Thursday, February 14, 2019

Antisemitism, Tweets and Critiques

I have received many emails during the past week regarding Representative Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic tweets. Some were from the many organizations I support. Others were from friends and congregants.

My Republican friends write, “See I told you so. The Democrats hate Israel. They provide fertile ground for a growing antisemitism among liberals.” My Democratic friends, however, find antisemitism on the other side of the aisle and write, “See I told you so. President Trump continues to offer oxygen to racists, neo-Nazis and white extremists.”

Antisemitic hatred grows. Its venom is heard more and more. It exists on both the right and left. It can be found among Democratic and Republican supporters. I remain perplexed. Why must every instance of antisemitism be used as confirmation of one’s vote? Why must every discussion of this resurgent problem begin with the words, “See I told you so.”?

Antisemitism is an increasing threat. Let us be clear and unified about this fact....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Biggest and Best Sanctuary

Where can God best be discovered?

The Bible offers a multiplicity of answers. It is as my teacher once remarked a symphony of voices. King Solomon suggests we find God in the Temple. The prophet Isaiah among those who care for the downtrodden and oppressed. The psalmist turns to God’s creation.

Moses too first meets God in nature. Of course he discovers God in the most ordinary, and perhaps even lowly, of places—a bush. (Is this to suggest that people can find God anywhere and everywhere if Moses first sees God in a bush? Or is it to teach that people need to develop a Moses-like intuition so that they might discern God’s presence in even the most ordinary of places?)

Mary Oliver writes: “The god of dirt came up to me many times and said so many wise and delectable things, I lay on the grass listening…”

The psalmist affirms her insight. These poets give voice to Moses’ discovery. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19)

And yet we spend most of our efforts expressing our religiosity in a man-made sanctuary. The synagogue, and the centrality of the prayer services we offer there, appear to suggest that within these walls is where we can best sense God’s presence. Do any of the words we pray, however, even mention this sanctuary?

We gather in the synagogue and sing, “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues fully of joy in countless waves …we could never thank You adequately, Adonai.” We may gather together in this sacred space but our thoughts are elsewhere. We lean on nature to bring us closer to God’s presence.

Why then would God command us to build a tabernacle? Why would God insist that the Israelites build a sanctuary when wandering in the wilderness? Why would God demand that we find gold and silver, blue and crimson yarns, dolphin and ram skins, acacia wood and lapis lazuli to build a holy structure?

Why would God offer the command, emblazoned above our synagogue’s ark? “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) Do we really need to build something so elaborate and grand in order to sense God’s presence?

Again and again I find my way back to the Hasidic masters. Their synagogues were converted homes. Their sanctuaries were unadorned basements. They ventured into the forest to commune with God. They taught: nothing made by human hands could ever be grand enough. God cannot be confined to any one place.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk remarks, “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

There really is only one sanctuary that must be built, and rebuilt, over and over again.

It is the human heart.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Judaism & Abortion Rights

Let’s talk about the Jewish view of abortion and abortion rights.

The Talmud offers the following gruesome counsel: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7)

Two insights emerge from this text. If a woman’s life is in danger then abortion is permitted—and even demanded. Jewish authorities continue to debate what might constitute a threat to the mother’s life. More traditional authorities argue only a physical threat, more liberal offer expansive interpretations, including psychological dangers. The second insight however is the more significant and informative for our contemporary debate. The mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

As I listen to today’s abortion debates I find myself growing increasingly agitated. My religious commitments are offended when others place the life of the fetus over that of the mother. I believe otherwise. My tradition teaches me that the mother’s life takes precedence. My deeply held religious conviction tells me that it is demeaning of women to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I recognize that others have different religious convictions. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but even flourish.

The fetus is of course sacred and must be treated with care and concern. It is a potential life. Its value must not be brushed aside. Its value must not be treated in a cavalier manner. Nonetheless when its potential life threatens the actual life of the mother it becomes of secondary importance. Despite the debate among Jewish authorities regarding what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother, all agree that the mother’s life is of greater importance. The mother and fetus become two lives of equal value when the baby’s head emerges. Until that moment the mother’s life takes precedence. And that is what Judaism teaches, and that is what I firmly believe.

Yet a woman’s body (as well as a man’s) is not entirely her own. Our tradition also teaches that our bodies belong to God. We cannot do whatever we want to our bodies. My religious convictions are equally offended when people speak of their bodies as if they created them, as if they control them. They are instead entrusted to us. We are commanded to care for them. We do not own them. Even our bodies are divine gifts.

This is what I learn from our Jewish tradition. My faith demands the conviction that our bodies are sacred, human life is holy, but as well that a mother’s life is of greater importance than the potential life of the fetus she carries. I first discover this in this week’s portion. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21)

Here we learn that monetary compensation is offered for an accidental miscarriage. In the Torah the intentional taking of a human life constitutes a capital crime. No compensation could suffice. Only the death penalty could rebalance the scales. That the Torah does not require this is evidence of the Jewish position regarding abortion.

