at the time it was the largest Jewish library ever assembled.
Immediately, Pomrenze realized his mission. Unaware of the extent of the Nazi murder of Europe’s Jews, he concluded that “the only action possible was to return the items to their owners, as quickly as possible.” He hired a military and civilian staff, and immediately the team got to work. In short order, the workers identified many of the books and shipped them back to their original owners. In March 1946, they shipped 371 crates of material to libraries in the Netherlands. Later, 137 crates went to Yugoslavia, 41 to Greece, and 115 to Austria. Pomrenze directed the Offenbach Archival depot for only a few months, but the shipments continued throughout much of the rest of the 1940s.
In 1949, the army turned over much of the remaining restitution work to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR), an organization of leading Jewish historians chaired by Salo Baron of Columbia University, and directed by the renowned philosopher Hannah Arendt. JCR concluded most of its work during the 1950s, but continued to exist on paper until it officially closed its doors in 1977.
One of the books it processed was a volume of Jewish law called Hilchot Alfasi, published in Sulzbach Germany in 1765. JCR sent it to a library in Israel, which later “deacquisitioned” it and sold it to an antiquarian book dealer in Jerusalem, who later sold it to me.
It is a large black tome, and it sits on my shelf just a few feet away as I type these words. If only I could know who perused its pages and studied its wisdom over the centuries. I consider myself not its owner, but its caretaker.
As for Seymour Pomrenze, he later rose to the rank of colonel, and served as a leading archivist and records manager for the U.S. Army until he retired in 1976. Over the years, he spoke widely about his wartime activities, and in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal for his work.
On August 25 of this year, one week before what would have been his 96th birthday, Seymour Pomrenze died in New York.
Many original owners of these books died in a massive act of unspeakable violence. Their legacy — one that survives today thanks to people such as Col. Pomrenze — can thus remind us of the greatness of their world, and also of the tragedy of their deaths.
At this season of zichronot — memories — may the memory of Seymour Pomrenze and the millions of people whose words he worked to restore, endure as a lasting blessing for us all.
The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto), the 18th-century Kabbalistic master, begins his classic, Derech HaShem, The Way of God, with this statement: “Kol ish m’Yisrael tzarich sh’ya’amin v’yeda.” “Every Jew needs to believe and to know....”
He completes this with a strikingly vague formula referring to God. Literally, he continues, “That which is found; first, beginning and eternal; and this (Being) is Who brought all things to being found, continues to bring things into being found within the finding.” The next paragraph goes on to say that this Being (this “that which is found”) is totally unknowable to any being outside Himself.
This sefer is, along with the Talmud, my foundational Jewish text. I’ve had the privilege to learn it with holy teachers, and have subsequently studied it myself and gone on to teach it innumerable times. A “magical” phenomenon which, I suspect, is commonly experienced by most people who study Torah, is that each and every reading offers new and deeper insights.
For years, when I’ve taught this text I have emphasized that the words the Ramchal chose, “sh’ya’amin” and “v’yeda,” are very poorly translated with the words believe and know. Hebrew is a much richer language than English, with each word containing untold layers of meaning, and we often broaden our understanding by examining related words (Hebrew is largely based on three-consonant roots which can generate words of widely different meaning). So when we look at the root of “sh’ya’amin,” AMN, we see the familiar amen, an affirmation of belief, as well as the word “emunah” which does mean belief. However, the root is also found in the words “uman,” a craftsman, and “amanut,” craft.
Rather than promoting blind faith, our tradition is informing us that belief is something that must be crafted over time, adding a little here, taking off a little there, much like a potter. In other words, it aspires to be a work in progress, meaning that one continues to deepen and grow, to fill in more and more blank spaces, but realizing that the perfect expression will, ultimately, elude us. Again, blind faith has no place in Judaism.
“V’yeda,” based on DEA, means to know, but much more than to merely have a factual knowledge it is a participatory, experiential and intimate relationship. Therefore, what I used to teach is that every Jew is obligated by our tradition to continually work on the process of having an intimate knowledge and relationship with the Creator. It seemed proper to establish a religion that, itself, contains so many responsibilities with this primary responsibility. Still, I was always a little uncomfortable with such a peremptory and, perhaps, arbitrary pronouncement.
But each new reading does bring new meanings and layers of understanding. Just last week it struck me that I was stuck too literally with the superficial meaning of “tzarich,” needs. A “tzorech” is more than just a need; it’s an internally generated need. It is something absolutely required, just as food and air, for our continuing existence.
Turning the paragraph on its head, just a bit, I reformulated these opening words to tell us “it is a universal inner-generated need within every Jewish soul to unceasingly grapple with the idea of a God totally outside even the potential of our understanding.” Just as our physical body requires food and water, our emotional life, love and our intellect require challenge, our spirit requires this eternal process of forming and refining relationship with The One.
(Before I’m accused of chauvinism or triumphalism — although I see nothing wrong in celebrating our continuing survival through the millennia against all odds — I want to emphasize that when I talk about Jewish souls, I’m not excluding everyone else from having deep spiritual drives and inclinations; I’m merely discussing my own field of knowledge, Jewish spirituality. It’s inconceivable to me that God doesn’t provide unique wisdom paths to all peoples.)
We’re closely approaching and preparing for the High Holidays. Some of us are already going to synagogue early every morning for selichot. Others are planning for meals and guests. Some are writing sermons.
Here’s an additional assignment. Rosh Hashanah liturgy emphasizes “malchut,” usually translated as the kingship of God. I propose that the literal experience of monarchy is so far removed from our experience and understanding as to be almost useless. We’re taught, however, that the Torah is eternal and has relevance to every generation and that it self-updates and reveals itself as necessary to each generation. Our mystical tradition points out that “malchut” also means fully engaging in the physical world we normally perceive. One way to do that is to daily, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and beyond, actively engage our awareness of the Eternal which transcends our individual egos and try to form an ever-growing relationship with Him. May we all have a New Year filled with brachot and simchot, blessings and joy.
In addition to teaching Torah, both locally, internationally, and on the Internet, Rabbi Zeitlin has been an active artist for more than 35 years (http://www.harryzeitlin.com) as well as a lifelong musician (myspace.com/harryzeitlin). He is an Orthodox rabbi and writes regularly at rabbizeitlin.wordpress.com.
The organizations we can’t live without
One of the privileges of synagogue membership is that, in addition to vibrant services and life-long Jewish study, the synagogue is a place members often turn to with personal problems. In any given week, congregants sit with me and talk about their relationships, mental illness, struggles with depression, unemployment, anti-Semitism and bias against Israel in their children’s classrooms, impending divorce, their children’s learning disabilities and emotional challenges, spousal abuse, painful grief, and many other issues.
I am a rabbi, not a social worker or therapist. Yet, I believe that Judaism offers spiritual and religious tools for confronting life’s challenges. Jewish practices such as daily prayer, heightened sense of appreciation for all of God’s creation, performance of mitzvot and awareness that each one of us is a vessel that carries the divine spark of God within us all have the power to transform us and our perceptions of the vicissitudes of life.
I know this is true because, in addition to being a rabbi, I am a regular person. I have a sister who is schizophrenic. My brother-in-law’s bipolar brother, whom I met once 18 years ago, keeps trying to sue me for $20 million. Recently, my beloved mentor, Rabbi Jack Stern, died and I continue to grieve his loss. I so deeply want to call him on the phone one more time! Daily prayer, performance of mitzvot, and intense gratitude for all the good things in my life get me through a lot of internal tzuris.
The synagogue provides a surprising amount of support of all kinds to an astonishing number of people. Upon reflection about how our very small staff helps so many hundreds of people, I have come to realize that we can only be as effective as we are because of some vital partnerships with other Seattle Jewish organizations and individuals. At the risk of not mentioning a worthy partner, I want to highlight three community-based institutions that have helped us immeasurably at Beth Am to help our congregants.
One of our most unsung heroes is Gary Friedman and Jewish Prisoner Services International. When I first arrived in Seattle, I had the privilege of serving at Temple De Hirsch Sinai for two years before joining my husband, Rabbi Jonathan Singer, at Temple Beth Am. From my experience at both synagogues you would be shocked to know the number of times in a year that a synagogue must weigh safety and Jewish values as recently released convicted felons seek to find a synagogue community.
You might be even more surprised to know that yes, sometimes our own members do land in jail. Gary Friedman has been a constant source of support, a knowledgeable man who also balances the Jewish value of welcoming guests and strangers with keeping everyone in the community safe. I call him with increasing frequency. He visits Jewish prisoners and guides us when we are contacted by some pretty unsettling characters.
Michelle Lifton, head of Project DVORA in particular, and Jewish Family Service in general have been invaluable partners. There was life in Seattle before Michelle Lifton and life in Seattle after Michelle Lifton. Now that we have her, I can’t imagine doing my work without her. She provides comprehensive resources to Jewish women (and men) in Seattle who are survivors of domestic abuse. We now all know that there is more domestic violence in the Jewish community than we realized.
Between her availability to every rabbi in the Puget Sound, one-on-one counseling services, and the numerous Project DVORA programs, she and her team provide incalculably valuable resources that strengthen our community. I have yet to meet a JFS program that has not augmented our work at Beth Am and so many other synagogues in the region. We refer our congregants regularly to JFS emergency services, counseling services, elder services and an array of other helpful programs that they provide.
Finally, in this time of great concern for the corrosive effects of hard-core anti-Zionism that goes beyond helpful criticism of Israeli policies, we are continually aided by Rob Jacobs and StandWithUs Northwest. While we are also grateful to AIPAC, J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights, and other strong voices for peace, Rob is on my speed dial for advice in dealing with situations when the local rhetoric crosses a line into hatred. Rob is always available to walk us through reasonable responses to hard issues. He is open to a variety of perspectives — left, right and center — and is amazing with students dealing with virulent anti-Zionism in the classroom.
The truth is that there are dozens of organizations that augment our work at Beth Am and at the other wonderful synagogues in our area. Thank you to everyone of you who supports not only your local synagogue, but also the many agencies who help us ease life’s sorrows and sweeten the hopes of a better day.
Before I was a rabbi, I was a career Navy officer. I am also a veteran on total disability. With this part of what defines me, one thing I do is volunteer as a pastoral counselor and benefits advocate at the Disabled American Veterans chapter office in Olympia. Because of my own experiences trying to access disability benefits through the Veteran’s Administration and the Social Security Administration, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that other disabled veterans get the services they need — that they earned — through service to our country.
Sadly, political and budgetary pressures are putting our veterans at great risk. There are current moves afoot in the Defense Department to cut military and retiree pay and benefits while we are at war. The VA, while doing its best, is not able to fully serve all veterans.
The situation for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is even worse. With troops serving as many as five or six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a miracle that all troops coming home are not severely disabled due to PTSD.
What is worse, several sources have found that roughly 56 percent of veterans with PTSD diagnoses are homeless. The VA reports that there are usually about 107,000 veterans without a place to stay. Veterans comprise more than 25 percent of the homeless population throughout the United States.
This inability of our country to care for the veterans it chews up in combat is a true hillul Hashem, a disgrace to God. You might be saying to yourself that this is horrible, but why am I reading about it in the JTNews?
We as Jews have a huge obligation to care for each other. Irrespective of one’s political views, I believe we all have an absolute Torah obligation to care for our veterans.
In Parashat Shofetim (Sept. 4 this year), we see in Deuteronomy 20 the rules for who should not go to war. After the priests have given instructions, the officers, in verse eight, say, “Who is the man who is afraid and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house so his brother’s heart should not melt like his.” In other words, Torah understands that soldiers who are not fully ready mentally should not go into combat, because they will bring down their unit. Nonetheless, we have soldiers with severe PTSD who are sent back to combat for more troubles.
In Ecclesiates 3:3 we see “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Midrash Kohelet Rabbah (tr. Davka Soncino Classics edition) III:5 interprets this as “A time to kill: in the time of war; A time to heal: in the time of peace. A time to break down: in the time of war; A time to build up: in the time of peace.”
What is this telling us? Those military personnel who come home are now in our care. We must help them rebuild their lives, and to seek spiritual and physical healing. In Leviticus 10:18 we are told, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Veterans are a small percentage of the population, but we all are obligated to care for them. Would you like to experience what our troops go through in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere? Would you like to be fighting these wars every day, even after you’ve come home? As a veteran, I dread the idea of the life veterans of our era are living — if you can call it living.
So what can we do? There are many things. Advocating for better care for military troops and veterans and preserving the benefits we have earned in blood is a good start. Contact your Congressional delegation as well as your local leaders to plead for better care for our veterans. Make donations to Veteran Service Organizations, which help care for our wounded and disabled veterans. Speak out about it on your blogs, your Facebook and LinkedIn posts, your tweets. In other words, shout it from the rooftops.
August 31 brings in the month of Elul, where we focus on heshbon hanefesh, self-introspection and personal inventories. As we near the penitential season, we need to ask ourselves, have we done everything we can to bring peace at home and abroad? Have we done everything we can to help wounded and disabled veterans heal? This is one of many forms of tikkun olam, of repairing the damage, that we can easily effect.
As we see in Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of the Sages, 1:12, according to our great teacher Hillel, may it be God’s will that we should be like Aaron the priest’s students, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all humans, and bringing people nearer to Torah.
Rabbi Jaron B. Matlow, a Navy disabled veteran, volunteers as spiritual adviser to Congregation B’nai Torah in Olympia and as a veteran counselor and advocate at the Disabled American Veterans, Olympia office.
Rabbi Jaron B. Matlow, a Navy disabled veteran, volunteers as spiritual advisor to Congregation B’nai Torah in Olympia and as a veteran counselor and advocate at the Disabled American Veterans, Olympia office.
I have just returned from spending a week on the faculty of Camp Kalsman, the regional Union for Reform Judaism camp, culminating with the camp’s fifth anniversary celebration. The opportunity to spend a week at camp has been one of the highlights of my year throughout my rabbinate.
Jewish camping is arguably the greatest success story of American Jewish education. Many rabbis and other Jewish professionals attribute a significant influence of their choice of career to experiences at Jewish summer camps. Many of the lay leaders in my own congregation fondly remember their summers at Jewish camps.
Jewish summer camps first developed in the early 20th century to bring Jewish children from the city to the country and help to introduce these children — most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants — to American culture. Toward the middle of the 20th century, camps with explicit Jewish educational or cultural programming began to develop. The second half of the 20th century saw the development of Jewish summer camps by the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to further their educational goals and help assure the development of future Jewish leaders. These camps remain particularly strong at the beginning of the 21st century.
Although I never attended Jewish overnight camp growing up, I have strong memories of retreat weekends and family camp weekends at Camp Swig in Northern California. I was a staff member at Swig, Hilltop camp in Malibu, Calif. and Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss. Since becoming a rabbi I have served on the faculty of Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin, Swig and Newman in Northern California, and most recently Camp Kalsman.
While each camp has its unique atmosphere and programming emphasis, all share a strong commitment to fostering Jewish identity and education. Why does Jewish camping have such a powerful influence on our youth?
• Virtually every camp is located in a beautiful natural setting, far from the city. For many Jewish youth, camp is the only opportunity to experience the wonders of the natural world and recognize the benefit of spending time in nature.
• Camp is an opportunity to live a Jewish life 24/7. The best camps assure that Jewish values, traditions and Hebrew are a natural part of day-to-day life, teaching our youth that Judaism can be an integral part of their lives each and every day.
• Especially for youth from small Jewish communities, where they are often the only Jew in their class, to attend camp allows them to experience life as part of a Jewish community. My children, who are now young adults, made life-long friends through camp.
• Counselors, who are most often college students, become powerful role models to campers, showing them that it is cool to be Jewish.
• Campers and counselors have the opportunity to interact with rabbis and other Jewish professionals in ways that they rarely do at their home congregations. The rabbis are not just leading services, but working with campers to design a service or telling a story at cabin time or just shooting hoops and hanging out.
• Jewish camp is an opportunity for staff members to grow Jewishly and help others grow Jewishly and — in some cases — find a lifelong partner.
• Jewish camp provides opportunities to experiment in areas of Jewish life, both individually and communally, that are often lacking outside of camp. Much contemporary Jewish music, for example, was directly or indirectly developed at Jewish camps.
• Jewish camps often expose our youth to Israelis who serve as staff, giving them a perspective on Israel that they do not get elsewhere. And the camps often give Israelis their first exposure to non-Orthodox Judaism, helping them understand that being a religiously committed Jews does not necessarily mean being an Orthodox Jew.
By sending our children to camp, we are saying to them: Being Jewish is an important part of who you are and we want you to have the opportunity to develop this part of your identity in a loving, supportive Jewish atmosphere. One of the greatest gifts that we can offer our children is the chance to attend Jewish summer camp where they learn about Judaism, Israel and about themselves.
Bruce Kadden is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Tacoma. Email him at email@example.com about your experiences in Jewish summer camps.
We just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, and when we explain this holiday, we typically say that we sanctify God’s giving us the Torah. But as modern Jews, is it possible to believe in revelation? Did any revelatory event in fact take place? How do we know which of these events are authentic and which are not? And what was revealed — a Divine presence? The Creator’s will? And how? In a book? In nature? In historical events?
This holiday led me to explore more about the nature of Revelation, and I found superb resources in Rabbi Neil Gillman’s Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I offer three theological understandings of Revelation, each defining the Eternal and the nature of Revelation differently.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed in religious naturalism. He saw God as a salvational activity, an actualization of personal and social fulfillment, and the elimination of all evils that stand in our way. Our human “discovery” of how to live religiously is the Eternal’s “revelation” to us — within the human mind.
But if Revelation and Torah are outcomes of natural human activity, what makes them unique and authoritative? Kaplan would respond that Torah is unique because it is ours. However, the locus of authority shifted from the supernatural God to the human community; the Jewish community has the power to define itself and to make changes as it determines appropriate. Some of us may wonder where our reinterpretations stop, and if anything can qualify as “Judaism,” how seriously would we take Torah and its hold on our lives?
Tackling the nature of “commandedness,” early 20th-century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig employed an existential theology. Rosenzweig differentiated between law and command. He maintained that law was not part of the content of Revelation, but the sense of “being commanded” was. While law is impersonal, universal, and written in books, commands are personal, subjective, and experienced.
What was revealed, then, was not the commandments, but the fact of being commanded. During Revelation, our obligation was entirely spontaneous, a natural yearning to acknowledge the Eternal and God’s covenant with Israel. Similarly, in our deepest relationships, we are “commanded” or personally compelled to demonstrate our devotion and closeness. In the same way, Rosenzweig argues, God’s love for Israel inspires Israel to live in a certain way.
The challenge is that our original spontaneous desire to acknowledge the Eternal’s command faded, and human beings changed the commands into laws, into an impersonal legal system empty of the spontaneity and of the emotion that characterized the original response to Divine presence.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another seminal modern theologian, elaborated on our understanding of Torah. Heschel maintains that our Torah is not pure Torah, but our ancestors’ and our own understanding of its contents. The Torah is midrash, a report about revelation. Authority comes from our understanding of the text, not necessarily the written words.
These theologies raise numerous questions about Jewish authority and its implications for us. If the source of our authority is not the Torah itself, but our ancestors’ and our own understanding of its contents, what if we disagree with our ancestors’ interpretation? Is oral law, rabbinically generated, just as binding as Divine revelation? If the task for modern Jews is to repossess the emotional command to respond, what if rabbinic mitzvot do not further that intrinsic desire? Are we called to observe mitzvot without feeling an emotional connection?
I believe that certain times call for observance of mitzvot regardless of our innate affinity. Jewish observance is not only about what “feels good,” and upholding tradition has its place. At the same time, I connect to the Eternal and experience Revelation in ways that the rabbis did not prescribe. Without a visceral connection, Jewish authenticity and significance are severely attenuated.
Our Torah teaches that the old set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed alongside the new ones inside the mishkan, the tabernacle. We keep the laws with us, but we also carve our own new set of tablets. If the Eternal’s revelation is ongoing, and we are stirred to be in a relationship, then our everlasting command is to recapture our original sense of Revelation.
