Thursday, May 16, 2019

Be More Religious, Do More Good

Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.

They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)

The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”

The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”

People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.

On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”

I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.

Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.

Rituals point to ethics.

Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.

So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.

Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?

That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.

Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.

One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel's Ordinariness is Extraordinary

Today the State of Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. Just saying that statement is a remarkable thing to utter. Israel’s 71st. Savor those words.

For all of the challenges and missteps, the achievements and triumphs, the disappointments and missed opportunities, the unrivaled successes and countless celebrations none come close to the feeling, the remarkable gift and the sense of gratitude that Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. The dream of generations of Jews is now a reality. For 2,000 years we dreamed that we would one day return to the land of Israel. This still figures prominently in our prayers. The Seders we only recently celebrated conclude with the words L’shanah habah b’yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem.

Today, I could say, “I am leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Israel.” I am not doing that of course, but if I were, the response would not be, “Wow. What a miracle.” But instead, “Which airline? Are you flying El Al? Are you flying out of JFK?” Another would chime in, “Don’t fly El Al. It’s the worst. People are constantly climbing over you as you are trying to sleep. You should fly Turkish Air instead.”

Others would ask, “Where are you staying?” More would then offer advice. “You should stay at the King David. It’s historic. You should spend more days in Tel Aviv. Go to Mitzpe Ramon and check out the Negev desert. Make a reservation at Zahav.” Actually Zahav is located in Philadelphia and was recently named the best restaurant in America. How remarkable is that. The best restaurant in America features Israeli cuisine.

We should take in the sheer ordinariness of these conversations.

Thousands of years ago we were almost destroyed. We then mourned the destruction of Jerusalem. And now, in our own age, we talk about visiting Israel as if it’s just another trip to another great country. We argue about flights and hotels, restaurants and sites. For all the discussions and debates we could have about Israel’s policies and the never ending conflict with the Palestinians, most recently after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza, on this day we should breathe in not the miracle of the State of Israel but instead its ordinariness.

We wish for it to always be extraordinary, to fulfill our every dream, to live up to the prayers we sing about it, but on this day we should hold on to the ordinary. And that very ordinariness should be what takes our breath away. It is not the miracle but the ordinariness which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It affirms the Declaration of Independence’s words: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel’s matter of fact-ness may be its greatest achievement. Our children do not know of a time when there was not a sovereign State of Israel. I in fact do not know of such a time. Some might be saying to themselves, “Beware of taking Israel for granted. Israel is surrounded by enemies.” Yes. Indeed it is. But I do not wish to dwell on the threats arrayed against Israel or even what many commentators call the growing divide between American Jews and Israel—something about which I remain acutely worried. These are not my focus on this day, and on this occasion.

All I wish is for us to breath in what a unique time we live in. We live in a time when we can hop on a plane and go to Israel. Or not. We live in an age when the State of Israel can be taken for granted. And this may very well be its greatest success.

We can argue about many, many things. We are Jews of course. We can debate about what Israel does and does not do. And we should certainly continue these debates—with passion and with love. And we can also argue about the mundane and inconsequential. We can talk about flight times and restaurant reviews.

And we can regale each other about visits to Tel Aviv’s beach and taking in Jerusalem’s desert evenings. On this day that’s all I need. On this day that is all I wish to hold on to.

Israel is 71!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Books of Loss

Yesterday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. It is the day set aside to remember our people’s loss at the hands of the Nazis’ murderous hatred. As we remember this devastating loss, we cannot help but affirm that antisemitism is still real and most tragically, still murderous.

Last year antisemitic attacks doubled in the United States. Six months ago, we witnessed the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue and this past Shabbat another at a San Diego area synagogue. It is sadly evident that we must remain on guard against antisemitism. The Board is diligently working on security upgrades for our own synagogue. And there will be security at upcoming services.

While we must remain forever vigilant and while we must improve security at Jewish institutions the most important response to terror remains the same. We must never bow to fear. And we must continue to proclaim, we are proud to lead Jewish lives.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the leader of the Poway Chabad community, said:
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
Amen!