In addition, the meaning of an eye for an eye is not meant literally but instead figuratively. We are to determine the value of an eye. We are to calculate a fair monetary compensation for the injury. There is a profound confusion about this point. In contemporary culture an eye for an eye is instead used when speaking about exacting vengeance. Use of this biblical phrase suggests a veneer of justice, and is too often misused to justify military action. This is not how our tradition understands this phrase. We discover a great deal within the interpretation.

Different religious traditions often understand the same words in different manners.

People speak as if their convictions are the beginning and end of all debate. They speak as if their religious beliefs are the determinants for all and that their interpretations are the only legitimate readings.

I prefer however to look to my own faith for guidance and counsel. There I discover much to inform our current debates. There my religious convictions are restored.

My faith begins, and ends, with my tradition’s interpretations. My understanding however draws a wider circle, and includes the interpretations of others people’s religious convictions.

I wish we could find more room for our different interpretations to live side by side.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Mountains of Obligation, Mountains of Meaning

There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. With no one else, God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that accepting the Torah was a choice. We freely chose the Torah and affirmed its obligations.

Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In this midrash, God holds Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of God. Here God is portrayed as coercive and threatening.

Often, when I share these interpretations, people gravitate towards the first rabbinic legend. Few even find fault with the negative descriptions of the other nations. People want to see their Torah as freely chosen, as our faith and the Jewish commitments that derive from them as brimming with freedom and choice. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” And we then observe. And we thereby discover meaning.

But lately I have been thinking that we are not as free as we think.

Ask anyone what gives their life the greatest meaning. Will they say, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want; I can go to the gym at 11 pm; I can go out to dinner with friends on any evening of the week.”? I doubt such will be their answers. Instead people will say, “My children. My family. My charity work.” More often than not it is those things which involve others that add meaning to our lives. It is that which involves obligation. It is our commitment to others that grants life its greatest meaning.

Are we really free? Are our choices made with complete disregard for those we love, for those we obligate ourselves towards? Is a life of meaning built around choice or obligation?

Then again, who would want to choose something with a mountain hanging over their heads? The choice is coerced. It is tainted.

Is it truly? Can our choices be entirely free? Is the freedom to choose an illusion? Can we really make choices that are devoid of outside influences? Can we disregard family? Friends? Should we cast aside obligation? Perhaps the rabbinic legend is correct.

With every choice there is indeed a mountain suspended over our heads. At times we disregard it and pretend heaviness does not exist. Lately I have come to believe that is better to affirm its pull and allow meaning to be gained by the weight of its obligation and commitment.

The mountain may indeed be frightening and at times even feel coercive, but it can also be meaningful.

The weight of obligation provides life’s greatest meaning.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mary Oliver z"l

One of my favorite, and most loved, poets, Mary Oliver died this morning.

This week the Torah offers us the most famous of poems, the Song of the Sea, which contains the words we sing every time we gather for services: Mi Chamocha—“Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (Exodus 15)

And so in honor of this Shabbat Shirah—the Sabbath of songs and poems—and in gratitude to the many Mary Oliver poetry books that line my shelves and have accompanied me on so many journeys and offered me solace in the most unexpected of locales and uplifted me when I discovered my faith lacking, I offer two of her poems.
On Traveling to Beautiful Places
Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.
But it’s late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.
Yes! I am still searching as well.

I recall that next week we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees, so again I turn to one of Mary Oliver’s teachings.
Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way
If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.
When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow.
Anything that touches.
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
entirely.
Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen.
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie.
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.
To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition.
For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry!
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
The world and its beauty can indeed both shout and whisper. Perhaps all I need to do is slow down and listen. Yes, all important ideas must include the natural world. Still so much remains a mystery. The poet is right.

You are you.

And all you have is your integrity.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

God's Burning Truth

Rabbi Menahem Mendl (1787-1859) was a controversial Hasidic teacher who led a community in Kotzk (Kock, Poland) for twelve years. He is often called the Kotzker rebbe.

Reb Menahem Mendl was, however, never fully comfortable in this leadership role. When followers came to visit, hoping to hear some of their master’s teachings, he would only occasionally come out of his study. And when he did, he would then chase these students away. His dream was to develop fifty worthy disciples who would attain the spiritual level of the prophets. He of course never achieved this goal and instead spent his remaining twenty years in seclusion.

He was a master without a congregation.

He was so intoxicated with God that he found little time for people. He was uncompromising. His goal was absolute perfection. Menahem Mendl disdained half measures. He believed in a radical approach, stating that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. His singular goal was absolute truth and complete authenticity. Falsehood and complacency were antithetical to a worthy religious life. Conformity and social conventions were obstacles that needed to be trampled. He was known to say, “Give me just ten disciples who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake this decadent world.”

His obsessions led him to perform an unusual custom. Every year, prior to Passover, he burned his writings along with the bread. And yet there are a number of sayings and teachings ascribed to him. He taught: “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”

Look within for truth.

To the Kotzker rebbe, there is no escaping God’s demands or God’s presence. He saw God everywhere and anywhere.

Even this week’s portion points to more than the plagues it describes. Why does the portion open with such a curious word? God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh.” Menahem Mendl comments:
The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this usage is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God for God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”
We cannot escape God’s presence. We cannot escape God’s demands.