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall serves Temple Beth Or in Everett and the Snohomish County community. She also officiates at lifecycle events throughout the Seattle area.
As I write this column I’m sitting in Israel, A few days after Yom HaShoah and a few days before Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Israel is wrapped in blue and white — it seems like every car, street, and traffic circle has Israeli flags dangling somewhere prominent. Entire municipal buildings are lit up in blue.
A program on Israeli television last night exemplified the character of those moments when practically every Jew in the world is overcome with a mixture of pride and gratitude.
The program was about Yoseph Goodman, a young IDF soldier in Maglan, an elite unit in the paratroopers. On February 6, 2006, during a routine training, Yoseph jumped out of a plane and somehow his commander’s leg became entangled in Yoseph’s parachute. They both began an immediate plummet to their deaths.
Often when I hear about these moments of intense crisis, I can’t help but ask myself, “What would I do?” They were in a situation where both were certainly going to die, but there was at least a chance that if one cut himself free he would save them both.
Again, what if it was me? I can only tell you what 20-year-old Yoseph Goodman did. He didn’t give his commander — and friend — even a chance to decide who would cut the rope. He immediately cut his parachute, saving his friend’s life. He tried to open his reserve chute, but was too close to the ground for it to open. Yoseph is buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
I have had the unending privilege to work with injured Israeli combat soldiers since 2007 through Hope for Heroism. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this level of selflessness is something these young men live with and are ready to act on today at a moment’s notice. I have stopped counting the times I have met a young man who will spend years of his life trying to rehabilitate his body because of his decision to put himself between a terrorist and a group of civilians.
In Israel, Hope for Heroism is run entirely by injured combat soldiers and the leaders tell me they continue to see expressions of this selfless giving everyday. When they encounter injured soldiers in the hospital, the first and only request they often hear from them is to please help a friend who has been injured instead. If an injured soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress is in a moment of personal crisis in the middle of the night, he will have his brothers by his side in an instant and they won’t leave him until they feel he is able to manage on his own. It doesn’t matter what his happening in their own lives that week, everything is dropped to help a brother in need.
I don’t know what I would do in Yoseph Goodman’s situation, but I know exactly what any of our injured soldiers would do: They would fight to be the first one to cut their own parachute, no matter the consequences.
In the Jewish calendar we also find ourselves in the midst of Sefiras HaOmer, the time when we count the days from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot and the bringing of the omer offering in the Beit HaMikdash. During this time, until we reach the 33rd day of the omer, there is a tradition for the Jewish people to observe signs of mourning, including including letting one’s beard grow, as a remembrance of the the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period. We not only observe outward signs of mourning but are also meant to reflect on fixing in ourselves what the Talmud says was the spiritual cause of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students: They did not accord respect to each other. Disrespect and dishonor can only come from a spirit of selfishness and taking.
I know the reason the television channel chose the program about Yoseph Goodman had nothing to do with Rabbi Akiva’s students, but the timing could not have been better. I used to think that the mourning and reflection we do during this time was only for us to remember to act in a respectful way toward the people around us, but I realized last night that it’s also about something more.
Even if we show respect to each other, we do not come into this world simply to live for ourselves. We are here to go beyond ourselves for the sake of someone else. In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is “hakravah.” It is not an accident that hakravah also has the meaning “to come close.” We need look no further than Yoseph Goodman and our precious injured soldiers to see this truth in action. They share a purity and closeness that leaves anyone who meets them feeling touched and inspired.
The injured Israeli soldiers will be in Seattle on their annual Hope for Heroism delegation on May15–23. During this time they will spend two days bonding with injured U.S. soldiers who have recently been inspired by Hope for Heroism to start a similar organization here in Washington State.
What is our fascination with distractions?
Is it senseless hype or civil heresy? Simple celebrity stalking or something deeper and more disturbing? Today’s (as of this printing) nuptials of Britain’s Prince William to Kate Middleton have sent the dream-weavers and lotus-eaters of pop culture into unprecedented states of intoxicated bliss. The joining of the inaccessible to the unattainable used to warrant a large piece in the Style section, a pre-dawn broadcast for the bizarrely dedicated, or at most, a Barbara Walters post-Super Bowl special to occupy sports widows while they cleared away the detritus of the Big Game.
Something else is going on here, something attributable to more than the ubiquity and demands of the 24/7 media shark sifting through the chum of the new and notable. A Lifetime movie about the couple is preceding the actual event it gauzily fictionalizes, begging the philosophical question: Does life imitate niche women’s programming?
Every major TV “news” outlet (not-so-ironic air quotes becoming more necessary with each passing, trivializing story) plans lengthy profiles in advance of their full-day, real-time coverage, from dawn’s first fluffing of the Grenadier Guard’s helmets to the shoveling of the royal carriage’s monarchical manure as it fades into the waning twilight.
It’s one thing for the British and their remnant of a kingdom to embrace this moment in the imperial lifecycle. But why are so many Americans jonesing for this fix of fantasy? Despite a collective national memory bounded by the span between Lady Gaga’s tweets, was it so long ago that we threw off the yoke of our redcoat-wearing, tea-swilling oppressors to embark on this exemplary experiment in independence and democracy? Don’t we celebrate this triumph every summer, albeit often with less pride and principle than with a dubious mix of fireworks and alcohol that bears out Darwin’s case?
We fought against the very elitism and exclusivism that this event embodies, and sought to create an egalitarian meritocracy that still rankles the landed gentry of that aloof isle. Are we so enamored of spectacle and pomp, so sick and tired of the plodding sausage making that passes for democracy in our current Congress, that we’ve regressed into playing a vast, culture-wide version of Pretty, Pretty Princess?
Perhaps our current, and often literal, idolization of celebrity expresses a longing for romanticism. The near-deification of the Kennedy dynasty, and its identification with the mythical Camelot, reflects this cultural quirk. But maybe there’s something more telling and more troubling going on. Despite our protestations for freedom and representation, and despite the sacrifices we’ve endured to achieve them, is there something in us that compels an attachment to royalty?
This ambivalence is as old as the Bible. The Book of Samuel recounts the tension between a longing for concentrated, definitive leadership and the perils of investing power in a single individual. The disorganized and diffuse Israelites needed a compelling figure to rally them against the Philistine threat. As his tenure draws to a close, the prophet Samuel hopes his special brand of leadership, as God’s agent, will continue through his sons. Though they are morally unsuitable for the job, there is something more to the Israelite’s insistence on a monarch. They aspire to be like other peoples, with a king to lead them into battle and serve as object of their pride.
Samuel admonishes the people for compromising their fidelity to God as sole leader, and he lists regal excesses and the rights and property that the people would concede. It reads like the middle section of our Declaration of Independence, with its litany of royal abuses. Still, the people persist in wanting a king, so strong is their desire to be led and to adore a human sovereign. The succeeding history of the Jewish monarchy is filled with concession and consequence. Even the iconic David and Solomon demonstrate the frailty and failures of flesh and blood, despite their selection and ordination by God.
The lesson seems clear if not trite: Be careful what you wish for! As is so often the case, Judaism inspires and guides us to transcend what is easy, obvious and impulsive toward embracing what is challenging, affirming and empowering. It may be easier to project our fears, needs and longings on an overly idealized person, but the costs of such an investment in lost freedom and opportunity far outweigh the temporary quelling of our existential angst.
So while today’s royal wedding may tap the wellsprings of nostalgia, it is also a reminder of how far we’ve come in our national enterprise, and how far we’ve yet to go.
“My father was a wandering Aramean….”
It is with these words that our Passover Haggadah reminds us each year of the wanderings of our people throughout the ages. As we read the familiar passages, sing the well-known melodies and eat the traditional Pesach foods, we recall the tale of our people’s passage from slavery and exile into freedom in the land of Israel. We feel connected, linked to past generations, as if indeed this was our own personal story. We were there in Egypt; we crossed the Sea of Reeds; we sang the songs of victory with Miriam; we stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from God.
And we remember what it was like to be slaves, to be the oppressed. “In every generation, we are commanded to see ourselves as if we came forth from Egypt.”
Empathy, one of the highest values in our Jewish tradition, demands that we do not separate ourselves from those around us whose lot in life is less pleasant than our own. To be a Jew means identifying with the downtrodden and persecuted.
During this time of year, our festival of Pesach reminds us of this obligation. We think of others and try to feel what they might feel. We look outward at our world, at the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the needy, and we reach out a helping hand.
Near the beginning of our seder, there is an ancient reading that some Jews recite in Aramaic as well as in the vernacular. This prayer declares: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” In our world, especially during these difficult economic times, it is incumbent upon us to remember this reading.
So what can we do to help the needy within our community? It is no longer enough to invite the hungry to come in. Often the hungry do not live in our neighborhoods. So what should we do? Sometime between now and Pesach, bring cans and packages of chametz to Bet Chaverim and place them in the receptacle near the front door. This food will be distributed to the poor and hungry in our area.
Doing this is very simple. It is also very Jewish.
May God bless you and your loved ones with a sweet and meaningful Pesach.
At a conference earlier this year, I heard a denominational leader now close to retirement ask whether the young leaders who are going outside of traditional institutional frameworks understand “who published the siddurim that they are using, and who gave them their training and credentials.”
This comment echoes the findings of a recent study by the AVI CHAI Foundation examining the impact of Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s. In that study, American Jewish history scholar Jack Wertheimer writes, “For their part, younger Jewish leaders would do well to reexamine their views of the establishment. For all its weaknesses, it played a major role in educating them.” In both of these comments, I detect a hint of resentment toward young leaders, and an accusation that they/we (I’m a 34-year-old rabbi who started a new community in Seattle) are acting without appropriate humility.
On the other hand, when I started the Kavana Cooperative five years ago, I heard something altogether different: My generation did not want to align with the “establishment,” so we made calculated decisions neither to adopt a synagogue model nor to affiliate with any denomination. This desire to acknowledge generational differences by forging new paths has been reinforced by the world of Jewish philanthropy, which in recent years has supported a number of innovative projects that aim to change the Jewish world.
All of this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I am keenly aware that I am who I am today by virtue of my upbringing during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in a small, southern Jewish community, where I was shaped by all of the major Jewish institutional forces of the 20th century: A synagogue (which happened to be both Conservative and conservative), an afternoon Hebrew school, a Jewish Community Center, a Jewish federation, summer camps, and more. But the Jewish world has changed rapidly and dramatically over the past decades. Today I am nurtured Jewishly by a loosely connected national network of Jewish “start-up” communities, funders, and umbrella organizations — groups brought together by a common vocabulary centering around “innovation,” “social entrepreneurship,” “meaning,” and “empowerment.”
While I acknowledge that my success is due to the individual mentors and to the many institutions — both old and young — that have taught me, supported me, and enabled me to arrive at this point, I am also aware of a deep tension — a behind-the-scenes tug of war, a generation gap — between “old school” and “new school” leaders.
I wonder what is going on. How might we probe the generational divide that exists among Jewish leaders today? Can we learn to talk across the multigenerational divide in ways that are productive and mutually respectful? Is this a matter of not acknowledging one’s years, of not wanting to hand over the power to make changes to a rising youthful leadership that works in ways different from the established ways? Are young leaders not acknowledging or paying tribute to their formative years, their own stories of emergence, the precedents upon which they built their lives and “innovative” communities?
I ask my older colleagues: Can your generation of Jewish leaders take pride in the legacy you are leaving, even if younger leaders carve out new paths rather than follow directly in your footsteps? Can you accept that we might not want to assume the mantle of your existing institutions — even if you were willing to hand over the reins? And, without being presumptuous, we know that some existing organizations may falter without a new, rising leadership. Can you demonstrate the principle of tzimtzum, contraction, in order to make space for new ways of organizing and new forms of leadership? Can I convince you that preserving Judaism is more about the values and ideals we share than any particular institutional framework or established model?
I ask my peers: How might we express our gratitude to those who have paved the way for us and demonstrate appropriate humility? How can we absorb the depth of wisdom from people who have served the field over time, have lived with an innovative spirit and created their own communities in their day — even without making their choices our choices? Can we build bridges between the tendency to reject mainstream Judaism as outdated and the reality that, for the majority of American Jews, these institutions are and will remain at the heart of Jewish life for the near future?
A multigenerational mix of Jewish leaders might challenge the unhelpful dichotomy between innovators and establishment, enduring institutions and inchoate new ventures, “insiders” and “outsiders.” In our own ways, we might focus on the shared task of making Judaism relevant and meaningful in the future.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum is the spiritual leader and executive director of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle (http://www.kavana.org), and a proud member of Generation X. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma (http://www.shma.com) January 2011 as part of a larger conversation on leadership succession.
How we must bring all Jews together
A few weeks ago I was at an event in town and a friend of mine came over. We began to discuss different goings-on in the Seattle community. My friend, let’s call him Jack, told me about a certain Jewish event that goes on every year. Tongue-in-cheek he said, “You can come, it’s ‘Ortho-friendly.’”
A few of us got a good laugh from the new terminology. But as I drove home I got to thinking about the word he used and the perception that went with it. Ortho-friendly generated a series of thoughts that led me to a new word: “Ortho-phobic:” the fear of “Orthodoxy” or fear of Orthodox Jews.
Could this really be true? I thought. And if it is, what can or should be done about it? It has certainly been something on my mind in one way or another for the two-and-a-half years my family has been back in the United States. But this word concretized it in my mind.
There is an astonishing discussion among the classical commentators on the Torah. They compare and contrast the following two episodes: First the Torah details the generation of the flood. Here was a people completely broken down morally who mistreated one another to an extreme. The other generation was known as the “Generation of dispersal.” These people tried to build a tower to “fight against God.”
If we were looking at it and deciding which group was worse, I assume most of us would argue that trying to fight against God should warrant a harsher response. Yet the Torah tells us that the generation of the flood was wiped out completely, whereas those who built the tower to fight God were only dispersed. The lesson: When there is unity among the people, even for a nefarious purpose, God can tolerate it, but disunity and strife has no place.
As a father, I’ve often contemplated this idea. Should my children — when my children? — band together as a unit to pull something over on us, I walk away with a certain sense of joy that they get along and are able to work together despite their differences. Sure, there may be consequences that need to be meted out for what they did, but there’s a parental satisfaction in their loyalty to one another. But should they fight, call each other names, or hurt one another, we cannot tolerate it. Period. Such behavior is unacceptable.
In describing the encampments on the way to Sinai, the Torah repeats the phrase, “and they….” Yet when the Jewish people are actually at the foot of the mountain, ready to receive the Torah, the Torah refers to the people in the singular. The commentaries point out: They were like one person at that time, a completely unified being. They were able to see the differences among them and love each other nonetheless. It is a powerful lesson indeed.
In the story of Purim we will be reading this month, Haman, the nefarious despot of the story, when trying to convince the King Achashverosh to allow him to kill the Jewish people, describes the Jews as a nation “spread out and dispersed.” Our commentators pick up on this expression and take it to mean something beyond the physical locale of where the Jews lived. Rather, Haman was saying, “now’s the time to get them for they are dispersed and distant from one another.” They lack the unity to band together and without that unity they crumble. And it took an Esther and Mordechai to piece (peace!) them back together.
We live in very turbulent times. The Jewish people have spiteful enemies around the world. There is hardly a day that goes by without a terrible act of anti-Semitism and hate being perpetrated somewhere on the globe against our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. There is no better time for us, the Jewish people, to band together strongly than there is today. There’s no greater a time than now to turn to our brothers and sisters, no matter how different looking we’ve become and to look past all differences and unite. Historically, Jews have lived in diverse cultures, picked up diverse habits from their countries, different modes of dress and even different styles of food. But there has been one front where the Jewish people have been unified throughout the generations: The study of our sacred Torah. This is a place where our diversity comes to greatly enrich our understanding of the depth and beauty of the Torah, and I would propose that there is no time like the present to engage in its richness like today. So grab a study-partner, maybe even a Jew you’ve only recently met, maybe even a Jew from a different stream of Judaism than you generally affiliate with, and study — unite and study!
Dear JTNews reader:
This column is addressed to those who are “unaffiliated.” The rest of you are welcome to read it as well.
The word “unaffiliated” in this context means anyone in the Jewish community who is not a member of a synagogue. According to estimates by sociologists, this would be over 50 percent of the Jews in America — probably a bit more in the Puget Sound region.
I am going to make you an offer you can’t (shouldn’t) refuse — at least in my opinion: I will personally pay the first three months of your annual dues if you join a synagogue — any synagogue — before next Rosh Hashanah* (the details of this offer will be found at end of this letter).
The body of the letter will be a reasoned and reasonable argument (in the philosophical meaning of that word) of why you should join a synagogue, using selected quotations from the Mishna tractate “Avot,” also known as Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Ancestors or ‘ancient rabbis’).
“Find yourself a rabbi.” (Avot 1:16)
Every Jew needs a rabbi to call his or her own. This is someone who will be your mentor, teacher, confidant, and lifecycle officiant. While you can probably find a rabbi on an emergency basis, there is no substitute for having an ongoing relationship with your rabbi — someone who knows you intimately and has a true sense of who you are. In America, the best way to “acquire” such a mentor is through synagogue affiliation.
During the course of a year I officiate at 20 or more funerals. If a Jew dies and needs a rabbi, if I can I will be there (and I never charge for any mitzvah). However, there is a world of difference when I preside at the funeral of a member of my temple and when I preside at the grave of someone I never knew. My intentions are the same, but the depth of connection is worlds apart.
But it is not only at important lifecycles that having your own rabbi is crucial. To know there is someone who will listen to you day in and day out, and with whom you have an on-going relationship, is life affirming. To me, this is one of the most compelling reasons to be affiliated.
“All those engaged in the life of the community…will prosper.” (Avot 2:2)
This statement by Rabban Gamliel, son of the great Rabbi Judah, may appeal to the more selfish reasons for being affiliated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not all motives need to be altruistic.
Synagogue affiliation is a formula for success in a variety of ways. You will prosper materially through networking and increased connections. But you will also prosper emotionally and spiritually through a sense of belonging and the ego boost being part of something larger than yourself brings. I would challenge a sociologist or Ph.D. candidate in social science to conduct a well-designed study, and I would bet that affiliated Jews are statistically more successful and happier than those who are not.
Being engaged in the life of a congregation is a path to success and the more involved you are, I would contend, the greater your success.
“Do His (God’s) will as if it were yours, so that He will do your will as if it were His.” (Avot 2:4)
I am so foolish to suggest that God wants you to be a member of a synagogue and that God will reward you for doing so? Maybe not.
But this is my belief: The world/fate operates on mystical principles that defy our understanding. One does not need to evoke the Hindu notion of karma to believe that all things are connected in ways that defy our rational understanding. Put another way, prayers may not be answered directly, but why take a chance? Judaism is a tradition that is open to all kinds of connections. Think about it.
“Do not cut yourself off from the community.” (Avot 2:5)
This oft-quoted aphorism of the saintly Hillel is the ultimate argument for affiliation. To be a Jew is to be part of the community. There are, of course, many other ways to be part of the Jewish community. (Reading JTNews is one, to be sure.) I speak in this context not as a rabbi, but as a Jew raised from day one in a close-knit synagogue my grandparents help establish decades before my birth. I can state unequivocally that my life was shaped in a wonderful way by my rabbi, my congregation, my friends and my teachers. Every Jewish child deserves such an experience. Your child/grandchild deserves such an experience. This is why I am making this offer you “can’t” refuse.
So now the details and the caveats: Do some research and select a congregation right for you: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, meditative. (Caveat #1: I exclude so-called Messianic synagogues — another topic for another day.)
After you are sure it is one you would like to try, make the connections, appointments, paperwork that will allow you to join for a year, sign on, and then bring a piece of paper to me, in person, stating the terms/costs, etc. (I can be reached very easily at 206-323-7674).
We will sit down and talk about your choice for a few minutes and I will write you a check for three months worth of dues (made out the synagogue — I will get the tax deduction, it seems only fair). I would ask that you try it for an entire year and then report back to me by phone or e-mail.
I will also report to JTNews readers how many people took me up on this offer (no names, of course) and summarize our various conversations.