Again and again, we remember. I recall a few of the individual lives affected by the Holocaust. I urge you to read the stories of this year’s torchlighters. At this year’s Yom HaShoah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem, these six survivors were chosen to light the six memorial lights.

Their tales represent extraordinary stories of survival and loss. To these stories I wish to add another. It is the story about how my favorite children’s book, Curious George, came to be.

When the Nazi party was gaining popularity in Germany, Hans Augusto Rey, a Jewish salesman, knew he had to leave so he fled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met and married his old flame, Margret, who had also come there to escape the Nazis. Together, the couple soon moved to Paris in 1935.

When World War II broke out, the Reys realized they could not stay in Paris. They needed to make other plans. They again fled, narrowly escaping Paris a few hours before the Nazis invaded. They rode from Paris on a pair of bicycles that Hans had made. On their backs they strapped some food, a few of their possessions, and the manuscript of a children’s book the couple had been working on—a book about a mischievous monkey named George.

The Reys made it across the Swiss border and eventually found their way to New York, where they first published Curious George. That book, and its sequels, have been translated into dozens of languages—including the Reys’ native Yiddish. Children are still reading about George, his adventures, and the understanding, but always helpful Man with the Yellow Hat.

On this occasion, as I reflect on Yom HaShoah, I wonder how my childhood might have been different if this book did not accompany me, if the Reys had suffered the same fate as the six million. I would never have heard my mother reading over and over again, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.” I wonder how my life would have been different if my mother did not affirm my curiosity through the Man with the Yellow Hat.

A book affirmed my nature and applauded the lesson that discoveries, and learning, begin with curiosity and that most importantly making mistakes, and even making a mess, accompanies curiosity, discovery and learning.

Today, I wonder how many other books could have accompanied me. I imagine there could have been six million more books.

The Holocaust haunts our people. It remains a library of loss.

The hatred continues.

But my curiosity, and embrace of life, remain undeterred.



Friday, April 26, 2019

Let's Start Fixing the World

Another Hasidic story. Perhaps this one is my favorite. I first heard it told by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

A wealthy man approached the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asked if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire.

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack bread, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a certain hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband shouted with excitement.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well, drank well, sang, prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his belly was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet anywhere.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside in a huff. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's boot got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up, he overhead sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the window. The children were jumping up and down and squealing with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever seen.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was.

"Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

And Elijah can also be you.

If we only sing to Elijah at the conclusion of our Seders, if we only sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” when we make Havdalah, then we have not come to understand the true meaning our rituals and songs.

Whose home will you visit this coming Shabbat? Whose hungry bellies will you help to fill in the coming days? Whose soul will you begin to repair?

Elijah can be you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tell Your Story

A Hasidic story. It is among my favorites. When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and a miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and once again, a miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. There he pleaded with God, saying, “I do not know how to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his chair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.”

And this too was sufficient.

Central to our Passover celebrations is the telling of the story of our going out from Egypt. Judaism believes in the power of the story. It is not mere entertainment. It is fundamental to instilling values. We tell and retell. We remember. And we are inspired to act.

We cast ourselves in the story. The Haggadah proclaims, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One of Blessing but even we were redeemed with them.”

This year, tell another story as well. Tell your story. Tell the story of how you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents went out from wherever your family emigrated from and how they made it to this country. And then how you made this great country your home.

And perhaps this too will be sufficient.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Moon's Pull

I am thinking about the moon.

It is because of the moon that we read about leprosy for two weeks rather than one. Most years this week’s portion, Metzora, is combined with last week’s, Tazria, in a double portion. Both are about leprosy. This year, however, is a leap year when we add an entire month. The month is added in the spring prior to Purim. Why?

The reason is simple. Our holidays are tied to the seasons of the 365 day solar calendar. Passover, for example, is the spring harvest festival. Sukkot marks the fall harvest. If we were only to follow the 354 day lunar calendar, as our Muslim neighbors do, the holidays would wander throughout the seasons. Then every year the holidays would be eleven days earlier than the previous year. And then, for example, Passover might occur during the winter.

Its connection to spring, our agricultural roots, and most importantly the earth would be lost. Therefore every two or three years we add a month. So Rosh Hashanah can wander between the start of September and the beginning of October but no further. Each holiday moves within a month’s window of the solar calendar.

During leap years, like this year, the double portions are separated into single portions. We therefore spend far more time reading Leviticus. So now we have to spend two weeks examining leprosy. And this is an unfortunate occurrence, to be honest.

But I am comforted by the moon.

The rabbis teach. The moon complained to God saying, “The sun is so much bigger than me. No one can even see me during the day.” God comforted the moon and said, “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.” (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 60b)

Apparently we offer comfort to each other. Israel and the moon are joined. While the sun sustains life, the moon points to our celebrations.

The moon sustains our spirit.

Soon we will gather around our Passover seder tables. Take a moment to look outside. If it is a clear night, you will see a full moon. In fact, you will see a full moon on the first night of Passover, every year. The fourteenth of Nisan, and the fourteenth of every Hebrew month coincides with a full moon. So you will see a full moon on the first night of Sukkot and on Purim for that matter.

The moon marks our holidays. Without it we could not find our way. Without it we would be unable to wander through our celebrations.

This year especially look at the moon with a sense of pride. Although Israel’s unmanned rocket missed its lunar landing, it came very close. Some seventy years ago, when Israel’s existence seemed more hope than reality, more dream than achievement, when the state faced untold challenges, who could have even imagined that one day Israel would send a rocket into space? Who would have dared dream that in the week when Israelis once again exercised their democratic right to vote and yet again affirmed the vision of “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem” they would send a rocket to crash into the moon?

The rabbis teach: “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.”

At this year’s seder, get up from your tables, and look up at the moon and say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Next year in Jerusalem—indeed!


Thursday, April 4, 2019

(Re)Kindling the Spark

I just returned from the Reform rabbis’ annual convention. Imagine 600 rabbis in one room! Imagine the lengthy conversations. Imagine all the sermons and schmoozing. This year the convention was held in Cincinnati. It was wonderful to return to Hebrew Union College where Susie and I studied for four years. It was moving to return to the historic Plum Street Temple where we were ordained 28 years ago.

Plum Street Temple was completed in 1866. Its rabbi, Isaac Meyer Wise, founded America’s Reform movement. Isaac Meyer Wise Temple, as it is now called, is an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary. Its architecture is a combination of Byzantine and Moorish styles that was then popular in Germany. It is meant to echo the golden age of Spanish Jewry. It was Rabbi Wise’s belief that America held a similar promise.

Will my grandchildren feel similarly?

We gathered for services on Monday morning. I was struck by countless incongruities. We sat in what was once the stronghold of classical Reform Judaism where English prayers (and German) were central, yet our prayers were marked by an abundance of Hebrew. Our singing was accompanied by guitar. We sang niggunim, wordless melodies developed by Hasidic rebbes who were an anathema to our founders. I stared at the gleaming pipe organs, whose voice once filled Reform synagogues but now stood silenced. Nineteenth century Reform leaders forbade tallis and kippah, yet virtually every rabbi wore these traditional garbs.

We read this week’s Torah reading, Tazria. It contains chapters and verses about leprosy. Leviticus is obsessed with rituals and in particular ritual cleanness. It enumerates countless details about what renders something unclean. Our movement’s first platform, written in 1885, wandered through my thoughts:
We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
They believed the ethical should be elevated above the ritual.

I longed for new wisdom. Colleagues quoted Hasidic masters. Rabbis cited modern poets. We danced and clapped to our prayers. We often started our sessions late. The decorum and punctiliousness of our founders slipped away.

Would they recognize what they birthed?

I wish to bind the ritual to the ethical. I long for our prayers to feed our morals.