Can I afford it? Yes. I believe in this passionately and I strive to be like Aaron: “Loving my fellow beings and bringing them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12)
I encountered the following story on several Web sites: A number of years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish, and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them.
One girl with Down syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it feel better.”
Then all nine linked arms, and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered.
There is something about unity that touches all of our hearts. The cheering during those games was unparalleled. Can we unite as Jews?
For this we must reflect on what really makes us one people. What defines us as a single nation? What is the common denominator between all Jews, between the Chasidim in Meah Shearim and the liberals in Berkeley? Between the Yemenite Jews and the West Side Ashkenazim? Between Eli Wiesel and Noam Chomsky? Between the humanistic Jewish atheist and the ultra-Orthodox Jew from Boro Park?
When did the Israelites become a nation? Who was the first one who defined them as a nation? At what point did they cease to be merely a “family,” Children of Jacob, children of Israel, and become an “am,” a nation? Who crafted this transition?
You know, nothing with Jews is simple. The Bible gives us two contradictory answers.
In the beginning of Exodus, the title “nation” is conferred upon the Hebrews by none other than Pharaoh, the emperor of Egypt.
“The nation of the children of Israel is growing stronger than us,” Pharaoh said to his people. “Let us devise a clever way to rid ourselves of them.”
He then developed a program of genocide for the blossoming nation who, he feared, would take over Egypt and take over the world.
(We also read in Deuteronomy 26 in the portion of Ki Tavo: “Our ancestors went down to Egypt and there they became a nation.”)
Yet later, in the same book of Exodus, we have an entirely different story: When the Israelites left Egypt and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses tells them: “You shall become to me [God] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
In Deuteronomy (Ki Tavo) Moses says it clearly: “Hayom hazeh nehayata Laam!” Today you have become a nation! This is more than a century after Pharaoh defined the Jews as a nation.
When did we become a nation? Who made us into a nation?
The Bible, in a very subtle and sophisticated way, teaches us of the great identity crisis that would define Jews throughout history. What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be a member of the people of Israel? What is the common thread that bonds all Jews? These are the great questions still debated today.
There are two definitions to Jewish nationhood: One given by Pharaoh, the other by Moses. Pharaoh defines us as a nation in terms of anti-Semitism. We are the group that poses a challenge to the Egyptian Empire and to humanity in general. What makes us Jewish is that Pharaoh is threatened by us, loathes us, and is determined to destroy us.
Moses’ definition is radically different: “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We are bound together by a vision to construct a holy world, to grant history the dignity of purpose, to build a world saturated with light and love. What unites is a covenant of love, a shared commitment to recognize the image of God in every human being and the unity of humanity under a singular God.
I once asked someone who is extremely secular, “What makes you a Jew? Are you my brother?”
“Yes I am,” he replied. “I am Jewish. A proud Jew.”
“What connects you and I?” I responded.
“We share the same destiny,” he said. “Hitler would have sent us both to the gas chambers. Ahmadinejad sees us both as a manifestation of the devil. You are a Jew, I am a Jew. We are subject to the same fate.”
He is right. But this definition alone is the one that Pharaoh gave us. In his mind we were “Am B’nei Yisroel,” a nation in the sense that our blood is less red, that our honor is meaningless, that our property can be taken, that our freedom is non-existent. We have laws different from the others. We were a minority in Egypt with no rights at all. Discrimination against us is justified.
Sixty-five years ago, we experienced the same fate. Jews from Berlin and Jews from Warsaw had the same fate. Chassidim, Misnagdim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Jews from Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, Italy — we all shared the same destiny. Left-wing communist Jews and right-wing Zionists, Reform and Orthodox, all were decimated with the same glee and passion. We were united by hate.
“Who will define you as a Jew?” Moses asked. Pharaoh? Nebuchadnezzar? Vespasian? Titus? Constantine? Muhammad? Torquemada? Chmelnitzky? Adolf Eichmann? Julius Streicher? Alfred Rosenberg? Yasser Arafat? Hassan Nasrallah? Will they answer the question of what is a Jew?
Or will it be Abraham, Moses, King David, Rabbi Akiva, Abaye and Rava, Rashi, Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov who will tell us what it means to be Jewish?
Will we be bound only in the covenant of fate? When we suffer together, when we face a common enemy, we will unite because we have shared tears, shared fears, so we will huddle together for comfort and mutual protection?
Or will we be bound by the fact that we share dreams, aspirations, ideals? We will not need a common enemy, because we will have a common hope? Will we come together to create something new, beautiful and exciting? Will we be defined not by what happens to us but by what we commit ourselves to do? Not by a covenant of fate, but by a bond of faith?
What to make of those broken shards of the original commandments?
“Luchot v’shivre luchot menuchim ba’aron” — “The whole tablets and the broken tablets rested inside the Ark of the Covenant” (Babah Batra 14b). The whole and the broken rest together in our sacred covenant.
This past week we read in our Torah portion Yitro about the receiving of the Ten Commandments. And in a few weeks, we will read in the Torah portion Ki Tisa about Moses coming down the mountain, bringing from God the tablets. Before the tablets can be given to the people of Israel, they become broken, as Moses hurls them in his anger as part of his response to the building of the golden calf.
This is one of our national low points — having quickly lost confidence in our leader and having demanded an idol be built, and Moses acting upon his anger to destroy that which had been written by God. And yet, our tradition teaches us to redeem this low point, these broken shards, and to place them in our sacred ark with the new, whole, unbroken second set of tablets.
I frequently reflect on this teaching of the broken and whole tablet pieces being housed together in the ark. I wonder about how the broken tablets made it into the ark. Did Moses pick them up himself, or was he too angry or disappointed that he could not help collect them? Was there one person or a team of people working on it together? Did they get cut picking up the shards or were they able to collect them without getting hurt? Were they aware of the sanctity amongst these shards?
One of our greatest challenges today is allowing the broken and the whole to live peacefully together. I see this problem on two different levels — in the internal and the external.
How do we enable the broken and the whole within our souls to coexist? How are we kind to the broken bits of our souls? How do we give them attention, attend to them and see them as a source of growth and vision into our souls, rather than run away from them or bury them deep.
And how do we create sacred communities to allow the broken souls and the whole souls rest side by side? It is so easy to label people who appear different as broken, overlooking their humanity and their wisdom, forgetting they too are created in God’s image, and how our communities are richer when they welcome and treasure the diversity of our population, welcoming all and the gifts they bring.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood how easy it was to dismiss what appeared as shards and brokenness. R. Yehoshua ben Levi cautions his children:
Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to an extenuating circumstance (i.e., old age, sickness, accident, struggle, to make a livelihood, as opposed to where his learning may have deserted him due to lack of interest, belief, or regular review). As we say, “The Tablets as well as the broken pieces of the Tablets were placed in the Ark.” (Talmud Berachot 8b and Menachot 99b)
The ark’s contents are not complete without both, and yet we so often fool ourselves into believing we are complete when we cut off or deny the brokenness within ourselves, and when we close our communities to those who seem more broken, more in need, than we are.
Experiencing brokenness does not make us less holy, less worthy, less the object of God’s love. Our brokenness may enable us to reach higher than we ever did before.
The Talmud’s discussion of Moses’ broken tablets continues: “The broken tablets were set at the bottom of the ark, and the complete set was arranged right on top, the broken set forming a steady base, a foundation for the new set.”
Not only are the broken and the whole together in the ark, but the broken form the foundation for the new set. These broken tablets may even be allowing the new tablets to reach higher than they would have on their own, and bring with them their own richness and importance.
This teaching of the important roles both broken and whole vessels play is shared by many cultures. Yosef Jacobson tells the story of an elderly Chinese woman who owned two large pots:
Each hung on the end of a pole, which she carried every day on her shoulders to fill with water from the stream located at the end of the village. One of the pots was complete and always delivered a full portion of water; the other pot was cracked and arrived home each day only half full.
Of course, the complete pot was proud of its accomplishments. The poor cracked pot, on the other hand, was ashamed of its own imperfections and that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After six years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the humbled broken pot finally opened its heart to the woman at the stream. “I hate myself,” the cracked pot cried, “I am so useless and valueless. What purpose does my existence have when each day I leak out half of my water? I am such a loser!”
The old woman smiled and said, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? Every day while we walk back from the stream, you have the opportunity to water them.
“For six years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate our home. Without you being just the way you are, we would have never created this beauty together.”
May we too see and be able to integrate the holiness of both our fragmented and whole pieces.
We must tone down the rhetoric and leave room for respectful dialogue
It was my honest intent to write an upbeat article for my guest stint in the JTNews. A reflection on the promise of the new secular year, perhaps, or an appreciation of something cute that my children had recently done. Truly, that was my initial plan.
But then, on the first Shabbat of January, horrific events unfolded in Tucson, Arizona, that left six dead and numerous others wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
At the time of the shooting, I was accompanying students to a program in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism. The program strives to educate students about the legislative process, and certainly in that environment in which we were acutely tuned to the work of congress, this egregious attack against a Congresswoman — not to mention a Jewish one — could not escape our attention.
As I write this, Representative Giffords is still hospitalized, but her doctors are hopeful for her recovery. May God grant a refuah shleima to her, and all those injured in that attack. And to the families of the six who tragically lost their lives, may God grant you consolation in your hour of grief.
Jared Lee Loughner, the accused gunman in this attack, has been revealed in the shooting’s aftermath as a deeply disturbed individual. There is evidence that the crime was premeditated and meticulously plotted. Nevertheless, links have been suggested between this act and the sharp rise in nasty rhetoric that has characterized political discourse over the past several months.
It appears that Loughner acted alone, and it would be foolhardy, irresponsible, and disingenuous to suggest that there is any direct correlation between this vitriol and the assassination attempt. Still, we know that words have great power, and there can be no doubt that the highly charged political atmosphere is contributing to an unpleasant environment.
While the key figures on this playing field may not be explicitly endorsing violence against their opponents, phrases such as “Don’t retreat; reload” and the like seem to reflect a trend toward an increasing intolerance for political or philosophical differences. Words do matter; they have incredible power, and while such punditry and clever turns-of-phrase may win one viewers, or listeners, or voters, it does so at the expense of the social weal.
The start of January coincides this year with our annual reading of the book of Shemot. We follow the Israelite journey from enslavement in Mitzrayim toward Canaan, a land of promise. Rabbinic commentators pun on Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt, and “metzar,” meaning a narrow place. They remind us that in every generation each individual undergoes an exodus, not only in the recounting of our ancestral journey, but also in our own struggle to free ourselves from the shackles of narrow-mindedness. May the American community learn from the lesson of Shemot, and emerge from this current culture of narrowness to a land that reflects the beauty that can arise from listening to a diversity of opinions.
In the rabbinic period, disagreements were common, if not essential, as intricate matters of halachah were discussed. The most well known were the struggles between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. In the majority of these cases, the school of Hillel prevailed. The Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that this is because the disciples of Hillel were modest, studying the opinions of both schools, and favorably mentioning the opinions of Beit Shammai before offering their own.
Pirke Avot teaches us “Kol machloket she-hi l’shem shamayim, sofa l’hitkayem” — “Every argument that is conducted for the sake of heaven, is destined to endure.” In other words, it’s okay to argue, so long as we do so respectfully. And, if we could tone down the rhetoric, we might actually find room for meaningful dialogue — and if I dare dream, compromise.
Rabbi Alan Cook is an associate rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. He and his wife, Rabbi Jody Cook, have two children, and he prays that the world that their generation inherits will be one of peace and civility. Ken Y’hi Rtzono.
Or, denial is a river in Egypt
As a child growing up, my father would always repeat an epithet of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the author of the Tanya), that “One must live with the times.” He meant that when one learns the weekly Torah portion, he or she must apply it to the time and place at hand.
This week’s Torah portion illustrates the beginning of the Jewish people’s exile and slavery in the land of Egypt. The essence of this bondage is apparent in Pharaoh’s law that all male children must be thrown into the Nile River.
The Nile represents a Godless nature because it overflowed regularly in order to sustain the land of Egypt, which rarely saw rain. One never had to look up to the heavens to see the waters coming down to provide sustenance to the land, thereby making it possible for one to believe that there was no God.
In America today, we have our very own Nile Rivers, be they sports (my own favorite “Nile”), materialism, or financial stature, among many others. A large portion of my life is spent reviving Jewish life on a university campus. While there, it’s easy to see that American youth have been totally thrown into this “Nile,” where basic values are often shunned for popular causes and pseudo-intellectualism. Pharaoh’s decree was to achieve exactly that — the Jewish youth in Egypt should lose all connection to Godliness by being thrown into the Nile River, which equals Godlessness.
To be taken out of Egypt, the Jewish people needed Moshe Rabbeinu, whose job as their leader was to instill faith in them. Therefore, in his first speech to the Jewish people, he proclaimed, “God has sent me,” reminding them of a faith buried deep within.
We, too, go through this process on a daily basis. It is important to spark our “inner Moshe” — our inner source of faith. By starting off our days with a little bit of spirituality, saying the well-known Modeh Ani prayer, in which we thank God for giving us another day with which to fulfill our mission on earth, and giving charity, our days are infused with faith, and that, in turn, will give us the ability to overcome the Godless Nile that constantly surrounds us.
It’s up to us, as adults and parents, to maintain Jewish continuity. The Egyptian exile in general, and in this week’s Torah portion in particular, gives us the technique. Training ourselves and our children to start off our days with a little bit of faith and end off our weeks with the family environment of Shabbat, the epitome of faith (God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh) will ensure the redemption from our personal Niles. May we merit the complete Redemption speedily in our days!
We can all learn something from Larry David — believe it or not
The character Larry David plays on TV is one of the most annoying, infuriating people any one of us could ever meet. He is self-centered to the point of absurdity and his need to be right about everything jeopardizes his closest relationships. In the seventh season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, Cheryl. In the season’s last episode, Cheryl’s resistance is finally breaking down. But, in the meantime, Larry has been accused by a friend of putting a glass of water on a wooden table and staining the wood. He is convinced he is innocent and passionately searches for the real criminal.
In the last scene of the season, Cheryl looks at Larry lovingly, and tells him she thinks they really belong together. They are about to embrace.
But Cheryl has a drink in her hand.
She puts it down on the wooden table so she can give Larry a hug. At that moment, Larry’s eyes open wide and a look of horror crosses his face. He looks at Cheryl accusingly and says, “Do you respect wood?”
The moment of tenderness passes, and the season ends.
In the book of Devarim, we read the famous line: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” — justice, justice, you shall pursue. To be a rodef tzedek is to be emotionally churned up about what’s wrong in the world. Yet the rabbis went out of their way to undermine this text. Why “tzedek tzedek,” asked the rabbis? Wouldn’t one tzedek have been enough? They answered: “Echad din, v’echad p’shara.” One tzedek is to teach us we should pursue what’s right. And, the other tzedek teaches us to compromise.
Why did the rabbis do this? After all, compromise is about letting go of some of our desire for justice. But the rabbis understood that our unchecked passion for justice has the potential to do tremendous damage to our relationships.
In Benjamin Balint’s new book, Running Commentary, he says that Commentary Magazine has lost some of its vibrance because it has settled into an ideological position that is too comfortable and predictable. There was a time, says Balint, that you could see warriors of the right and the left slugging it out in the pages of Commentary. Nowadays, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you read Commentary, and that is a loss to the Jewish community.
I would add to Balint’s observation that this dynamic is true of the Jewish community as a whole: There is a loss of tolerance for diversity in our own community. We are increasingly quick to pre-judge people based on what we think they believe, and we are more prone than ever before to demand that our loyal friends march with us lockstep on a checklist of issues which we determine are the right way and the only way.
We say we love diversity. But do we really deserve that reputation? Can we really disagree with each other on issues close to our heart without name calling? If that’s the case, no Jew should be called an enemy of Israel or a self-hating Jew because they support J Street. And no Jew should be ostracized or looked down upon because he or she belongs to the Republican Party.
The recent debate over whether a mosque should be built in New York near Ground Zero is a good example. Wherever we come down on this issue, I think we can all acknowledge that this issue is complex. You are not an idiot or anti-American if you believe the primary value that needs to be upheld here is that of religious freedom. And, you are not a bigot and a racist if you believe that a mosque should not be built in this particular place at this particular time.
The politics of contempt has become all too pervasive across the spectrum, on the left and on the right. The derisive labeling of the other and the crude lumping together of people we’ve decided are our opponents has stifled real conversation and has put a damper on the truly open exchange of ideas. I’ve heard more than one story of friends and family members who have stopped talking to each other over political differences.
Diversity begins at home, in our own community, in our own congregation, in our own relationships. Benjy Balint’s prescription for Commentary is a great model for community, too. We are far more interesting, dynamic, and ethically sensitive when we have not settled into a predictable way of thinking or acting.
So, I want to encourage all of us to try this technique. Whenever we’re in danger of feeling a little too self-righteous, let’s get in touch with our inner Larry David. The next time an argument threatens to get heated and personal, let’s turn to our partner, our friend, or our neighbor and ask them: “Do you respect wood?”
For the sake of shalom bayit, the time has come for all of us to curb our enthusiasm — to step back from our own passion just enough to respect our friend’s point of view. We don’t have to relinquish our deepest convictions. Just a little bit will go a long way to preserving the relationships that are so important to us.
Maybe there is truly no hope for Larry David. But maybe , because of his hilarious example, there can be hope for all of us.
The second Hanukkah blessing that recalls the historical dimensions of Hanukkah and brings them to today
As the sun begins to set on Wednesday evening, Jews and their families throughout the world will light the first light of the Hanukkah menorah. They will recite the blessings, sing a medley of Hanukkah songs, enjoy potato latkes and/or sufganiot (fried jelly donuts), play dreidel and other games, and perhaps even give or exchange gifts. Hanukkah, a Festival of Light in a season of darkness, is a joyful holiday, warming our spirits during the coldest time of the year.
Among the blessings that will be recited is one that praises God for the
miracles God performed for our ancestors in their day, at this time of year (“she’asah nisim lavoteinu, bayamim ha’heym, bazman hazeh”). It is this blessing that recalls the historical dimension of the holiday, the time in our people’s history when our ancestors were miraculously able to overcome an oppressive foreign power that had increasingly prevented them from practicing their religious traditions freely, without fear of reprisal or punishment. The small band of fighters known as the Maccabees fought for their right to worship Judaism freely. To this day, we observe Hanukkah not only to celebrate the freedom of religious expression that they secured in their day, but also, for the freedom that we — in part as a result of their efforts — enjoy in ours.
The word Hanukkah means dedication. It reminds us how, according to the Talmudic story, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem. After cleansing it from being ritually defiled, they rededicated it so that Jews could once again worship there and bring their offerings to the altar.
I’d like to suggest that in our day, an era in which most of us experience unprecedented freedoms, we might want to add a new dimension to our Hanukkah observance: To use it as a time to rededicate ourselves to some of the important values and ideals which form the foundation of our Jewish tradition.
Perhaps we can choose a different value or ideal to focus on each day. We might have a discussion with family members or friends or community about some of the ways that we might better express that value or ideal in our lives. On any given night we might, for example, choose to give tzedakah to an organization that works to support that value or ideal in our community or society. Or, we might commit to engaging in some sort of act: Writing an op-ed piece to the local newspaper or a letter to the editor, advocating for or helping make others aware of particular issues.
I imagine that this addition to our Hanukkah observance could look like this:
Day 1: As we light the first candle, we rededicate ourselves to the ideal that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We feel outrage over the recent suicides which have been brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance. On this first night of Hanukkah, we commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. We join with tens of thousands of others in the Jewish community throughout the United States, and sign our names to the Jewish Community Pledge: http://www.jewishcommunitypledge.org.
Day 2: As we light the second candle, we rededicate ourselves to demonstrate the values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and compassion, to those who are less fortunate. This night, we will give tzedakah to the Jewish Family Service (or another) food bank, to help those who are hungry and struggling to make ends meet on limited or no incomes.
Day 3: As we light the third candle, we rededicate ourselves to the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Many people throughout the world, even in the United States and Israel — including children — are sold into slavery each year. Tonight we do what we can to save one life, for in saving one life we save the world. Tonight we give tzedakah to Atzum, an organization that seeks to end trafficking in Israel (http://www.atzum.org/about-atzum1).
And so on. Thinking of the different values to focus on each night and day might also provide opportunities for valuable discussions among family members and friends about what is ultimately important and about how we can best use our time and resources to help better this world. Maybe in our time, bazman hazeh, we have an opportunity to change Hanukkah from a holiday of receiving gifts, to a holiday of giving to and helping others. A time of rededicating ourselves to the values and ideals that we hold most dear.
How to make that one day each week something special
Questions. We love questions, and we love asking questions of our rabbis. How many letters are in the Torah? (304,805, assembled into 79,847 words). How deep is the Dead Sea? Is it the saltiest body of water in the world? (It’s more than 1,200 feet deep. Though it is situated at lowest place on earth, it is not the saltiest). Why does Hebrew read from right to left? (The best answer I know of is that right-handed chisel users tended to chisel from right to left when incising on stone). What is the median letter in the Torah? (In Leviticus 11:42, the vav in the word gachon). How many Jews live in the Puget Sound area? (About 35,000, based on the Jewish Federation population survey of 2000).
We seem to have a special place for those questions that seem factual, but are in fact completely opinion-based. Who really deserves to be called the MVP of the NBA? No matter what any magazine tells us, isn’t Seattle the most livable city in the continental United States? Which synagogue is the warmest and most inviting to newcomers? An important question, one that I frequently discuss, is, “Which holiday is the most important?” Some people prefer the question to read as “What holiday is my favorite?”
A good case could be made for Pesach — after all, where would we be if not for the liberation from Egyptian bondage? In addition, our own experience of slavery has prompted us to work for the freedom of others. The seder has maintained its status as the most-observed Jewish ritual. We surely feel its power.
Yom Kippur could score high in this regard. Though not as mournful as Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the Temples, it is certainly the most serious and introspective. After all, refraining from feeding our appetites and afflicting the soul certainly has consequences. Rosh Hashanah, the annual meeting of the Jewish people, would be a close second. This Day of Remembering calls to mind family and history.
Purim and Hanukkah have their own merits. Each marks the triumph of the few against the many. Hanukkah has been trumpeted as the Jewish counterweight to Christmas, but Hanukkah, despite the gift giving, deep frying, and early-winter attention, doesn’t have the depth to carry the day.
Sukkot is a possibility. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Dan Fink likes to say, “any Jewish holiday that encourages camping is a good one.” This reliving of the Exodus and celebrating of the fall harvest has a lot of potential for learning. We translate it into modern terms — noting how fragile our lives are; how thankful we are for shelter; how vulnerable we are without a home.
Yet I maintain that Shabbat is the essential Jewish holiday. Appearing every week, its very frequency is a reminder of our Jewishness. It has a regularity that adds meaning, providing a frame for each week. It is both common and distinct. It may seem ordinary due to its frequency — and yet no day is more unique.
Shabbat contains all of the key Jewish religious themes: In the kiddush, the prayer that marks the beginning of Shabbat. The very rhythm, and the way it is sung and not spoken, reflects that joy.
The big themes of our lives, the non-tangibles that we prize exist with Shabbat as well: Community, learning, reflecting on what matters.
Let me suggest three ways of marking Shabbat. For those already there, they will seem exceedingly familiar. For those considering making Shabbat their own, the initial novelty has the potential to develop into something much richer.
The first: Invite people to your erev Shabbat Friday night table. If this activity is new for you, it may seem awkward at first. Invite others more familiar with the table rituals, i.e., candles, wine, challah. For many, taking this first step will be the biggest challenge, but there’s no shortage of teachers willing to help in this Jewish community. Find a partner to take on this Shabbat initiative with you. Call or e-mail a rabbi or cantor. We are eager to match you with a Shabbat mentor.
The Internet will provide you with a wealth of information as well, but the key message is: Shabbat is not so daunting. Even if you did not grow up with a Shabbat tradition, it is within your reach. Begin small — allow for expansion.
These three sites are a starting point for “how-to” and ways to fortify your Shabbat table:
Union for Reform Judaism: http://www.urj.org/holidays/shabbat/celebrate/
United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism: http://www.uscj.org/Shabbat5092.html
Orthodox Union: http://www.ou.org/holidays/shabbat
And for those who prefer books, let me recommend The How to Handbook of Jewish Living.
The resources are plentiful. Take the time and make the effort. The rewards are great.
The second: Turn off your computer for a full day. If you want to be really daring, refuse to carry your cell phone as well. Six days a week, this mobile technology enables us to stay close to everyone. I am never more than a few seconds away from work. The cumulative result? We are a wired population. We are fully alert and engaged in the world of work. Shabbat is designed as an antidote. Rest. Refrain from creating. Allow yourself l’hinafash — to regain your human soul. Look people in the eyes, talk with the people in your home, synagogue and neighborhood.
The third: Treat yourself well on Shabbat. Live out the word “oneg,” which means joy, delight, pleasure. Yes, we usually associate oneg Shabbat with sponge cake and a glass of punch, but in fact the words point to something much larger. Make the day different. Sleep in. Determine how you will transform this day, known to the rest of the world as Saturday, into Shabbat.
Anticipate Shabbat. Seek to arrive at this island in time. Plan ahead. Will it be a special meal? Double desserts? Leisurely time with a friend? A time to learn? Time with family? Figure what you will add to your week — and joy. Give yourself permission and even encouragement to bring oneg into your life on Shabbat.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great scholars and thinkers of the 20th century, asked his own question: “Who is a Jew?” Among his answers: “A person called upon…to cultivate passion for justice and the ability to experience the arrival of Friday night as an event.”
Both are possible. Both are attainable ideals. Heschel reminds us that it is important to engage deeply in this world, to develop our sense of righteousness. Our actions in the world matter. At the same time, we need to celebrate ongoing creation and the possibility of resting. Friday night is an event — one in which one of us has a standing invitation. Shabbat shalom is more than a greeting — it is a refreshing hope for us and the world.
For the sake of argument, some types of discourse are better than others
Richard Feynman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, worked as a young graduate on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II. The greatest physicists of the day would regularly visit to consult on the project. Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate and father of nuclear physics, one of the most famous physicists at the time, paid a visit to Los Alamos and participated in a meeting attended by the project’s leading scientists.
When Bohr next visited Los Alamos, he requested a private meeting with Feynman. Feynman was quite surprised, considering that during the first visit he had hardly said a word. Bohr began the private meeting by raising a strategy for improving the bomb’s efficiency. When Feynman responded that the proposed plan would not work, they proceeded to debate back and forth for two hours until they had worked out a solution. Bohr then suggested it was time to call in the “big shots” and they discussed the plan with the rest of the team.
As Feynman relates in his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, he later inquired why he had been chosen to talk privately with Bohr. Feynman was not a well-known physicist at the time; it was long before he would win any major recognition. It turned out that after the first meeting, Bohr had commented to his son and colleague, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is ‘yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.’ Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”
A strikingly similar narrative is recorded in the Talmud. Reish Lakish was Rabbi Yochanan’s study partner. After Reish Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolably distressed. A new study partner was suggested for Rabbi Yochanan from the sharpest of the scholars. They began studying and each time Rabbi Yochanan suggested an idea, his new partner would reply, “You are right, there is evidence for your view.”
Rabbi Yochanan retorted, “and you want to replace Reish Lakish? When I would say an idea, he would ask me twenty-four questions, to which I would give twenty-four responses, and from this process the matter would be clarified. But you just bring evidence for my view. I do not need someone to tell me that I am correct.”
Both narratives illustrate critical discussion as an important tool for investigation. It provides a vehicle to compare and contrast different ideas. In order to be productive, discussion must be honest and open. Disagreement and argument, when aimed at advancement and clarification, are a welcome and necessary component of constructive discourse.
The Mishna in Pirke Avot (5:2) states: “An argument which is for the sake of heaven will endure, whereas one that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? An argument between Hillel and Shamai. And one that is not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his congregation.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Arguments for the Sake of Heaven, elaborates on this Mishna. He explains a fundamental difference between these two types of arguments, based on the comments of Rabbi Menachem Meiri. The first type of argument is concerned entirely with the subject matter at hand. The two parties are interested only in furthering their collective understanding. They are engaged in a “collaborative rather than confrontational enterprise. To lose the argument is as enlightening as to win it, for truth is the outcome.”
An argument where truth is the sole objective is a machloket l’sheim shamyaim —an argument for the sake of, or more literally, in the name of heaven. This is exemplified by Hillel and Shamai, who argued in the interest of clarification. This type of argument endures, as both opinions contribute to the advancement of knowledge and truth.
In contrast, the second type of argument is exemplified by the argument of Korach and his followers. Korach launched a rebellion based on an assertion that Moses was usurping power. But underlying this attack was not an honest critique of politics. It was personal, and the subject matter was just a platform. When the objective is to sway opinion and win, it is no surprise when debate degenerates into ad hominem attacks. This type of argument does not endure, as it contributes nothing and only interferes with human advancement.
Whether one is exploring theoretical physics or the legal underpinnings of the Torah, discussion is an indispensible tool. It consists of divergent opinions unabashedly fighting it out for the sake of truth. Personal agendas are irrelevant, as it includes only open discourse about the topic at hand. It is collaborative endeavor where both parties have the same objective, to arrive at the most accurate conclusion possible. If we are to progress as individuals, as a people, and as a society, it is these types of discussions that will pave the way.
Imagine witnessing a political debate where the parties are actually concerned with debating their principles. Two opponents grappling openly and honestly with their positions’ strengths and weaknesses, concerned only with determining the best solutions. It seems so foreign because the only “debate” we see in today’s politics is concerned solely with winning.
This is not only a lesson in politics. It is relevant to all spheres of human endeavor. Whether in matters of science, politics, or religion, we are at our best when we can engage in honest discourse with our peers, especially those who can offer a different perspective. May we have success in engaging in collaborative debate, and through this process may the matter be clarified.
Rabbi Ben Aaronson is the Scholar-in-Residence at the Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath Capitol Hill Minyan.
As a prerequisite for atonement, in preparation for Yom Kippur, halachah (Jewish law) mandates that we ask for forgiveness — michala — if we have offended, hurt, maligned or otherwise done harm to our fellow man.
Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah, Chapter 2:9 states:
Teshuvah and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God.... However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.
Even if a person restores the money that he owes [to the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him.
Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.
Conversely, “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger.” Even if the injured person was severely wronged, “he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”
The Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, discusses the relationship between man and God and the atonement one seeks for any violation of God’s will. He puts forth two steps in the restoration of the relationship:
1) Teshuvah (asking for forgiveness). In this step, a person is fully pardoned for “having violated the command of the King, [for he has] repented fully,” and therefore, “no charge nor semblance of an accusation is mentioned against him on the day of judgment so that he should be punished for his sin, God forbid, in the World to Come; in his trial he is completely exonerated.”
2) Nirza Lo (It shall be acceptable for him). “Nonetheless, in order that he should be acceptable before God, as beloved of Him as before the sin, so that his Creator might derive delight from his service — [in past times] he would bring an olah offering” — a sacrifice to God.
In reviewing the Alter Rebbe’s steps in the restoration of man’s relationship with God, I have pondered how it would apply between man and man. Let me apply this in three different venues of life: Marriage, friendship and business:
1. In the area of marriage, where trust has been shattered in the case of infidelity.
2. In the area of friendship, where a very good friend has spoken gossip or much worse.
3. Where business has been done on a “handshake” for many years and the “commitment” has been shattered without any apparent reason.
The question is how to apply, if possible, the above two steps to the personal dynamic between fellow men.
In teshuvah, one asks for forgiveness in the proper way with heartfelt feelings of sorrow, to appease and mollify the person hurt. But now, what is the process if we must expect, on a human level, to restore the relationship as if the breakdown in trust never happened?
Can one say, “I fully forgive you, but I still don’t trust you?” And what is it that one has to do to reestablish trust as fully as before? What about in other venues of life, for example — if before the breakdown in trust, my friends/business associates were always invited to my simchas (weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, etc.)? Once I’ve granted forgiveness am I then “obligated” to invite them to my simchas as I have in the past, invite them to my home for seder dinner, to invite them to my family Hanukkah party, and so on?
Let me tell a personal story. In 2004, a committee that oversaw a major national project of Chabad, on which I had served for 15 years, became involved in a key issue on which there were differences of opinions. For more than a year, we tried to find a solution to this major issue without success. Finally, at the end of this process, which necessitated time and effort, let alone the energy which left me drained at the end of many a day, I put forth a radical compromise to the issue.
Many around the table congratulated me with words of mazel tov on this novel idea, but in my heart I had reservations “the deal” would hold. Late at night after the meeting, I received a call from someone whom I admired — let’s call him “Reb Mendel.” He was quite agitated, not knowing the full context of the compromise. He thought we had “sold out.” I greatly respected Reb Mendel. He was someone 13 years my senior and had not been at the meeting. I calmly explained the situation, that he did not have all the facts and context from which the solution had been suggested. A few days later, I received a call from Reb Mendel in which he apologized and asked for michala for what he had said to me during that initial phone call.
To be perfectly honest, I was still raw and drained and did not wholeheartedly accept his michala.
Reb Mendel, in addition to being someone I had admired and learned from, was a very close and loyal friend to my father. Both our families go back to Russia. Reb Mendel’s father and my paternal grandfather both “sat” in the gulag in Siberia in the 1930s for their involvement in maintaining Jewish education under Communist rule. In fact, my grandfather officiated at Reb Mendel’s parents’ wedding. Reb Mendel sensed, when we would meet in New York after his call asking for michala, that I had not been fully mollified. Erev Yom Kippur of that year, I received another call from Reb Mendel again apologizing for that call months earlier, where in his moment of agitation he had expressed himself sharply to me. I was moved by the call and said, with a full heart (so I thought), that I forgave him.
Fast forward to January 2006: Our daughter Raizy became engaged in New York. As is our custom, at the engagement party family and very close friends are invited and the engagement takes place within 24 hours from when it is publicly announced that there is a new chossan and kalla. The day of the engagement is a whirlwind: Preparations, calls, and family in and out. At such previous simchas, Reb Mendel had always been invited. Throughout the day, I went back and forth in my mind on whether to invite him to this simcha, but although I had granted him michala I somehow wasn’t quite there. As I prepared to leave the apartment to walk the few blocks to the party, and my dear wife Chanie was saying, “Enough calls, we have to go now,” something came over me.
“I have to call him,” I told myself. “Call him — do it for your father.” I made the call, and I sensed the joy in his voice to the invitation to the simcha.
By the time it took us to walk the few blocks, Reb Mendel was already there at the yeshiva — he was one of the first to arrive. He walked straight over to my father and in front of me, they embraced, and the genuine Chassidic love and brotherhood I saw when they looked at each other will always be etched in my memory. Two days later, as Reb Mendel was walking down Kingston Avenue, at the young age of 73, he collapsed and passed away. Now my friends, how would I feel if I had not invited him to our simcha?
To be continued….
These words are in memory of my very dear friend, Yoseph Moshe Rethael ben Tzvi Hirsh Russak — Mr. Joseph Russak — president of Chabad, whose first yahrtzeit recently passed.
Rabbi Levitin would like to hear your thoughts and insights. Please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at Jews helping Jews around the world was a High Holiday inspiration.
Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue community enjoyed the fortunate opportunity to welcome Sam Amiel and Michael Novick, who both work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to Bellingham. They shared with us a number of current projects of “the Joint” and, through photos and stories, offered us a reminder of the isolation and vulnerability of some of our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world.
I left the gathering feeling moved and inspired. Jewish tradition’s statement, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh — all Israel is responsible one to another — declared itself with both descriptive as well as prescriptive power and authority. The evening made a helpful contribution to my High Holy Day spiritual preparations.
It is extraordinary that Jewish communities throughout the world, in time zone after time zone, announced the arrival of the year 5771 with the sounding of the shofar. We joyfully celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of our reading of the Torah, and this Shabbat, in synagogues throughout the world, we will read of the world’s beginnings from the start of the book of Bereshit of the Torah once again. How awesome! The worldwide web of Jewish peoplehood really does amaze me.
Moreover, in this time of growing polarization and incivility — in the Jewish world and in our American society — it is important to remember our collective responsibility and to recommit to participate in projects that strengthen our sense of interconnection. There are many ways to cultivate a network of connection. One way is to reach out and establish relationships and shared experiences outside our particular home communities.
In that spirit, I would like to invite those JTNews readers who live outside of Whatcom County to come visit us at Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham. (Whatcom County residents are heartily welcomed, too). As our history provides, Congregation Beth Israel was officially established in October 1908, when incorporation papers were filed with the State of Washington — an act that formalized the religious organization and ongoing activities of 25-30 Jewish families in Bellingham. Initially Orthodox in practice, Beth Israel gradually progressed to a more Conservative-style worship and eventually affiliated with the Reform Movement of Judaism.
Now in our 102nd year and with more than 200 member households, we strive to create and maintain a variety of entryways into Jewish living, learning, contribution and expression. Our mission statement reads: “Congregation Beth Israel is a diverse and inclusive synagogue affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and committed to a tradition that honors both Jewish continuity and innovation. We warmly welcome people into our vibrant community, dedicated to the study of Torah and creative Jewish learning, joyous and meaningful worship, and engaging in the sacred obligation of tikkun olam, repair of the world. As inheritors of a rich past and creators of a future full of possibility, we continually seek new opportunities to support each other in participating and growing Jewishly.”
As a synagogue community, we love to welcome visitors. Hospitality is one of our core teachings and values. We’d love to welcome you. Whether for a Shabbat service and meal, for weekly Torah study or another educational or social program, please consider a visit with us sometime this year. We’d be delighted to make new connections and strengthen existing relationships with friends from around the area. Bellingham is 90 miles north of Seattle and 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Whatcom County is beautiful, and there is much here to explore and enjoy.
A new year has begun. May 5771 be a year of support for and appreciation of our deep and precious networks of interconnection!
“To judge between good or bad, between successful and unsuccessful, would take the eye of a God.” — Anton Chekhov
Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath. But how many people know that the difference between these famous rivals can be traced to one point of origin and one critical, defining moment?
David and Goliath were actually third cousins; descendants of Moabite sisters named Ruth and Orpah, who married the sons of Elimelech and Naomi, Israelites who had fled the city of Bethlehem during a famine. When Elimelech and his sons died prematurely, Naomi decided to return to Israel, insisting her daughters-in-law remain with their own people. But in a tremendous display of loyalty, both women ignored Naomi’s attempts to push them away until, at the story’s climax, Orpah gave in, kissed her mother-in-law, and returned home. Ruth accompanied Naomi to Israel, where she married and eventually produced David. Orpah went on to produce Goliath.
The storyline is striking. Why should Orpah, who came within a hair’s breadth of making the same choice as her sister, produce Goliath, the antithesis of David? Our oral tradition provides the missing link: That night, while Ruth was following Naomi, Orpah lay with one hundred men. Goliath was the product of this promiscuity. (Ruth Rabba – 2:20) But the question remains: How could Orpah fall so far so fast?
I believe Orpah realized she had missed an opportunity to achieve greatness. But instead of owning her mistake and moving on, she crossed into self-judgment, deeming herself unworthy. Instead of recognizing her momentary failure to live up to her potential, she chose to define and limit her potential altogether, turning disappointment into despair and devastation.
So what do David and Goliath have to do with Rosh Hashanah? According to our tradition, Rosh Hashanah – the awesome Day of Judgment – ushers in the 10 days of teshuvah (literally “return”), a time when people examine their ways and improve themselves. This is why it’s important, now more than ever, to emphasize that Judgment is God’s job, not ours. Yes, I’m familiar with the adage that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve stood in their shoes, which seems to imply that it’s okay to judge ourselves. Nevertheless, I beg to disagree for a couple of reasons.
First, even when we’re aware of our actions and motivations, we usually lack the big picture. We experience life in fragments of time, and we view those fragments from way too close a vantage point: Even if we could recall every detail of our lives, we would still lack the necessary objectivity to put them into context. We are rarely capable of viewing ourselves without distortion.