Every evening was marked by the testimony of remarkable and courageous leaders.

Roberta Kaplan, a civil rights lawyer and Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, spoke about how they are using American law to go after the Nazis who organized the antisemitic violence in Charlottesville. Freedom of speech should not protect conspiring to do violence. We listened to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He offered compelling words about the need for criminal justice reform. Is the measure of a nation’s greatness discovered in how it treats those accused of breaking its laws? Alabama’s prisons accuse us of falling short. Last night we were honored to meet Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court Case legalizing same-sex marriage. It is difficult to imagine the courage he must have summoned to allow a court to judge his love. Should anyone offer judgments about another’s love?

The prophetic spirit is alive. It is part of my prayers.

There is much to repair in our world. I pray for strength.

Would Isaac Meyer Wise recognize what he founded?

I am confident. He would recognize the spark.

And that is what we must kindle—in each and every generation, again and again.

I pray for courage.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Ghost of Bipartisanship

What follows is this past week's sermon about what I learned and felt at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This past week I traveled to Washington DC attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is America’s pro-Israel lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is steadfast in its bipartisanship as it lobbies in particular Congress about all manner of things beneficial to Israel. It has been crucial about gaining funding for Iron Dome. It support is critical for Israel’s defense needs. So let me offer some highlights from the conference, as well as some observations and of course a few my opinions.

On the first day, President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let’s unpack this decision. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war its heights served as a nemesis to Israel given that Syrian soldiers shelled Israeli kibbutzim from there. In addition it served as a buffer to absorb Syria’s attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In an age of missiles some have argued that the heights are no longer important as a strategic asset. And there were occasional discussions about trading the territory for peace with Syria. Nonetheless the vast majority of Israelis never favored such an idea.

The Golan is some of the best, and most beautiful, hiking in all of Israel. There water flows from the heights, sometimes cascading down waterfalls, which are extraordinary to swim in. The water eventually makes its way to the Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. Water that is needed for much of Israel’s population starts its journey in the Golan. For decades Israel has been sovereign over the territory. The world of course did not recognize this but Israel’s sovereignty was long an established fact. Especially in recent years, after the collapse of Syria and given the ongoing civil war there, no one entertained the idea of relinquishing control over the Golan Heights.

President Trump’s decision was a recognition of what was in fact the case. Some might argue that it was ill-timed or that its only purpose was to help Bibi win the election, and while this may be true, the decision was rather inconsequential. Perhaps you can argue that it emboldened Israel’s right wingers who see in this the beginnings of their desire to annex the West Bank. Maybe. But Israelis don’t lump these territories together. The Golan and the West Bank are not the same. Perhaps the decision was a finger in the eye of Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, who are drawing closer to Israel. Again maybe. Don’t read too much into this decision. There are far greater things to get worked up about.

AIPAC also advocated for the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Again the Trump administration obliged. This decision was far more consequential. There is good and bad about the embassy move. First the good. Israel should get to decide where its capital is. It has always been in Jerusalem. It’s not in East Jerusalem, the territory captured from the Jordanians in 1967. It’s in West Jerusalem. That’s where the Knesset is. Too many, most especially Palestinian leaders, deny the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Jerusalem is not just any city for us. Too many speak about Zionism and the State of Israel as if it is some European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East. It is not. Jerusalem exemplifies our return to Zion. For years US presidents refused to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move our embassy there. President Trump finally did this and he received a lot of adulation and praise from the 18,000 AIPAC attendees for this decision. Again the vast majority of Israelis are also grateful. Most Israelis just want to live in a state like all other states with a capital city that is not deemed illegitimate by world leaders.

Still there are worries about the embassy move. Palestinians hope for the capital of their state to be in Jerusalem as well. They also claim this city as their own. For those who favor the two state solution and for those who believe that a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the State of Israel is the best thing for Israel, and this is by the way AIPAC’s official position, Trump’s decision seemed to push this reality farther away. You can argue that moving the embassy to Jerusalem will force Palestinian leaders to come to terms with the reality of Israel and that this reality is here to stay and not going anywhere. That is now my hope. My fear however is that this decision, as much as I loved it in my Jewish kishkes, will cause those on both sides who say this place is only mine to become even more intransigent. We have to figure out how to share parts of the land with our Palestinian brethren so that we can find some measure of peace.