But there’s a more fundamental reason why self-judgment is not an option, even when we accurately identify our flaws: We cannot evaluate our lives and live our lives at the same time. Self-judgment removes us from life. This is not to say we shouldn’t be mindful of how we live. It’s just that there’s a huge difference between mindfulness and self-judgment. In fact, they tend to conflict.
Take a look at what you’re passionate about and you’ll see the difference. One of my favorite extracurricular activities is martial arts. I love how it combines a great workout with mastery of a skill and self-perfection. To become proficient, I must be constantly mindful, focusing on the smallest details as I work the same forms over and over again. For me, this is what makes the processes both engaging and fun — that is, until I see someone who is better than me and decide that I’ll never be any good. The moment I focus on myself, I cease being mindful of the process, and the activity that had just moments before been a source of pleasure now leaves me feeling demoralized.
It’s easy for me to slip into self-judgment, and my work as a coach tells me I am not alone. Most of my clients tend to judge themselves harshly, which often leaves them carrying a heavy burden of negativity, depression, and disempowering beliefs that they’re sometimes not even aware of. I recently met a woman who regularly beat herself up over her tendency to worry because she knew it was silly and counterproductive. Sadly, she thought her self-criticism was a mitzvah; her only chance to change. But the truth is that her inability to lovingly accept her flaws was the single biggest impediment to her growth.
On Rosh Hashanah, a snapshot is taken of our life and the question is asked: What have we become and where are we heading? It’s not our job to take that snapshot. Nor are we meant to feel in any way limited by it. Rather, that snapshot is meant to inspire us to do more with our lives. It’s meant to fill us with excitement and joy, not negativity. But most of all, it’s meant to make us more mindful of the greatest gift we will ever possess — the gift of life.
Wishing you a sweet and meaningful New Year!
Empowering our teens to make a difference
In the Winter 2009 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine, the Union for Reform Judaism shared the results of a survey on post-B’nai Mitzvah retention. The impetus for conducting the study was quite simple: The leaders of the Reform movement have observed for decades a precipitous drop in religious school enrollment immediately following Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, lead specialist of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group and former director of the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, and his team sought to discern the true extent of the attrition rate and which congregations had successful retention and why. Close to 900 Reform congregations participated in the survey. Of the nearly 17,000 annual B’nai and B’not Mitzvah a year, only about half continue through 10th grade and slightly more than one in 10 enroll through 12th grade. The rate slightly increases through 12th grade when you include students engaged in other Jewish activities outside of religious school, such as camping and youth group.
About 50 religious schools — 7-10 percent total — retain 80 percent of post-B’nai Mitzvah students through 12th grade. I was proud to hear that my home synagogue, Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas, has the highest retention rate in the country, close to 92 percent. In analyzing the findings of the survey, the URJ identified 10 key factors these synagogues had in common that led to higher retention rates.
For the sake of this piece, I want to highlight one particular factor, though I do encourage you to read the entire article in the magazine. The degree to which post-B’nai Mitzvah teens are empowered by the congregation to be involved in all facets of education, worship and synagogue governance increases the likelihood that students will stay connected beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
In other words, students want to play a role in religious school as teachers and specialists, be given the opportunity to be Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutors, engage in social justice, and feel that temple youth group is valued by the leadership. Becoming an adult in the Jewish community means that we need to offer our students the prospect to give back in healthy ways, and honing the values and skills they learned in training for Bar/Bat Mitzvah while acknowledging that a major transition has taken place in our community.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner, Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s senior rabbi, often highlights three entry points for post-B’nai Mitzvah students to stay involved in synagogue life: Ongoing enrollment in our religion school through 12th grade, youth group, and our hadracha (teaching assistant) program. Ideally, we hope that our students will be involved in all three. But in an age when teens are balancing hectic school and extra-curricular activity schedules, our goal is that they carve out time to do at least one.
Reflecting on the factor I mentioned above, after consulting other congregations that have successful models while assessing our needs in the community, I sat down with Leah Rosenwald, our education and youth coordinator, to revamp our current madrichim program, giving it the new name Hadracha (guiding). Students have traditionally been assigned to classes to assist in the classroom while serving as mentors to the kids. Recognizing that not all of our students want to be in classrooms, Leah and I expanded the opportunities to incorporate different tracks in which students work as a team to enhance aspects of our education program.
This upcoming year’s tracks will consist of songleading, art, and classroom, including all-school educational programs, and Kesher (grades 6-7)/junior youth groups. Response has been very positive, as already more than 30 madrichim have applied to work in the coming Hadracha year.
Our goal, over time, is that this program will grow and provide a viable opportunity for post-B’nai Mitzvah students to be involved, especially for those unable to attend our high school. And the Hadracha program incorporates many of the values I mentioned before — empowerment and ownership in temple. Our ultimate goal is to curb B’nai Mitzvah attrition.
The Torah teaches us that we pass on our tradition through our children, insuring that Judaism will continue throughout the ages. Keeping our teens involved beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah is critical to making this a reality. As we approach this High Holy Day season, may we experience renewed sense of creativity in pursuing this difficult task for the future of the Jewish community.
Listening is the surest road to understanding
My wife Shirley and I spent this past Shabbat in Pittsburgh visiting my mother. In the morning, I arrived at synagogue and took my usual seat next to where my father, of blessed memory, sat for many decades. Two rows in front of me was another visitor. Slowly, I realized this guest was the many-decades-later version of a dear high school friend.
Just to make sure my analysis of the effect of aging on facial and body features was not flawed, I decided to wait before introducing myself. When he was called up to the Torah, his name and voice confirmed my conclusion. With my analysis completed, I introduced myself and discovered that apparently aging had had a greater effect on my features than on his. But slowly, the light of recognition illuminated his eyes. We embraced and after services caught each other up on our respective lives and adventures.
My friend Dov is older than me. He was a senior in high school when I was a freshman. But in a small yeshiva high school with 75 students, these issues were not crucial in forming friendships. Dov became somewhat of a mentor to me. It was interesting to speak to him decades later and reencounter some of the same qualities that so impressed me as a teenager.
I tell my students it is wonderful to debate one another. The process forces the participants to clarify and to refine their positions. However, debate and dialogue oftentimes fail to achieve this result because the parties are simply not listening to one another.
Each participant is so enamored with his own position that rather than considering the what the other has to say, he blindly promotes his own. The participants are not talking with one another; they are talking at one another. So, in order to enable my students to meaningfully debate and discuss positions, I begin by teaching them to listen to one another.
One way I do this is by insisting that a participant repeat his or her opponent’s position before posing a question or formulating a response. This is not merely a classroom exercise — it is a tool for life. How much conflict would be avoided or resolved if the parties would merely take the time to consider each others’ positions rather than focusing exclusively on promoting their own perspectives!
As I spoke to Dov, I was reminded how he is a remarkable listener. He was not interested in telling me about himself, his children, and grandchildren until he had heard about my family. And he did not just act as if he was listening so as to be polite while his mind roamed the galaxy — he was fully focused.
When we show that level of interest in another person, we acknowledge that individual’s intrinsic worth and sanctity. Speaking with Dov, I realized that by helping my students listen more intently to one another, I am not only helping them dialogue more effectively, I am teaching them to treat others with the deference modeled by my friend.
Sunday night we reconvened, now joined by my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Dov shared a wonderful story about his mother, Evelyn. Evelyn’s grandfather was an ardent Zionist even before Theodore Herzl popularized the concept. Evelyn was raised in a Zionist home and as an adult was a member of many of Pittsburgh’s Zionist organizations; actually, she was a member of all of them. She was active in Mizrachi, the religious Zionist organization, gave a weekly class for Hadassah, served as an officer of the Zionist Organization of America, and paid dues to various other organizations.
At one point, a conflict had developed with the ZOA regarding its direction. Some members felt the organization had shifted to the right and ultimately these members left the ZOA to form a Pittsburgh chapter of a more moderate Zionist organization. Evelyn immediately joined the new organization. She explained that although she was an officer of the ZOA, she would not countenance the existence of a Zionist organization in Pittsburgh in which she was not a member.
In other words, she believed that the issue uniting all Zionists — love for and support of the State of Israel — was far greater than the issues upon which different organizations disagreed.
I believe that this attitude reflects the ability to be a good listener. Evelyn’s attitude required that she look beyond her position in a tense dispute, understand the other party’s position, and recognize that despite the dispute, all the parties shared many of the same fundamental values. If only we could all do this!
I also observe this attitude in my students at NYHS. They come from diverse religious backgrounds. Many are from Orthodox homes; a large contingent come from a Conservative background, other students are members of the Reform community. They represent a unique mixture of perspectives seldom encountered in the adult community. Our students work closely with each other, enjoy their friendships and camaraderie, and deeply care about one another. This is not because they do not recognize their differences. It is because they recognize that the common values they share are far more significant than their differences. They are able to disagree on important issues while demonstrating tolerance and respect for one another.
I am grateful to Dov, my students, and to Evelyn for the lesson they have taught me — to listen carefully to others, hear the other party’s position, and not allow our differences to conceal shared values and perspectives.
Everyone should be free to pray at the holiest site in Judaism
I was born in 1972. This was the year that the Ms. Foundation for Women released its ever-popular recording of feminist songs and stories for children. It was also the year that Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College. Both of these events have been very influential in my life.
Thirty-three years later, in the spring of 2006, as an ordained rabbi pregnant with my second child, I led a group of 15 women from Temple B’nai Torah’s sisterhood to Israel. We of course visited the Kotel — the holiest site for the Jewish people. It was Friday evening and the women wanted to pray. I stood there absolutely terrified to do what I do best — lead people in Jewish prayer and study. How could I tell these women, their faces so peaceful and eager to connect with this holy site, that it was not safe for us to pray together at this site? The Kotel is the symbol of the survival of our people; the remnant of the place our ancestors believed housed the shechina — God’s feminine presence on earth — and I was trembling with fear of being attacked for offering song and prayer.
We did pray the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers but I was practically mute with fear. Would someone attack us, throw chairs on us, spit on us? We were told to cover up by a member of the modesty patrol. As men strolled into their section (twice the size of the women’s) with shorts and t-shirts we were told that the loose weave of one of the sisterhood members’ long-sleeved sweater was too wide — it showed too much skin. Black shawls were offered. We looked like we were in mourning.
My fear has transformed into anger, indignation and, slowly over the past few years as I remember this experience and hear news of the increasingly rigid oppression of women at this site, into rage.
According to the Talmud, the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam — baseless hatred. Yet the fear and threat of violence against women attempting to express their love of Judaism and commitment to God has made the Kotel the epicenter of sinat chinam in the Jewish world. Vigilante acts of intimidation and violence by those who frequent the site coupled with state-imposed segregation and suppression of religious acts have turned this holy site into a battleground.
There is a photograph of the wall before 1948 that clearly shows men and women praying side by side at the Kotel. Yet just a few weeks ago on Rosh Chodesh Av, Anat Hoffman, the head of the Israel Religious Action Committee and a leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for simply carrying a Torah in the vicinity of the kotel. Women have been harassed and arrested for the simple act of praying out loud at the Kotel. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law that prohibits women from reading Torah at the Kotel.
Isaiah 56:7 reminders us that this site is a place for all people to worship and express joy — “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” There is room in this world, and especially in what we consider to be the House of God, for all of us to find the space to express our love for God and our connections to our communal past.
The ultra-Orthodox should be free to practice in their own way, but their practice should never restrict that of the millions of liberal Jews in this world who have found a healthy modern expression of their ancient faith. We are not going to go backward. The values brought to the Jewish people through emancipation and the progress we have experienced through our access to modernity have made us who we are today: Tolerant, expressive, creative, influential, generous, bridge builders and yes, egalitarian.
My entire lifetime has been framed within this context. It is absolutely unthinkable that we would go back to a time where Jews are forced to experience, even for a few minutes, a pre-modern existence blind to the gifts of pluralism and democracy. Our holiest site must be a place where the beauty of our diversity is on display for all of us to see and experience and enjoy. The Kotel must be a house of prayer for all people.
This winter my husband, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I will be leading a family trip to Israel for people of all ages and abilities. Our two young sons will be joining us. I will load “Free to Be…You and me” on the iPod for the trip and I will take them and the whole group to the Kotel. I will try to be brave as I continue to do what I do best — lead people in Jewish prayer and study. And I will try to transform my rage into courage for the sake of my sons and all Jewish children.
They need to see me lead people in prayer at our holiest site. They need to know that this ancient wall and our ancient people have survived all these years through so much violence and oppression so we can continue to pass holiness to the next generation. I am passing holiness to my sons through a Judaism filled with ancient stories coupled with modern values. I am passing a Judaism that carries with it a vision of a world truly mended, a world where men and women can bring their gifts to God’s altar through the authentic living of their lives. This is the Judaism I inherited and the Judaism I pass on.
“There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live…
And you and me are free to be you and me.”
What happens when the iconic God of our childhood doesn’t meet our religious needs as adults?
One of the occupational hazards of being a rabbi is that self-identified atheists seem to have a habit of making sure you know that they don’t believe in God. Never mind theorizing the impetuses for such self-disclosures, I have become more interested in learning what a self-described atheist “doesn’t believe.”
One of my rabbis has a wonderful response for the occasional confrontational atheist:
“I bet that I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in either,” he gently responds.
The more opportunities I have to speak with students and young adults about their personal theologies or, more broadly, their ways of seeing the world, the more I find my teacher’s statement to be true. More and more, I have the sense that far less distinguishes the Jewish “believer” from the “non-believer” than we might think.
So what does this atheist “not believe in”? In my experience, the God many of us are busy not believing in is essentially some variation on the iconic image of a man in the sky with a big white beard. It is often a transcendent, anthropomorphized God who acts in history — the grand puppeteer who manipulates every human act — that many Jews have in mind when they reject Jewish theology.
While the image of an all-powerful, transcendent deity is certainly present in biblical and rabbinic texts, it is hardly the sole conception of the Divine we find in our tradition. From the Hebrew Bible to the Talmud, to Midrash, to halachah, to medieval philosophy, to Kabbalah, to Chassidut, to modern Jewish thought, we find multiple and sometimes quite different notions of the Divine. Creator, Parent, Spouse, Protector, Redeemer, Punisher, Place, Peace, Judge, Truth, Healer, Without End, the Name, Indwelling, Shepherd, King — these are just a few of the many, many names and images for God we find in our vast tradition.
For certain, there are Jewish people who reject the idea of God by any definition. But what I often find in having conversations with students is that, God-specific language aside, many self-described irreligious, atheists and agnostics share a worldview markedly similar to my own. They talk of the mystery of the universe or they have a sense that there is something elusive which unifies all of Creation. They are deeply moved by the wonders of the natural world and they strive to live in a state of gratitude for their lives. I have learned that people who steer clear from ever using words like “God” or “divine” often perceive the cosmos and the underlying fabric of Creation in much the same ways that I do.
One of the tragedies of contemporary Jewish life is that we have lost the ability to think and talk about God. My brother Aaron, also a rabbi, worked for a time as a hospital chaplain. He was very surprised to find that, in a way, he actually found it easier to sit at the bedside tables of Christians rather than Jews. The Christians he encountered were, by and large, much more comfortable talking openly about God and their spiritual lives and praying spontaneously than their Jewish counterparts.
Many of us imbibed as children some variation of the image of the white-bearded God. And as we matured, many of us were never exposed to other Jewish conceptions of Divinity. Some of us woke up one day as emerging adults and realized we didn’t connect with any of the images of God we had been introduced to as children. What happens when we shed our childhood conception of God without a tool chest of alternatives to take its place?
The failure on the part of a generation of Jewish teachers to engage their students in nuanced and compelling theology has led to (at least) two unfortunate consequences. The first is that many Jewish young adults never develop theologies personally meaningful or relevant to them. While they mature into sophisticated human beings in every manner of ways, their theologies — and likely their religious lives — are stunted. And, equally tragic from my perspective, other Jewish young adults develop a spiritual worldview entirely consistent with Jewish tradition but assumed by them to be antithetical to Jewish belief for lack of exposure to the multiplicity of Jewish theologies. These individuals may identify as “spiritual,” but not Jewish. Both scenarios can lead to a feeling of alienation and marginalization from Jewish tradition and community.
I have come to the conclusion that the seemingly innocent three-letter English word “G-O-D” is responsible for part (though hardly all) of our problem. This loaded word is wrought with so many associations for most English-speaking Jews that it, ironically, serves as a stumbling block to connecting with the very force it is meant to represent.
With this in mind, I have recently taken to banning use of the word during my classes on theology. I have a favorite exercise in which I poster the walls of the classroom with 40-plus names for the Source of Life in the Jewish tradition. I have found that just being exposed to this diversity of names and images serves as a useful starting point for group conversation and personal reflection on the topic of our personal theologies. If — or rather, when — someone slips and says the word, “God,” he or she has to do 10 pushups. Besides being fun, this exercise in refraining from using the word G-O-D, forces us to find a word or image for that which the word is simply a placeholder — it forces us to be more honest with ourselves as to what we believe.
Rav Kook, the first chief Ashkenazic rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, and one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, wrote that the “greatest impediment to the human spirit, on reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, going back to childish habit and imagination.” He suggests that “one must always cleanse one’s thoughts about God to make sure that they are free of the dross of deceptive fantasies, of groundless fear, of evil inclinations, of wants and deficiencies.”
As individuals and as a Jewish community, we need to proactively address the “wants and deficiencies” of our theological imaginations. We need to dedicate more time to developing and refining our personal theologies to ensure they are not crystallized in “childish habit and imagination.” We can, and should, use our tremendously rich and diverse theological inheritance as an inspiration and guide. And, most importantly, we need to give our children and students the gift of engaging them in lively and open conversations about God — and we might consider avoiding the word “God” while we do it.
The Gaza flotilla incident has caused many of us think about our relationship with Israel. What are we to do?
When I was growing up, my sister loved to share with me the well-known Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” I understood right away why living in too interesting times is a curse — far better is it to live in a time defined by the boredom of peace and economic prosperity, a moment so monotonous because the fields are rich with grain, and earthquakes and other natural disasters are part of a faded memory in the history of human experience.
This past month, however, was a reminder we are not in such a time. In fact, things are becoming too interesting. I am thinking in particular about the news of Israel’s attack on the “peace” activists trying to break the Gaza blockade and the world’s condemnation that followed.
Unlike the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, this disaster happened in plain sight. We could see it unfolding and might have assumed it would have been more deftly handled by the Jewish State famed for its legendary intelligence unit, the Mossad, and its military capacity to carry out precision raids with incredible dexterity.
Despite reports by those who hate the Jewish State, Israel does respect life and tries to protect civilians in a manner from which even our army could learn. We now know too well, however, that the Israeli government played into their enemies’ hands to the point, as Israeli newspapers have reported, that the army failed not only in terms of its intelligence gathering, but almost had three of its own soldiers taken hostage on a ship they assumed was being guided by nonviolent activists.
This past month placed American Jews in the position of needing to defend Israel, which is fighting for its right to exist — a right to which we are clearly committed — against those who mask their anti-Semitism in the soft taffeta of
a human rights-focused liberalism, hiding their steeled objection to the national aspirations of the Jewish people during a moment when the Jewish State has stumbled.
I have no argument with those peace activists who embrace a two-state solution, who want to see Palestinians and Israelis live in safe borders, as neighbors, allowing each other to develop, and who oppose those who embrace a greater Israel view or a greater Palestine view. But many of those on the ships trying to break the blockade were not, by any definition, “peace” activists. Their approach would have been differently perceived if they had rallied against the violence and hatred promoted by Hamas, just as they rallied to end a blockade that seems nonsensical in its current formation.
Though democratically elected, Hamas forcibly imposes its leadership on the people of Gaza. And so we as American Jews find ourselves between a rock and a hard place — for we want to speak out for Israel — but many of us are embarrassed by what happened on the high seas in Israel’s name.
A parshah we read this last month, Shelach Lecha, sheds some light on how we might respond. In this section of the Torah, God tells Moses to send forth scouts to bring back reports from the land of Canaan on whether it is safe for them and whether it can support a people as a true potential harbor for these slaves who had been wandering the wilderness.
Mordecai Adler commented that “The land of Promise was not merely a geographical acquisition, not merely the name of a place. It represented their future. The twelve men were not sent to explore a land: they were sent on a mission to explore the future of a people.”
From this perspective, the scouts’ task was to help the people see what they could become, how they could make the transition from being a nation of slaves into a thriving people settled on a beautiful land. There they could make real the vision of becoming a kingdom of priests, an example to the world of the heights to which humanity could aspire if they embraced a system of values that sees life as holy and filled with joy.
We know, however, that the scouts failed miserably in their mission. The scouts found a land flowing with milk and honey, but then said in the presence of their people it was also filled with fortified cities, and they would be too weak to occupy it. When Joshua and Caleb, who were also among the scouts, proclaimed that they could indeed capture it, the other scouts lost all perspective and proclaimed that, “The country we traversed is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size — giants —and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them!”
That last verse is one of the most oft-quoted verses of Torah — these leaders, given the task of motivating the people to embrace their future instead let their fear speak for them, and then instilled fear in the general populace. Despite Joshua and Caleb’s reassurances, panic set in.
It seems the modern state of Israel, despite the very real threat it faces, is acting like the scouts who came back with bad reports. We know the world is a hard place, that Israel is located in a bad neighborhood, and that there are those who would like to destroy it. But Israel treated the approaching Gaza flotilla convoy as giants, and responded in a way that led to worldwide condemnation when such an occurrence did not need to happen.
Rather than throw up our hands, we American Jews have a positive role to play in supporting our friends in Israel. Like Caleb and Joshua, we can encourage those who truly want to bring about change to keep their eyes on the prize by calling upon the Israeli leadership to engage in a peace offensive — easing restrictions on Palestinians and continuing the dialogue with the American leadership promoting peace negotiations. To be effective we have to challenge the extremists in our midst who don’t want peace, who believe we should continue to rule the Palestinians and build settlements in areas where millions of them live, areas that even Ariel Sharon wanted to concede.
At the same time, we have to say we can have peace but not at the cost of losing our national identity, our right to self defense, and to living in secure borders by challenging those “peace activists” who want to achieve peace by delegitimizing the State of Israel.
Let us call out those who oppose our right to a state — and who claim that Israel is a center of apartheid while supporting regimes surrounding that democratic country in which the only official religion is Islam, where women are oppressed, the Baha’i are persecuted, Christians who intermarry are forced to convert, gays and lesbians are tortured — for what they are: promoters of hate.
Let us proclaim, as did Joshua and Caleb, that we can work for real peace and for real freedom, for Jews and Palestinians living in their own states, in that land so little, but so holy, to so many.
We already see that peace is possible with Arabs in Egypt and Jordan, and know that the Turkish response of disappointment comes out of a country that has made a warm peace with Israel, opened trade ties, and served as a conduit for negotiations with its neighbors.
We can see the possibility for peace even as we remain determined to defend our right as Jews to a sovereign Jewish nation in our homeland.
The Midrash notes that many who supported Joshua and Caleb in the Torah story stayed silent. They did not speak out, and as a result all Israelites over 20 years of age were condemned to die in the wilderness, even those who disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb.
Why? Because they did not speak up. In this important time let us not follow their example. Speaking up in this way is not a form of being critical of Israel — but an embrace of Israel’s future. We can be the vision of hope even in hard times. We can help our people avoid another painful 40 years in the wilderness of conflict.
The gulf oil crisis has reflections of Leviticus in its sheen
Over the past month I have watched with horror as one of the largest environmental disasters unfolds before our eyes. Every day for the past few weeks the news of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to get worse and worse as the story develops: Oil gushing out of the ground at tremendous rates, the estimated amount larger than originally thought, underwater plumes miles long found in addition to the surface sheen, continued failed attempts at containing the spill (some of which involved the injection of chemicals and garbage into the area — as if the oil wasn’t enough), oil making its way to land, the potential to threaten fragile coastline and ecosystems across several states, and the impact to be felt for years to come. We even forget that this disaster already claimed the lives of 11 workers.
As this was happening, we had the opportunity to read in the Torah from the end of Leviticus, parashat Behukkotai: “And if, for all that you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” (26:18-20)
So often in the Torah, the punishment for falling away from God is put in terms relating to the natural world and our relationship to it through agriculture: Do the right thing, you will have your rain and be able to grow all you need. Don’t do the right thing, you will not have rain, the land will suffer, and you will not be able to provide for your needs.
This idea is repeated every day in our liturgy in the second paragraph in the shema, and it is found here in this Leviticus text. It’s tempting to add in “and your seas like oil” following that litany in verse 19, for it is as if we are seeing this passage come to fruition.
With the looming impact on the shoreline and fish habitats, we see that “our land will not yield its produce.” Whether or not we align ourselves with the theology of the Torah — that is, whether or not we see our actions as being directly rewarded or punished by God — we can all agree to the essence of the lesson: Our actions have consequences, and too often a negative action will lead to a negative result.
In this case the parallel is close, as the Torah speaks of an environmental impact and we are seeing an environmental impact. So what is the “sin” of which we are guilty? The answer is found in the same Leviticus passage: “Proud glory.” Our hubris and egotism, which allow us to believe everything on earth is ours for the taking without any regard to the environment, the ecosystem, and the other life with which we share this planet is becoming our downfall. It is vain to think we can take what we want, when we want, from the earth.
Our sin is not remembering that we are part of a larger whole of Creation, and that we must approach this world from a place of humility. We have a gift in that we have land, sea and air that give us what we need to survive and thrive in life. It is our responsibility to see that we use it wisely, in a way that is sustainable for all life both now and in the future. This is the meaning of one of the first commandments in Genesis: “le’avdah u’le’shamrah” — “to work the earth and to guard it.”
The full impact of this spill on the environment may not be known for some time. But we should be able to measure the full impact of it on us immediately. We must reduce consumption, find better ways to generate the energy we need, and be mindful of our role in God’s Creation.
The other day, as my son and I sat in the car at a red light on our way to school, we were treated to an amazing sight. Pulling through the intersection on the main road from the Port of Olympia toward the interstate was a lead car with the “wide load” sign. Then, following, was the load itself: a turbine blade for a windmill, on its way from the port to a wind farm in Eastern Washington. It was amazing not only for its sheer size and its sleek engineering, but also because there before us was the future of energy. A better energy future is possible, and it is our obligation as Jews to help shape it.
Rabbis confirm importance of women’s participation in Orthodox life
That hundreds of rabbis came to the Rabbinical Council of America’s annual convention is not unusual. That they came knowing that the long-anticipated resolution on ordination of women as rabbis and on the role of women in Orthodox communal life was being debated and voted upon was something of which to take note. This resolution marked the culmination of a tumultuous period of several months which were most challenging to Orthodoxy and on a personal level, very trying as well.
Here we are, fresh from having just celebrated the Shavuos festival marking Divine revelation and the giving of the Torah. It is natural to appreciate the words at the very beginning of Pirkei Avos: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the members of the Great Assembly.”
This is the chain of transmission of the Torah, of both the written law and the oral tradition that continues to this very day. This unbroken transmission has sustained our people for millennia including turmoil-filled centuries in the Diaspora.
When Jerusalem was about to fall to the Roman Legions in 70 CE, the Roman general, Vespasian, offered Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai the chance to make a request. When Rabbi Yochanan asked that the academy at Yavneh and its sages be granted salvation, he was criticized by some for asking for something seemingly insignificant. History has demonstrated his wisdom.
Yavneh became the center for Torah study after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was here that Torah flourished and from Yavneh was transmitted to future generations. It is this mesorah, our tradition, passed from generation to generation, that has guaranteed the vibrancy of Jewish life even thousands of years after the destruction of the Temple.
Several months ago, a well-known Orthodox rabbi conferred the title “Rabba” upon a woman, apparently ordaining her. A controversy flared within the Orthodox community. Many predicted a schism within Orthodoxy and a fracturing of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world. Because I serve as president of the RCA, I was immediately thrust into the midst of a very highly charged debate.
Understandably, this discussion attracted the attention of the full spectrum of the Jewish media. What was surprising was the degree to which it captivated the secular media. We were contacted by publications such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine. The storyline was the same for virtually all: A great conflict in Orthodoxy threatened to split the Orthodox Jewish community.
During the ensuing weeks it became essential to preserve the unity of the RCA, an organization of a thousand rabbis representing the full spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, and to prevent a schism within the community. We needed to take a principled stance on this controversial issue to preserve our tradition, while at the same time making it clear we fully endorse and encourage Torah scholarship at the most advanced levels for women. The RCA applauds the creation of meaningful opportunities for positions of stature that are professionally satisfying for learned, committed Jewish women within the community and the synagogue.
Certain changes can occur within traditional Jewish life, but innovations that affect the entire community must be undertaken only with a consensus of the rabbinate, which operates with firm underpinnings within our tradition.
In 1918, Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress from Cracow, Poland, took note of the fact that Jewish women were being exposed to advanced secular education. It was crucial they have the opportunity to study Torah as well. Her response was to establish the Beis Yaakov schools, a network which grew to over 200 schools in Eastern Europe, educating more than 35,000 young women. Her initiative had the approval of leading rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, and Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe.
More recently, leading figures such as Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik advocated for enhanced opportunities for Torah learning for women. Over the last two decades, we have seen the growth of institutions for Torah study for women in the United States and Israel, including programs for the study of Talmud and halachah, Jewish law, on a sophisticated level. The concept of advanced Torah education for women is virtually universally accepted within the Orthodox Jewish world.
The RCA leadership resisted calls to issue statements of condemnation. Instead, we engaged in dialogue. In the course of these conversations the rabbi who had initially granted the title “rabba” made a commitment to not ordain women as rabbis and to not confer such a title. But this alone did not resolve the issue. We appointed a broad-based committee to craft a resolution to be presented for adoption at the annual convention of the RCA. The committee spent two months reaching out to various constituencies for input and crafting a very carefully worded resolution. We hoped to achieve a broad consensus.
This is the text of the resolution presented:
Resolution on Women’s Communal Roles in Orthodox Jewish Life
Adopted Without Dissent by the 51st Convention of The Rabbinical Council of America
1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.
2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness — halachah, hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.
3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of Talmud Torah, yiRabbiat Shamayim, and dikduk be-mitzvot.
The resolution was presented to the convention and was discussed by rabbinic participants for two days. There was open debate and discussion on Monday night. When the vote was taken that night after a lively debate, the resolution passed without opposition. This surpassed our expectations and hopes. A number of rabbis reflected later on the dramatic vote, saying they felt they were part of a historic moment that night. The spirit of goodwill and desire to preserve unity from the right and the left was palpable.
Our sages teach us “gadol hashalom,” great is peace. Although the last few months were fraught with trying moments, there is great satisfaction and privilege to have played a role in a significant moment in Orthodox Jewish life.
Just as in the Torah, to each his own place
As my first name suggests, I was born in France. The France I grew up in offered only one Jewish denomination, one form of practicing Judaism: Orthodoxy. For French Jews like my parents, practicing Judaism was virtually an all-or-nothing endeavor. My parents were uncomfortable — to say the least — with most Jewish Orthodox practices. As Jews firmly grounded in modern French secular culture, they restricted their Jewish celebrations to Passover and Yom Kippur, the purpose of which was to get together with extended family twice a year.
As a good rebellious teenager, I decided to embrace Orthodox Judaism, to the utter dismay of my entire family. I practiced modern Orthodoxy through my teens and into my 20s both in France and, later, in Israel, where I emigrated after graduating from high school. Jewish Orthodoxy was not only all I had ever known, it was all I ever knew existed.
You can imagine my surprise then, when, having moved to the U.S. in my late 20s, I discovered numerous denominations available to American Jews. I was stunned! I found myself wondering, “How would Jewish life have been different for my parents — for French Jews in general? Would they have found it easier to attend synagogue had such diversity been available in my youth?”
It soon became apparent, however, that the pluralism I had found so refreshing does not necessarily foster harmony. Many conversations taught me that the norm of existing discourse within the American Jewish community is that of discord. Members of the more “liberal” denominations disparage the more traditional ones, while the latter criticize the practices — or lack thereof, in their opinion — of the former. Those in the liberal camp are accused of being accomplices to the growing number of intermarriages — raising the specter of Jewish disappearance — while those in the Orthodox camp are decried as being anachronistically patriarchal and stuck in an irrelevant isolationist past — raising the same specter.
The list of grievances continues from all sides, ad nauseam. Ultimately, everyone believes his or her particular way of practicing Judaism is the correct and authentic way. Most — in the name of political correctness — would not publicly admit as much; nevertheless, our Jewish Home is deeply divided.
Where might this divisiveness lead us? The Talmud offers us one particularly dark possibility: “Why… was the second Temple — wherein the society was involved in Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness — destroyed? Because gratuitous hatred was rampant in society.” [Yoma 9b]
We have yet to reach this level of contention. Thankfully, even amid great internal rumblings, the House of Jacob is not on the brink of collapse. We might be displeased or uncomfortable with the ways others choose to practice Judaism, but that is a far cry from hatred. Perhaps in our generation we have the opportunity to offer an alternative ending to that of the Talmud’s; we can seed a different vision for the unfolding of the Jewish story, if we heed a profound teaching gleaned from of this week’s Torah portion: Bamidbar.
Bamidbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, “the Eternal spoke to Moses… saying: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…’” [Num. 1:1-2] There, through the census, every tribe is accounted for, each one given a place in the composition of the community as it is about to march through the wilderness. The metaphor of the wilderness, itself, is most telling. Here is a space welcoming of all and belonging to no one. In this space we are able to receive Torah, or metaphorically speaking, to awaken to the most fundamental teachings. This is the spiritual space all of us always travel through. The marching tribes of our ancestors could represent, in our days, both the multiple denominations of modern Judaism, and those of us non-denominational Jews; all wandering through the midbar together. If we are to pay attention to this aspect of this week’s teaching, not only do all of us, affiliated or not, need to be counted as part of the “Israelite community,” but all of us need the unique space we take up in the arrangement of the tribes — in the breadth of Judaism — to be recognized and affirmed by all others, as we march through the midbar as one people.
Trouble begins when we believe we own The Truth. No one does. Rather, each of our denominations expresses a whole but partial truth. By “whole” I mean that, deeply grounded in our convictions, steeped in our unique form of practices and worldview, we hold an absolutely valid and necessary form of Jewish expression — a whole truth. But our truth is also part of a greater whole, the whole we call Judaism. And therefore, it is a partial truth on the spectrum of truths that make up Judaism. This is why I believe all the denominations are needed.
The congregation I personally gravitated toward, and of which I now lead, is Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue. Though founded by a Reform Rabbi — Rabbi Ted Falcon — Bet Alef is an independent congregation. As a Jew, I am blessed with being able to find a community that matches my current spiritual orientation and preference. Not only that, but as an evolving human being, I am also well aware that different times in my life may call me to different forms of practice, and, therefore, to different denominations.
In our Torah portion, the Hebrew words usually translated as “take a census,” literally mean: “lift the head.” By accounting for the entire range of denominations, by counting us all as integral whole-parts of the modern Israelite community, we restore the pride and sense of belonging of all Jews, and allow all to hold their heads up high. As we wander through the wilderness, each other’s presence enhances the remarkable experience of being Jewish. May we be able to find within our hearts the benevolent love that will unite our people in the essential acceptance of our differences, here in America, and most critically in our time, in the land of Israel.
Taking a moment to stop and smell the flowers of our Jewishness can yield intellectual and spiritual treasures
I received in my e-mail inbox a link to a fascinating YouTube video: A violinist playing at a subway station in a Washington, D.C. Metro stop. What was interesting was that this was somewhat of an experiment or, more accurately, a “gentleman’s wager” (an un-PC expression for a dollar-less bet).
This was not your typical street musician looking to pick up an extra buck or two. It was Joshua Bell, world-renowned concert violinist, playing solo Bach partitas during rush hour. The bet was around the question of whether anyone would pay any attention and notice extraordinarily beautiful music being played by a consummate concert artist.
Guess who won the bet? The person who bet there would be significant numbers of passersby who would stop in their busy lives and take notice — akin to us Seattleites noticing “when the mountain’s out” even while driving to work in agonizingly slow rush hour traffic on 520 — lost.
Sure, one or two people stopped and dropped quarters into Bell’s violin case, a case that cradles a violin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars! But the video revealed countless passersby not paying any discernible notice to the artistry and beauty right in front of them. (Subway stations often have quite good acoustics, by the way, albeit a bit too echo-y.)
This interesting story of human obliviousness to beauty or, let’s say generously, obliviousness to beauty out of context, seemed to me a Midrashic parable, or what our sages called a “mashal.” Explanation/digression: Rabbinic midrashic parables are stories our sages created to explicate or explain a usually challenging narrative in the Torah, essentially interpreting one narrative by means of another, apparently more accessible one.
The “Joshua Bell in the Subway Tale” occurred to me as a “mashal” of many of our people’s response to Jewish life these days in the U.S. Here we have something of extraordinary beauty and power, attested to by its adherents throughout the history of this culture and this people, being ignored, passed by; our people too busy or oblivious or otherwise occupied to stop, observe, and appreciate. (Confession: I’m a snob, which means I don’t believe that music or other great art is simply a matter of personal taste. Beethoven, or in this case, Bach, is simply better, greater music than Led Zeppelin or whatever goofy noise teenagers listen to nowadays. Mozart is even much greater than Abbey Road, a noisy album even an old snob like me can appreciate!). But, parentheses aside, I also don’t believe that Shabbat or Pesach or “Shnayim ochazin b’talit” (the provocative opening mishna of Bava Metzia discussing the dispute between two litigants laying apparently equal claim to a found object, but pick any other nearly infinitely fascinating and compelling teachings from the wellsprings of Torah, both written and oral) are equal to whatever is “out there” in the marketplace of ideas and sensations competing for Jewish time, Jewish energy, Jewish wisdom.
On an aesthetic plane, I suppose one could argue whether Shabbat is more moving or beautiful than hearing Joshua Bell play Mozart. But Jewish life is not about aesthetics, a value we inherit somewhat from Classical Greece, though aesthetics play an important but limited role in traditional Judaism. Indeed, so much of Jewish life deals with ways of living one’s life and how a community should ideally live in “holiness.”
Jewish tradition concerns itself so often with limits. This emphasis on limits may be the core problem as to why so many pass by its beauty, opting for whatever else. Much of the message of our Wikipedia, cable TV with 700-plus channels, Google culture eschews limits. We celebrate freedom, bordering on an unbridled if not anarchic freedom.
The entire corpus of Jewish life and law embraces norms and rhythms of permitted and forbidden, kosher and non-kosher, categories of work and rest, pure and impure; the word kadosh/holy has as its root meaning “separation.” It is similar to classical music, with its rigors of form, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, yet mysteriously facilitating and providing a platform and framework for genius — in addition to the significant technical facility required to bring a score, a written code, to life. In addition to the discomfiting fit between authentic Jewish concepts of holiness — not the spiritual, superficial fluff of “holiness” as some sort of disembodied or out-of-body experience — and popular culture, the misfit is also expressed by the disconnected if not narcissistic self (cf. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) in contrast to this collective identity known as “the Jewish people” or, classically, “Knesset Yisrael/Klal Yisrael.”
This reminds me of the wicked son’s question at the Pesach seder: “What’s all this to you, not him.” He denies his involvement in the collective Jewish experience of redemption and thus — and here’s the point — he denies a fundamental truth of Judaism.
The sages of the Haggadah declare one of their most serious opprobriums on this wicked one: He is a “kopher b’ikkar,” a denier of the essence of Judaism. Probably, more accurately, an essence, since there is considerable, ongoing dispute as to what the essence or ikkar of Judaism is. By denying the centrality of the collective Jewish people, elevating himself as an individual over the collective, he is deemed a heretic. (Oh, how modernity hates the word heresy; again, the culture-conflict between an unbridled individualism and a collective with norms and standards.)