I admit that seems like a far off dream. Given that this week Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv peace seems more like a delusion. Then again Gaza is not the West Bank and Hamas is not the Palestinian Authority. Israelis understand these distinctions. Hamas aims to destroy Israel. It rules over Gaza with an iron hand. It kills its own people when they protest, a recent fact that went largely unreported. A rocket fell on a family’s home. Children were injured. Children were targeted. Netanyahu hurried back to Jerusalem and gave instead a video address to the conference attendees. The IDF called up reserves. The air force struck at Hamas leaders. Why? What was different this time? Hamas has fired rockets before. It was because the rocket traveled farther and this may be the more important point, it somehow evaded Iron Dome. The worry is that this could represent a technological breakthrough.

And this cannot stand. There should be no debate about this fact. Israelis should be free to live in safety and security. And their state has every right to safeguard its citizens’ safety and security.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival in the coming elections, began his speech by praising Bibi’s decision to return to Israel. It is true that the poverty and despair in Gaza is overwhelming. It is also true that Hamas is largely responsible for perpetuating these conditions. Still I continue to say, something has to be done for ordinary Gazans if for no other reason than to bring some measure of quiet along Israel’s southern border.

Gantz also spoke to diaspora Jews. He spoke about the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. He said the Western Wall is big enough for all of us. This is something where Netanyahu has abandoned us. The lack of recognition of other streams of Judaism in the Jewish state is a tragic injustice. Too many Reform Jews like ourselves are made to feel second class in Israel. Why should we not be able to pray exactly as we do here in the Jewish state? It makes no sense. Politics should no longer upend making progress towards a greater sense of Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel.

I thought Gantz’s speech was the best of the conference. His most powerful point was one about unity. He spoke about that being our secret weapon. This is what he argued has enabled Israel to survive. Unity is also what drives AIPAC. Democrats and Republicans are meant to be united in their support for Israel. And this brings me to my greatest worry and fear. Our unity is unraveling. This was by far the most troubling and upsetting take away from the conference. The Democrats who spoke appeared to be playing defense and said in effect, don’t worry, we still love Israel. Republicans were on offense, saying those guys don’t really love Israel. We love Israel the best. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat this development should be extraordinarily troubling.

The bipartisanship that is the cornerstone of AIPAC’s mission is slipping away. This was so evident when Meghan McCain, Senator John McCains’ daughter, and Senator Joe Lieberman took the stage. This is where we are at? I thought. We have to conjure up the ghost of John McCain to demonstrate bipartisanship. We have to bring out his good friend and Democrat, and who also should have been his running mate, to say look how bipartisan we are. This is the best, and perhaps only way we say, look a Republican and Democrat can stand on the stage together and profess their love and commitment to Israel. Our unity is slipping away.

So let me say this in closing. To Democrats I say loving Israel and making excuses for antisemites cannot go hand in hand. To Republicans I say loving Israel is not necessarily the same as loving Bibi and his vision for Israel. We better figure out how to hold on to all of these things at the same time because what has served the alliance between the United States and Israel so well for so long is that it has always transcended Republican and Democrat. Let’s figure out some measure of unity for Israel’s sake and perhaps for ours as well.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Spiritual Cravings

Why should we observe the commandments? Because God says so. This is the wisdom of the Hasidic sages.

In this week’s portion Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed because they offer a strange fire. Why is it called strange? Because God did not command it. The Sefat Emet, Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, comments:
The most important component in the performance of commandments is the fact that one performs them because he was commanded to, rather than any lofty intentions he has in performing them. The proof is here, in that we see Nadav and Avihu, who were great sages, surely had the most lofty of intentions, yet they were punished for doing something they had not been commanded to do. How much more, then, is the reward of a person who fulfills a commandment solely because it was commanded by God, even though he knows nothing about the hidden intentions involved.
Such wisdom contradicts our modern sensibilities. We want to uncover the reasons for the commandments. We wish to unravel God’s intentions.