Many devote their professional lives to reversing or stemming this seemingly inexorable march of assimilation. Assimilation accompanied by low birthrates and high rates of perpetual “passing by” (read: “opting out”). In many ways, the challenges of cultivating a classical musical audience are parallel to those facing Jewish professionals and organizations. Attend a typical Seattle Symphony or opera or chamber music concert — and we are truly blessed in this city by these wonderful world-class organizations and many other “minor” ones — and you’ll see what advocates observe as the “graying of the audience.” Many wonder where the next generation of devotees will come from once all these gray heads — and I count myself proudly among this “wise” elite — are no more.
And the “assimilation” or, more accurately, attrition is a serious problem. On the other hand, the concerns about the next generation both among classical music advocates and Jewish communal leaders are decades old. I recall reading a 1954 study conducted by the American Jewish Committee about the crisis of continuity, the lack of effective Jewish education, the ongoing disaster of assimilation and intermarriage, even if rates back then were much lower than the current roughly 50 percent. Sometimes I think we Jews just love a crisis mentality, even if the crisis is real. It’s the mentality, the drama, the “oy vey!” that we Jews so love. As noted Jewish historian, formerly of the UW faculty, Deborah Lipstadt famously quipped, “We Jews never fail to find the cloud in the silver lining.”
For those of us at the Samis Foundation, devoted to Jewish education and the continuity of the Jewish people, what other choice is there but to invest in effective Jewish education? We are truly blessed in our community to have such wonderful day schools and camps for those families possessing the wisdom and insight to not just “pass by” our glorious tradition. Even if we were not facing a crisis, which we Jews seem to so enjoy masochistically, this is the legacy Sam Israel bequeathed to the Jewish community of Washington State. If only more would pause for a moment and not just pass by, but stop and listen to this achingly beautiful way of life, which has sustained our people for 4,000 years.
Suggestions for creating a meaningful, fruitful dialogue on Middle East peace
I’ve heard it now from three different congregations: “Rabbi, how can we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our community? Everyone has such strong opinions that we fear a conversation on this topic would be too divisive. Yet it seems to us that we should talk about it. We need to be able to talk about it!”
It seems as if everyone has opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re an opinionated people. For us as Jews, this cuts close to home because it is about family and, when we discuss it amongst ourselves, we tend to feel divisions even more deeply and react more strongly than we would on almost any other issue — sometimes in very destructive ways.
Let me offer you my own journey: I grew up in a Canadian Reform Jewish home. I am first generation; we lost all our extended family in the Holocaust. We were strongly Zionist and saw Israel as the Jewish homeland, a dream come true, a haven if ever it was needed. For us, life stopped in 1967 and again in 1973, when Israel seemed threatened with extinction.
In 1973-74, I went to China on a Canadian government scholarship. My school in Beijing had students from all over the world. I met my first Palestinians and other Arabs there and for the first time heard the story of 1948 from their perspective. It was shocking to hear Israel described from their point of view.
I came to see Palestinian history as a mirror image of ours. Where we triumphed, they were defeated; where we celebrated independence, they mourned their tragic loss; where we built up the land, they lost their homes and property. Their stories humanized “the other” for me. I realized that “the enemy” had a human face; and that while some were indeed murderers, terrorists, and so on, most were ordinary men and women, just like us, struggling to survive in a hostile situation.
I came to understand that there are two rights in this conflict, not one right and one wrong. Sadly, advocates on both sides would have us — and the rest of the world — choose sides and decide whose right is superior. That is the way toward continued conflict, war and suffering.
Never again could I look at the conflict only from a political perspective, or a religious perspective, or any other perspective. Any solution, I now believed, had to begin and end with real human beings, our people and their people.
I believe we should always put the people first. By doing so we can focus on real human issues, such as access to water, housing, land rights and human suffering that can be worked on — and are being worked on — even in the absence of progress on the diplomatic level. Of course, all these things are politicized in the Middle East, but by putting the people first we can keep our priorities straight.
Ultimately, it is the people who live there who will make the decisions; it is they who will live with the consequences. But we do have voices and we can advise and cajole — not just our people but theirs, too. Not just Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but our government and other governments and the UN as well. I think that, as Jews, we ought to be pro-Israeli, pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-humanity.
What can I say that would be different and possibly helpful in your efforts to engage one another in dialogue? Here are some suggestions:
• Begin by hearing the story of the other, painful though it may be, false though it may ring to your ear. Accept it for what it is. Realize that it is not disloyal or dangerous to hear this point of view.
• Hope that your openness to the other is reciprocated. If it isn’t, that is their issue, not yours. As Jews, we are commanded to hear another’s grievance for alleged wrongdoing. I’m thinking of the commandments regarding giving and receiving criticism, but you can also recall the High Holy Day practice of hearing other people’s complaints against you and asking for forgiveness.
We are also urged by Hillel not to judge others until we stand in their place. This is our obligation, not theirs. All we can do is hope and pray that people on the other side will grow to become more open and sympathetic to our story as well.
• Realize that hearing different points of view, especially those within our own community, is good. Israel itself is stronger for its vibrant democracy, not weaker, and we should emulate the spirit of honest criticism and dialogue that informs its society — although we would do well to avoid the strong emotions that often accompany their debates.
Those who urge silence or seek to enforce conformity do neither Israel nor American Jewry any good, whether they stand on the right or the left. We’re just talking and that is good; it is healthy.
• Always strive to be respectful of the other person’s perspective. Again, we are taught: Judge your fellow on the side of merit — meaning don’t denigrate another person’s opinion by impugning their loyalty to the Jewish people or their alleged lack of empathy for others. Remember, our sages taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the groundless hatred that existed among Jews of that era.
Just as the Talmud honors diverse opinions and records dissenting opinions along with majority decisions, so too should we allow all views to be heard and aired.
Look for overarching points of unity with one another. Accentuate the positive. Repeat what we share in common on this issue as often as needed to remind ourselves that all Israel is connected one to the other.
• Unless your organization is a politically based group and advocates a specific stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, make it a safe haven that welcomes a variety of points of view. Many venues for political action exist on the right or the left, but not every organization needs to be politically involved. Instead, create a space that allows members to learn from one another, to formulate opinions, to listen to diverse points of view, and to debate in good spirit. If and when there is a political crisis, then you can choose how to get engaged.
• Finally, we shouldn’t be so darned serious about it all. Whether you are for one state, two states, or three, it doesn’t matter. These are just opinions. There are many miles between here and Jerusalem. What we say here, I guarantee you, has no effect whatsoever over there. The world will continue as before; the U.S.-Israeli relationship will remain strong; Israel will survive. So try not to feel threatened; try not to get upset. Enjoy the debate for what it is. Now let’s go out and have some good old argumentative, Jewish-style fun.
Rabbi Anson Laytner is the interim rabbi of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah.
A once-in-a-century trip to a forbidden chamber yields little treasure, but a worthwhile experience
In late February, my 15-year-old son Jacob and I had an adventure neither of us will ever forget: We visited the Cairo Genizah.
Jewish law forbids the disposal of sacred Jewish sacred texts. Instead, when, say, a Torah scroll or a prayerbook becomes unusable, we bury it, or we store them in a genizah — usually an attic or cellar in a synagogue set aside as a repository for damaged and destroyed Jewish documents. Usually, Jewish communities empty their genizah from time to time and transfer the documents to the local cemetery. Usually, but not always.
In 1897, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, then of Cambridge University, entered the genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. There he found a massive trove of documents unlike any other. The Cairo genizah contained approximately 300,000 individual manuscripts — Torah scrolls, Talmud fragments, letters, medical prescriptions, court records, poetry, and much more. It held several of Maimonides’ handwritten documents, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known piece of Jewish sheet music, and countless other similar treasures. It was the largest discovery of medieval manuscripts ever made, before or since.
Schechter removed most of the documents and brought them back to Cambridge, and the last of them were removed from the genizah by 1911. Since then, the Ben Ezra synagogue has been renovated and the Egyptian government now runs it as a tourist site. However — as far as I know — there have been no reported visits to the genizah chamber itself since 1911, and nobody has ever photographed it.
A couple of years ago, I decided to write a book about the Cairo genizah, and I thought it would be good if I could see the room for myself. All I needed, of course, was permission to go there and see it. No problem, right?
Wrong. It took literally hundreds of e-mails and phone calls to people all over the world before I was able to get the needed authorization. It finally came in the form of an e-mail from Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. I could enter the genizah and, for a hefty fee, I could also take whatever photos and videos I wanted.
Friends warned me that permission was one thing, but actually succeeding in my mission was quite another.
“Many people come to Egypt with big plans,” a Cairo resident told me, “and Egypt laughs.”
Another friend warned me to be careful.
“There are groups who won’t want you to go there,” she said, “and you will be under constant government surveillance from the moment you arrive.”
And so, in late February, Expedition Genizah commenced. Jacob and I first traveled to Cambridge, where we saw many of the 193,000 manuscripts that Solomon Schechter brought from Cairo. We visited Solomon Schechter’s former homes, as well as other sites connected with the genizah story, and ate enough fish ’n’ chips to clog our arteries forever.
From there, we continued to Cairo, and on February 28, we visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
We were met at the synagogue by Gamal Moustafa, a high-ranking official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He showed us up to the women’s balcony, pointed to a small opening high on the wall, and instructed a worker to set up a ladder in front of it. When I climbed to the top of the ladder, the bottom ledge of the genizah entryway was at the level of my chest. I looked inside, and saw…nothing. It was pitch black!
“Can I go inside?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mr. Moustafa.
“Do you have a higher ladder?”
“No,” he replied. “Can you jump?”
Jump? Well, the entry was pretty high. But I’d been working at this project for a couple of years, and I wasn’t about to let mere wimpiness keep me out of the genizah now! Yes, with a good push of the arms and a fluid swing of my leg over the ledge, I could make it. Sure….
But then Mr. Moustafa added a catch. The synagogue had been restored in the late 1990s, vividly repainted in its original colors.
“But when you jump,” he said, “just don’t touch the wall.”
Finally, I had to acknowledge that I could never pass as a genizah gymnast.
“Uh…are you sure you don’t have a higher ladder?”
To my great relief, they did have a more genizah-friendly ladder. As they were getting it, I remembered that, on the keychain in my pocket, I had a tiny flashlight. Being careful so as not to fall, I reached into my pocket, got the flashlight, shined it into the genizah, and got the biggest surprise of our entire trip.
“There’s no floor!”
There was a floor, of course, but it wasn’t just two or three feet beneath the threshold where I’d expected it to be. No, it was down a good 15 feet or more beneath the entryway. If I had gone ahead and jumped into the genizah as Mr. Moustafa suggested, I would have plummeted down to certain injury and possible death.
Wouldn’t that have been a story?
Of course, Mr. Moustafa wasn’t trying to get me killed (I don’t think) — in fact, he was very helpful and accommodating. It’s just that nobody — not even he — had been up in that room in decades. He knew as little as I did about what we would find.
In the end, the genizah was empty, save for a couple of curious items on the floor that I will describe in my book. But as I peered into it, I was able to imagine the genizah as it once was — filled with centuries’ worth of literary gold, the accumulated words and wisdom of a once-great Jewish community whose descendants are now spread like dust to the four corners of the world.
Expedition Genizah also brought us to New York, where we saw more manuscripts, and, just as in Cairo and Cambridge, we met with fascinating scholars and visited genizah-related sites.
For both Jacob and me, Expedition Genizah was, as I said, an adventure we will never forget.
A mantra, a meditation, a reminder of what’s behind this entire Jewish enterprise
We exist to be loved because the dominant “flavor” of God is love — it must be dynamic and flow in order to flower. And while there is almost nothing our finite minds can truly grasp of His infinite nature, we do know that he is perfectly complete, needing nothing from outside Himself to be complete, that, ultimately, He is unknowable, but that He is the source of and definition of all Goodness.
A lover wants only the best for the beloved, and since the ultimate goodness is defined as God Himself, we’re given the seemingly impossible opportunity to, as finite beings, approach ever so closely to the Infinite Goodness. And nearness, spiritually, rather than physically, speaking, is resemblance.
So we’re given the opportunity to imitate the Creator. We can do this by becoming creators ourselves, generating our closeness rather than merely receiving it like some sort of cosmic welfare. We are given free choice to, at each moment, consciously and actively, independently move ourselves ever closer.
So the universe is created incomplete and we’re placed in it with the opportunity to partner in the finishing touches, bringing the world to its own perfect completeness. Tikkun olam is not merely restricted to helping others, to protecting the physical environment or any other specific set of tasks that might seem urgent at the time, although it does include all of these and more. But it really means each of us uses our unique gifts and vision to facilitate the ultimate perfection. This becomes clearer as we remember that “olam,” world or universe, has several meanings. What we usually call the world is, more specifically, olam gadol, the greater world. But there is also “olam katan,” the small world, actually many of them — each individual human. This is the teaching that whoever saves a life is like one who creates the world. So we work, simultaneously, healing and completing both the olam gadol and the olam katan. When we learn “as above, so below,” we’re really talking about the power generated as we heal and integrate our own personalities, as we refine ourselves as lovers and creators.
Much is beyond our vision and understanding, but which, nonetheless, is part of Creation. So in addition to those actions whose effects we can seemingly observe and understand, the empirical, there is also a lot which we can, at best, intuit, and if not, only “take on faith.”
But there is no “blind faith” in Judaism. Emunah, faith or belief — related to “amen” — is based on the same root as “omanut,” craft. Our mandate is to slowly craft our own beliefs, each a work in progress.
So we have to work to accept, understand and, finally, believe that even while most of Creation is beyond our conception, it remains within our influence. And tikkun olam extends to this realm as well.
There are both actions that make sense and those which defy or transcend “sense” — both the logical and the trans-rational, and each can and must further the project of bringing the world to its perfect completion.
Step back a moment. Take ourselves out of the centers of our universes, admit our own finitude, and we begin to see more than when we relied only on our own senses. “Reishet chochmah, yirat Hashem,” the beginning of wisdom is seeing that there is an Infinite and Transcendent.
And remember, this Infinite Transcendent God acts only for the Good, for our good. “More than the calf wants milk, the cow wants to nurse.” We’re meant to succeed.
We’re given the tools to operate in the empirical, “rational” world. We have sense organs coupled with sense, the ability to process information. Much of what needs to be done in the world can be learned through this channel.
But our work in the invisible, transcendent world beyond our conception requires a map, advice and guidance. But to accept and trust these gifts, remember the source and the motivation of them, which is love. This enables us to trust, to do things that evade everyday reasoning: Mitzvot, in a word.
So we can now view those perplexing mitzvot as pathways toward the tikkunim we’re not able to directly understand. They’re not arbitrary, nor intended to turn us into regimented, unthinking robots, but rather to enhance our unique effectiveness, our sensitivity, our capacity to love. We might not understand the exact mechanism. We don’t have to.
Just as the Creator desires our perfect completion, we work to create that same perfection in the unfinished world, both in ways we can determine for ourselves and in ways we accept with loving trust.
Of course, we can analyze and examine this to the finest detail. Like our individual emunah (faith), like our efforts in tikkun, like the world itself, it’s a work in progress. They’re all works in progress, each of us, the world we share, the infinite realms of reality we can’t even directly perceive.
By saying we’re the key, we’re not in any way saying the world is ours to exploit, to destroy, to use as we wish. Although we do have the power to destroy much, our ultimate role, once again, is to bring it all, our individual unique selves included, to its finest state.
Then we’re truly the creative partners of the Creator. We’re as close to that transcendent being as possible, connected and receiving the flow of great love, which was the original goal.
A mantra, a meditation, a reminder. We’re here to do our best, to be our finest, and to then ultimately enjoy just being, in the eternal moment, basking in that Source of all light, all good, all love.
To paraphrase Hillel, the rest is details. Come and learn.
Fear and loathing of gays and lesbians in the past doesn’t jibe with the reality — and our laws should reflect that
Some days while driving to a downtown meeting or hospital, I listen to KTTH-AM 770, “The Truth” ‘— Seattle radio’s offering of conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, and Michael Medved. Other days I tune into Seattle’s progressive FM radio station, KPTK-AM 1090, with the lesser-known but equally vitriolic Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, and Ed Schultz. I’m not schizophrenic, but I am very interested in hearing opinions, not only at both ends of my radio dial, but also at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Whether you place your own self to the left, right or center of the American political spectrum, I think it is wise to listen to the arguments of “the other side.”
As I mentioned the last time I wrote in this space, my own parents were very conservative Republicans and observant Reform Jews — all in all, quite a rare species in any Jewish community. While most members in my childhood synagogue favored Democrats, labor unions, and more government spending to care for the poor, my parents espoused fiscal and individual responsibility along with lighting Shabbat candles weekly, regular Friday night and Shabbat morning service attendance, and a fully kosher Pesach. Because of this upbringing it always was and remains clear to me that Jews can be part of any political party and favor the rantings of Rush or Thom.
But there was one element of my upbringing that I never could reconcile with Judaism or politics. From day one, my parents taught my sisters and I that homosexuality was an abomination and that we should avoid homosexuals whenever we met them. It was certainly easy enough to avoid contact in my 1960s small town, as no gay or lesbian person of that time would have dreamed of identifying him or herself publicly. As a child, I did possess a funny image in my head that I might find myself walking down the street, minding my own business, and pictured what it might be like to suddenly find myself face to face with a homosexual — though I wasn’t quite clear what one looked like. I worried, though, that I would have to cross the street in order to honor my father and my mother! In the time and place where I grew up, fear and loathing of sexual minorities was shared by pretty much everyone. School children of liberal Democrats along with everyone else used terrible anti-gay invective on the school playground. I can honestly say that I never did use that pejorative term or understand the anger or the energy of the anger directed at sexual minorities.
Today, denial of full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender individuals and couples to serve in the military and to get married has become increasingly identified with a more conservative political stance. As it has become more acceptable for LGBT individuals to live openly, many more of us have come to know them personally as who they are rather than from the stories we were told as children.
We Jews are well aware that it becomes harder for others to believe that all Jews have horns once they meet us and find out that we don’t. (The time I spent in a rural college in Kentucky helped sort this issue out for numerous undergrads at that school). So, too, once we come to know an excellent person who happens to be gay; and once we find out that the amazing physician who saved our life is a lesbian; and once we get to know a stable, middle class family with family values like our own who happens to have two moms or two dads, it becomes tougher for us to continue to see them as the sexual deviants or marriage destroyers that society has portrayed them to be.
Because of my upbringing, I don’t think that people who think differently than me on this issue are awful or evil. I do think it is time for people of all faiths and all political parties to understand that in order for America to remain the great country it is, sexual minorities— just like women; just like Jews; just like African-Americans— must have exactly the same rights and responsibilities as all citizens of this country.
By now it should be clear that the ancient biblical prohibitions against sex between males (the Torah has no opinion on sex between women) fall into the same category as the obligation to stone to death the wayward and rebellious son. Orthodox law may decide that it cannot sanction kiddushin, marriage under the chuppah, while other branches of Judaism do embrace kiddushin for Jewish marriages regardless of sexual identity. The beauty of our country is that it makes room for all of these individual religious expressions while simultaneously upholding the rights of all citizens.
One can be an excellent conservative Republican or liberal Democrat, and one can be an observant or any kind of Jew and, as Americans, we can all recognize the full rights and responsibilities of LGBT individuals and couples to serve our country and attain the sanctity of marriage in their lifelong partnerships.
The many different ways to understand Torah better help us to find God
Shalom Aleichem. I am the “New guy in town,” so I want to introduce myself. I am a retired Navy officer and disabled veteran. After I retired from the Navy in January 2001, I attended Gratz College near Philadelphia to study Jewish Studies and Jewish Education. Subsequently, I attended the Academy for Jewish Religion (http://www.ajrsem.org) in Riverdale, N.Y. AJR is the country’s first and oldest pluralistic, non-denominational seminary for rabbis and cantors. Many Jews are not so easily categorized by a denomination, and so we set out to serve K’lal Yisrael in whatever way we can. If you are curious about pluralistic Judaism, or in finding out more about an alternative to one of the big seminaries, please visit AJR’s Web site for more information.