Why keep kosher?

Because unkosher animals are not healthy. Pigs carry trichinosis. Lobsters are bottom feeders. Owls eat rats. Such are the explanations we offer to justify these ancient laws.

This week the Torah also reveals the lists of permitted and forbidden animals. Nowhere does it say anything about the character of these animals. There is a list of permitted animals: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” (Leviticus 11) And then there is a list of forbidden animals.

Nowhere does the Torah offer an explanation. Nowhere do we gain a glimmer of why.

Nowhere is there a discussion of the many reasons people so frequently offer. Eat these animals. Don’t eat those animals. That’s it. That’s all the Torah offers.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Then again there is nothing like the taste of crispy bacon. And lobster is so wonderfully delicious.

Why then not eat it? Because God says so.

And so we must now decide. We must ask ourselves, “Do I wish for God to gain some rule over my daily life?”

It is a wonderful, and then again strange, or perhaps mysterious idea to ponder. Saying no to something we love might be the beginning of letting God into our lives.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Is that really enough? Some rabbis suggest that is the only reason that matters.

Then again why does God even care about what we eat?

Because God says so.

Decide if that is the sustenance you seek. Decide if that is the food your soul craves.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shouting Out Kindness

Today is the holiday of Purim. It is a day that is marked by revelry. And yet the costumes and masks we wear obscure a darker theme.

A quick reminder. A long time ago in the land of Persia a wicked man named Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but Queen Esther, through courage and wit, as well as the persistence of her uncle Mordecai, saved the Jewish people and killed Haman and all of his followers. The end. Let’s party.

The Torah reading for this day recalls the story of Amalek who attacked the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness. The Amalekites killed the weak, the elderly and the children, who walked in the back of the Israelites. What kind of person attacks the infirm? What kind of person kills the stragglers? And so Amalek has become synonymous with all evil-doers.

In fact the Jewish tradition draws a line from Amalek to everyone, and anyone, who sought to kill the Jewish people. It sees history’s worst and most despicable genocidal killers as Amalekites. It sees Haman as his descendant. How curious then that we don’t drown out Amalek’s name. And yet every time we hear Haman’s name we shake our groggers. Let no one even hear the name of the man who tried to kill us.

Likewise New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, refuses to utter the name of the man who murdered 50 Muslim worshippers during their Friday prayers. He attacked people while they were bowed in prayer. Like Amalek he attacked people from behind. And just as we drown out Haman’s name so must we drown out the name of every evil doers. It is what we should do whenever someone guns down others, wherever that might be, whether it be in church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Too many know the names of the murderers who killed at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and now a mosque in Christchurch.

Just as we must drown out the evil-doers’ names we must embrace those who now feel victimized and hurt. I still recall the outpouring of love and support for our community after the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Likewise we must now reach out to our Muslim neighbors and friends. Recall the sympathetic words we received. Recall the words of our local church leaders. Remember especially how those words eased our pain. Embrace our Muslim neighbors who are now touched by an extra measure of grief.

We are so quick to condemn hate. It is so easy to call out antisemitism. Let it be just as simple to shower our brothers and sisters with love and support. Tomorrow afternoon the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island is organizing a show of solidarity and support outside local mosques. I will join them at the Islamic Center of Long Island. Regardless of our differences, at this moment and at this hour, I plan to stand with neighbors during their time of grief. I plan to offer my support when they feel so vulnerable. We are bound together by a shared commitment to faith. We are drawn together by a shared attachment to our local community.

Not so long ago people of other faiths offered me their support. Their presence aided my prayers. Their solidarity lifted my spirits. How can I not offer similar support?

Let the names of these evil-doers be erased.

Let our kindness never be blotted out.