I grew up as a disaffected Jew and only got the “spark of Judaism” about 15 years ago. There are myriad Jews in our communities who feel disaffected like I was, and it is our job to bring them together. Our tradition teaches that all Jewish souls, whether embodied or unborn, stood together at Sinai for the receipt of Torah. So it is very important for us to revisit Sinai in each generation.
This Shabbat we will be reading parashat Mishpatim, arguably one of the most important sections in Sefer Shemot, The Book of Exodus. This parashah includes many laws dealing with how to treat people. Hillel, the great Talmudic sage, pointed out that how we treat others is Torah, and the rest is commentary which we should go and learn. Thus our parashah can be seen as getting to the very heart of Torah.
While there are many fascinating and surprising things in our parashah, I would like to explore a very strange thing happens toward the end. To put it into perspective, we must skip ahead to Shemot (33:20) where God says to Moses: “You cannot see my face because a person cannot see me and live.” Yet, in today’s parashah, we see, (24:9ff) “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain); and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the appearance of something built of sapphire, and it was like the essence of the purity of the Heavens.”
So, how do we understand this? God has said that no one can see God and live, yet here, Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the 70 elders of Israel actually did see God? Most of the commentaries say this was a vision of prophecy. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, takes it head-on. He said they deserved death, but God did not want to destroy the festive mood, so they all died later on in other incidents. We certainly see the record of their later deaths, starting with Nadav and Avihu with their strange sacrifice and ending with Moses himself at the end of Deuteronomy.
The number 70, in biblical studies, represents an approximation of a large number. We had a large number of elders go up with Moses, Aaron and his sons. The number 70, in Jewish tradition, has another meaning as well: The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15/16) states the Torah has 70 faces. This is interpreted to mean that there are myriad ways of understanding Torah. If we apply this meaning to our 70 elders, the result is that in each generation we have myriad Jewish leaders, all with different ways of understanding things.
This is the heart of pluralistic Judaism — that we have many Jewish traditions. Some of those traditions are well defined, others less so. The job of a pluralistic rabbi is to reach out to those Jews not being served by the boundaries we find in our modern Jewish denominations. For instance, I have felt through my journey that I am a Conservative Jew. But at the same time, I am not comfortable with everything the Conservative movement stands for. This ultimately led me to the academy. I am quite sure many out there would feel the same way I do.
I should point out however, that dissatisfaction with a movement is a small part of why Jews are alienated. Many people, some of whom I know very closely, have asked me the question, “Where is God now?” We had all the trials of the Middle Ages, only to then suffer the Holocaust as well as September 11, Darfur, and on and on. How could a just God allow these things to happen? Why didn’t God “put His foot down” and stop these people from doing their horrible acts?
I think it is clear that God does not look like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I don’t believe in that God; I believe in the God that has given us freedom of choice. It is our responsibility to act decisively when we see something wrong going on. How many of us walk past a homeless person on the street, uncomfortably shifting our eyes to avoid making contact, instead of giving him a dollar? When we do, we miss the opportunity to see God. But when we stop and hand the person a little money and greet that person with a smile, we have made God appear.
So, let’s make God appear for us. Let’s reach out to disaffected Jews, and take action when people are being hurt or oppressed. Only when we all do this will God appear for us. One tradition teaches that if every Jew would just keep one Shabbat together, Mashiach would come. I think we need to look at this differently. So my blessing is that we get new glasses that allow us to see and correct the ills being done to society, and to bring in the disaffected Jews. Only then will we re-join Moses, Aaron and the rest, seeing God through the sapphire.
The natural way of death and burial
When we hear the words death and burial, we don’t usually think of “green” or “natural,” but these four words are becoming linked more often these days. To many of us — both religiously observant Jews and secular humanistic Jews — these words bring a measure of hope and consideration to our endangered planet, even here in the United States.
Many centuries ago, while our ancestors were wandering the arid lands on the other side of the earth, others were hiking through heavily forested stands of trees or trying to comprehend the symbolism and purpose of huge stands of stone and rock in various parts of their ever-expanding world.
When their loved ones died from illness, old age, or as a result of wounds from battles with other wanderers or other nations, shallow graves were dug and marked with stones and rocks as a signal that a once-living human body lay underneath the soil or sand, and care should be taken to leave the space intact as a token of respect.
Centuries ago our planet’s population hadn’t yet made much of a dent on the earth’s landscape, so there wasn’t a pressing need for conservation of crop-producing land, forests, pure water and clean air. No one stumbled over rows of upright headstones as monuments to the dead, no burial plots marked off with linked chains. Nowhere to be found were the now-ubiquitous perfect plastic flowers or live plants blooming in cellophane-wrapped plastic pots.
Most of us understand we are at a crossroads with regard to the survival of this planet and its people. We’ve reached the point where we must re-examine our closely held and all-too-often selfish customs that now negatively affect the air we must breathe and the water we must drink. Now is the time for us to look back and make some thoughtful changes before we plunge ahead into the future.
A good place to begin — since our aging population soon will outnumber our “young” population — is with our current end-of-life customs: Death and burial, the disposal of our lifeless bodies.
My personal feelings about this modern dilemma are that if more people — including Jews — learned more about planet-healthy end-of-life decisions and engaged in open-minded discussions with their families and friends — and with each other — we’d be on our way to making this planet a healthier place for us and for our descendants to live.
Here’s a conversation starter for you to get discussions going: What does a natural burial mean to you? To your adult children? To your parents? To your siblings? To your aunts, uncles, cousins? To your friends and neighbors? To your local mortuary, funeral home or parlor, or cemetery?
Before you begin these conversations, check your dictionaries, use the “Google tab” on your computer, or go to your library to get yourself up-to-date regarding these terms. Look for and read the following: Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris (Scribner 2007); Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, (Collins, a special imprint of Harper Collins, 2006). These books provide lots of food for thought and discussion about planet-friendly approaches to caring for deceased loved ones — and how you might want to be cared for when it’s your turn to die.
As for me, I’ve left clear and concise instructions for who I want to sit vigil with me before, during and after I die (members of my family and my friends); who I want to care for my body immediately after I die (members of my family and my friends rather than strangers — much more emotionally and psychologically healthy for those left to mourn), and how I want my remains to be disposed of: No embalming, wrapped in a simple shroud and placed directly into the ground. In other words, a “green/natural” burial.
There will be no cement grave liners, no outrageously expensive metal casket that would take many years to decompose.
Such burial sites are hard to find in the state of Washington. In fact, there is only one “green” burial site west of the Cascades, and not more than a handful throughout the rest of the country. It’s called The Meadow and it’s located in Ferndale, near Bellingham.
Many books are available on the topics of death and dying, prayers for the dead, and rituals for the mourners. Unfortunately, these books lack information, comforting words and rituals for secular humanistic Jews, although information and assistance may be available through a search of the Society for Humanistic Judaism Web site or the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations’ Web site. Or, better yet, simply contact the Secular Jewish Circle in Seattle at 206-528-5244.
Barbara H. Brandt received Madricha/Vegvayzer certification in 1988 by the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews.
What are we doing today to help us reach our goals in the future?
Your list of wishes and hopes for the coming year are probably exactly the same as mine. No doubt high on that list are the important “big ones:” Peace in Israel and the world at large, financial stability, safety in our communities, and health and happiness in our personal lives.
But security and stability are not all that we wish for. It is only natural that we should want to keep growing, advancing beyond our current position. And so we also worry about such things as which school to choose for our children’s education and future possibilities; who should we include in our own circle of friends;
are we where we need to be at this point and stage in life; when will we have enough to retire and finally relax, and so on.
For me, the answer to these weighty questions is one word: Action. What are we actually doing today that will enable that growth to happen? Are we maximizing the possibilities of today?
A few days ago, I visited with Alexander, a 9-year-old patient at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Unfortunately, Alexander has many medical complications and is fighting with every fragile part of his body just to stay alive. I was there to give strength, love and support to him and to his family. What actually happened was just the opposite. This amazing, precious child taught me a lesson of life that I will never forget. Watching him fight for every moment of living made me appreciate the immense gift of life given by God to each of us.
One of our great sages was Rabbi David ben Solomon, known as Radvaz. He was one of those exiled from Spain in 1492 during the period of the Spanish Inquisition. Radvaz was asked the following question: A Jew had been cruelly imprisoned by the local nobleman, and after much pleading, the nobleman agreed to release him from jail for one day each year. The Jew was now in a quandary. What day should he choose? Should he ask for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year? Perhaps Passover should be the day, so that during the holiday of freedom he could join with his family and community? Or maybe it should be Hanukkah, the festival of lights?
Radvaz responded that he should seize the first possible opportunity to leave prison and engage in a mitzvah that could not be performed in jail, because when one has that opportunity one should not put it off. The most important day of the year is today!
We live for a purpose, and we are truly alive when we fulfill that purpose. As Jews, we are summoned by God to be a holy nation, partnering with the Creator to perfect the world by doing one more mitzvah today than we did yesterday, because yesterday’s mitzvah was yesterday’s mission, but today brings newer and greater abilities.
By conducting ourselves with integrity and with graciousness, by bringing sensitivity to our relationships, by radiating beauty from our homes, by using words to heal and not to hurt, every one of us can sanctify God’s name in the world.
In Literature and Dogma, the great poet and essayist Matthew Arnold writes: “As long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration, as to the people who have had the sense for righteousness most glowing and strongest.”
The Talmud tells us the story of how in the study hall there was a custom that the Talmudic sage would teach in a soft tone, after which one of his senior students would repeat those teachings to the study hall in a louder voice. One day the wife of the translator met the wife of the sage Rabbi Abahu, and said, “My husband does not need your husband to prompt him with the discourses, because he is just as learned, and for the fact that he bends down to hear the whispered discourse and then relays it to the audience, he merely does this for respect.”
Rabbi Abahu’s wife complained to her husband, “You must fire this ingrate, since he is not giving you the honor you deserve. One day he will yet claim that all your teachings came from him.”
“What difference does it make?” Rabbi Abahu replied. “Through me and through him let the One Above be praised!”
You see, the world is about action and about getting the job done. Seldom in the past have the opportunities been greater or the stakes so high. For the first time in many, many years we live in a free society in which Jews have the opportunity to participate in all political, ethical and cultural processes. This is a time when Judaic virtues are admired by non-Jews. We are praised for our strong community life, the warmth of the Jewish family, our passion for education, and our commitment to philanthropy. This means that we have the chance to be an outstanding voice in the moral conversations of mankind.
God’s name becomes sanctified when those who claim to have a relationship with Him use their faith to influence their lives. Our great sage Rabbi Abahu, the great Radvaz, and brave little Alexander show us that we too can live that way.
Our resolution for the coming year should be to utilize every moment available to us to live the fullest life possible, by acting nobly and ethically, seizing every mitzvah moment possible. In this way, we will bring honor to ourselves, to the Jewish people, and to God.
May we all be blessed with health, success and happiness!
Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky is host of Shmooze Radio and the Rabbi’s Message on KKNW-AM 1150 and executive director of The Friendship Circle and the Chai Center of Greater Seattle.
Christmas is an appropriate time to understand what Jesus means to Jews and Judaism
Like most rabbis, I often speak to non-Jewish groups who want to learn more about Judaism. One of the most common questions I get is: “What do Jews believe about Jesus?” Although most Christians understand that we do not believe he was the Messiah, they usually are not sure why. And many assume that, at the very least, we consider him to be a rabbi or prophet.
However, both of these titles are problematic for different reasons. According to the book of John in the Christian scriptures, Jesus was called “rabbi.” Some scholars have suggested that the writer of John was familiar with the term and used it, although it was not used in Jesus’ day. But even if it was used then and his followers did call him “rabbi,” the meaning and significance of the term was far different than it came to mean after the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the early first century C.E., the term rabbi may have been used to mean “my teacher” or “my master,” but would not have indicated any formal training or ordination. With the destruction of the Temple, however, the process of formal study and ordination was developed and the term rabbi was then used to recognize one who had completed this process. Thus it is confusing, at the very least, to call Jesus a rabbi, since the significance of the term at the end of the first century and later was quite a bit different than its meaning in Jesus’ day.
As for the term prophet, Judaism insists that prophecy ended with Malachai in the fifth century B.C.E. While until then God communicated with many individuals, from that point on our communication with God is through the Torah and its interpretation. In a famous Talmudic discussion (Baba Matzia, 59b), a Divine Voice comes to the support of Rabbi Eliezer in his dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the sages. But Rabbi Jeremiah responds to this voice by stating that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We do not give authority to a Divine Voice, for it is already written at Mount Sinai in the Torah: “One must incline after the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
If Jesus is neither a rabbi nor a prophet, how might we describe him? Reading the stories about him, it seems that he is an itinerant preacher, healer and miracle worker. It is impossible to determine whether the healing and miracles ascribed to him actually occurred, but it is significant to note that at least some of the stories are similar to those of Elijah as well as stories of healing and miracles ascribed to individuals in the Talmud. And Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees can also be understood as conflict that often occurred among Jewish sages. Some scholars even claim Jesus was a Pharisee, though it is difficult if not impossible to validate such a claim.
Throughout our history, Jewish thinkers have offered a variety of views of Jesus. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon observed that we humans cannot “fathom the designs of the Creator” and that both Jesus and Mohammed “served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord.” Eighteenth-century rabbi Jacob Emden claimed that Jesus did the world a great favor by distilling the teachings of the Torah, and drawing non-Jews away from false gods and idolatry and toward observing the Noahide laws.
More recently, Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt has referred to Jesus as “a Galilean hasid, someone passionately in love with God, drunk on the divine, unconventional and extreme in his devotion to God and to fellow human beings.”
These scholars and others have tried to discover the appropriate theological perspective that we Jews should have toward Jesus. As our fellow Christians celebrate his birth, it is an appropriate time to reflect on how we, as Jews, view this first-century Jew who had a lasting impact on the world.
Small steps can help lead you closer to God
One of the misconceptions many Jews have is that you are either religious or not religious — that Judaism is either all or nothing. When I suggest to someone to study a little each day or take on a small observance of mitzvot, the reply often is, “Oh! But I am not religious or Orthodox.” Many people seem to think you either always keep kosher or you don’t. You observe all of Shabbat or none.
Our sages teach us that each small act of kindness, Torah study, or an observance of any mitzvah, no matter how small, has infinite reward. Imagine if you were in a diamond mine with piles of diamonds but you were only allowed to leave the mine with one. Would you not take any? Would you not at least take one? Each act of kindness or bit of Torah study is like a diamond! If you could only study two minutes a day, or make one phone call to make someone happier, then grab it. If you want to keep kosher but it is too daunting, start by keeping kosher a few hours a week or wean yourself from one non-kosher food. I remember a friend telling me how proud he was that he keeps kosher on Friday nights.
On Hanukkah, we light on the first night one small light and then we add one more each night. A possible message for us is the importance of each deed we do and that even one minute of learning God’s infinite wisdom has great value. We say in the special prayers for Hanukkah “the many in the hand of the few.”
The Maccabees were just a small group of Jews fighting for the right to keep kosher, study Torah and observe Shabbat. But through the purity of their deeds, God miraculously helped them succeed. We celebrate their victory on Hanukkah and are inspired to overcome all the obstacles in our way and begin spending more time helping others, studying Torah and observing mitzvot. But we begin celebrating with just one small light, one small act of kindness.
I was very inspired by an essay I read from Rabbi Brevda, who suggested committing oneself to learning just one line of Torah each day (or exercising one minute a day), and if you have time, to add a little more. If you miss a day, don’t worry about it. Through this commitment of learning just one line a day, I have been blessed to complete a few books of Torah.
Let us be inspired this Hanukkah to add a little bit more Torah to our lives.
We can save Hanukkah by rededicating ourselves to being Jews
It seems that only yesterday we were all standing in our synagogues awaiting the final tekiyah of the High Holy Days and looking forward to speeding off to our break-fast meals. It is incredible how quickly our days go by, and how quickly we pass through our Jewish cycle of holidays.
Nevertheless, we are about to embark on the next Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. Now, I must be the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, because this holiday does not even make it to my top five list of holidays. In fact, I will state right now, at the beginning of this article, what the conclusion is and then you will not need to read the entire thing: I don’t mind clerks at stores wishing me a Merry Christmas; I don’t hate Christmas songs; I don’t think there is some form of discrimination going on when our society treats Christmas one way and Hanukkah another. And I believe we as Jews have lost the true meaning of Hanukkah, the true miracle. In order to find it, we must rededicate ourselves to finding that meaning and miracle.
The core of the story we have been learning all these years is some containers of pure oil were left after the defilement of the Temple in Jerusalem. These containers should not have been enough oil to last for more than a day and a half, but miraculously they lasted for eight days. Details of this version of the story are found in the Talmud and in the book of Maccabees (not part of the Jewish Bible, but part of the Apocrypha). Historians have researched this story and it does not check out, but they have put together pieces of a much greater story and an even greater miracle.
Here is my summary of the historical story of Hanukkah: After Alexander the Great conquered most of the Middle East, the Jews found themselves under his control. Alexander implemented a unique style of absorption similar to acculturation rather than assimilation. He allowed for minorities to remain unique, but in a Greek context. Trouble began for the Jews when Alexander died and there was a struggle for leadership. Eventually the Jews found themselves living in the Seleucid dynasty under Antiochus III, who allowed the Jews freedom of religion and expression as long as it did not interfere with state functions. A bitter dispute began in the Jewish community when Antiochus IV became king. The division was between a group in favor of a high level of Hellenization and a group that wanted Judaism in a more pure form.
The priesthood became very corrupted during this time and it was a source of anger among Jews. During this period, the king would appoint a kohen gadol who was in favor of Hellenization, and then appoint another when he no longer wanted the one serving. One of the prior kohanim g’dolim fled the country and came back to attack the current kohen gadol when Antiochus IV was rumored to be dead during an attempted seizure of Egypt. Upon hearing of an “uprising” in Jerusalem, Antiochus returned, attacked Jerusalem mercilessly, and then plundered the Temple. The king’s soldiers and officials in the area were quite oppressive, and the Jews were offended by the high level of Hellenization and the presence of statues of pagan gods.
Antiochus IV next outlawed Judaism. While there are various theories as to why Antiochus outlawed Judaism, two things are obvious here:
1) This was by far the most severe decree Jews had encountered in their history and thus it was completely devastating, and
2) The intense push for heavy Hellenization in Judea was initiated by the elite upper Jewish class and not by the Hellenist outsiders.
In 167 B.C.E., the Maccabees began their revolt and in 164 B.C.E. they successfully retook the Temple and rededicated it. The tradition of the oil lasting for eight days probably comes from the celebration lasting for eight days as there is little historical support for the tradition of the eight-day miracle. Scholars believe the reason for the eight days is most likely because they celebrated the festival of Sukkot late, as the Temple had been unusable during the previous Sukkot. This line of reasoning is very intriguing because the Temple had originally been dedicated during Sukkot, so it makes sense to base the rededication of the same structure on that holiday.
Okay, so I have made Hanukkah less about oil and more about civil war. But I want to save Hanukkah, and not steal it away as the Grinch did to Christmas. The way we, as Jews, can save Hanukkah is by rededicating ourselves to being Jews. We will save Hanukkah when we begin to argue less about Judaism and find the common threads that unite us as Jews.
Hanukkah has nothing to do with gifts — although they are fun — and everything to do with recognizing our responsibilities to our ancestors and our descendants. We need to continue the fight to keep Judaism vibrant and wonderful. We need to continue to find reasons to sit together and not be divided. If we rededicate ourselves, we will create our own miracle in our own time and we will find the true and deeper meaning of the holiday so many love to celebrate.
This Hanukkah, over the eight days, let’s try to rededicate ourselves to our people, our religion and our God. Each day we need to find something new and Jewish to add to our lives: Perhaps giving tzedakah, or maybe lighting Shabbat candles. We could keep kosher, or become more aware of the struggles of Israel.
Whatever we each choose, it will connect us to the holiday of rededication and fight against assimilation. As I said, I do not care if the clerk wishes me a Merry Christmas, what I care about is that I do not equate my minor holiday with their major one and thus diminish its already beautiful values and practices.