It is enough to drive a person mad. Perhaps this is why Menahem Mendl shooed disciples away and sought to destroy his legacy by burning his writings. He was tormented by God’s truth.

God’s demands are overwhelming. Truth burns at the soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores Menahem Mendl of Kotzk’s teachings in his extraordinary book, A Passion for Truth. Heschel observes:
We recall him still, Reb Mendl of Kotzk. He has not fled from us by dying. Somehow his lightning persists. His words throw flames whenever they come into our orbit. They burn. Who can bear them? Yet many of us shall thereby shed our masks, our pretensions and jealousies, our distorted notions, and then messianic redemption may approach its beginning. 
What did the Kotzker leave behind? He published no books, left no records; what he wrote he burned. Yet he taught us never to say farewell to Truth; for God laughs at those who think that falseness is inevitable. He also enabled us to face wretchedness and survive. For Truth is alive, dwelling somewhere, never weary. And all of mankind is needed to liberate it.
Where is the Kotzker rebbe when he is most needed?

He has secluded himself—once again.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

God Only Wants One Thing from Us

People call God by many different names.

Allah. Vishnu. Almighty.

Buddha. Jesus. Tao.

Adonai.


God calls people to do one simple thing:

Do good.

And typically adds some advice:

Stick together.

And very often offers a warning:

Beware of them and their ideas.

And we are still trying to figure out how to follow this simple command....

Friday, December 28, 2018

Stirring Compassion

A little over 400 years have passed since the conclusion of Genesis. The memory of Joseph, his family, and in particular all of the great things Joseph did for Egypt, are no longer read in Egypt’s history books. The new rulers only see how numerous the Israelites have become.

So they enslave and oppress the Jewish people. Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed. In one of the first acts of civil disobedience, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, ignore Pharaoh’s law and thwart his plan. Pharaoh then declares that every Jewish boy shall be drowned in the Nile.

In an effort to save the newborn Moses, his mother and sister place him in a basket in the Nile. Thus begins one of the more interesting chapters in the Torah. It is punctuated by several acts of compassion. The first instance is surprisingly that of Pharaoh’s daughter, an unnamed woman who notices the baby boy. “She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2)

Remarkably she knows that the baby is a Hebrew yet she still reaches out to the endangered child, thus disobeying her father (perhaps she is a teenager, Rabbi Bar Yohai suggests). She appoints a Hebrew woman to nurse and care for the child. Unbeknownst to her, this woman is Moses’ mother, who is also unnamed. Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, a common Egyptian name.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian, but his awareness of the suffering of others grows. (Does he learn compassion from his foster mother?) In three instances Moses rushes to the defense of others. In the first and most familiar instance, Moses witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. In a fit of rage (righteous indignation?), he kills the Egyptian and saves the Hebrew.

Later Moses sees two Hebrew slaves fighting with each other and intervenes, saying, “Why do you strike your fellow?” Rather than offer thanks, one of the Hebrews turns on Moses and says, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Upon hearing this Moses becomes frightened and flees from Egypt. He finds himself in Midian and of course by the well where he rescues the priest’s seven daughters from some ill-tempered shepherds. Moses then single handedly waters their flock.

It is only after this final rescue and the accumulation of these compassionate acts that God takes notice of the Israelites’ suffering. Have these deeds awakened God’s compassion? “The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

I wonder. What took God so long? Why did God wait over 400 years to rescue the Jewish people? I continue to wonder. What takes God so long? What takes God so long to notice our pain and to respond to our suffering?

Throughout history we have waited for God to send the messiah to heal all wounds and address the world’s troubles. Maimonides writes: “Even though the messiah delays, I will continue to wait. Ani maamin, I believe.”

There are many rabbinic legends about the messiah. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asks: “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responds: “Go ask him yourself. He can be found sitting at the gates of Rome, caring for the lepers, changing their bandages one at a time.” The messiah is that person who reaches out to others in compassion.

Perhaps God is waiting for us to reach out to others in compassion.

Ponder this. History does not record Pharaoh’s daughter’s name. She was certainly famous in Egypt. Everyone in Egypt knew her name and admired her fame and riches, yet history instead remembers her for reaching out to Moses. History remembers her compassion.

And so the Jewish people’s history begins with the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh looking away from all of her riches and indulgences and instead with compassionate eyes, looking toward a baby crying in anguish. It is those eyes that sparked God’s remembrances. It is Moses’ deeds that stirred God’s heart. It is their compassion that awakened God’s sympathy.

We never know which act of compassion will stir God.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Can Love Be Reduced to a Mathematical Equation?

Much of our lives are dominated by algorithms. We turn to apps for every manner of things: to shop for clothes (shout out to LeTote), to track our workouts (kudos to Strava) and to weave around traffic (thank you GoogleMaps). We are increasingly dependent on apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family.

I continue to wonder about the effect of these dependencies. And so, my curiosity was piqued when I saw the recent article, “The Yoda of Silicon Valley.”

Donald Knuth is considered the father of computer programming. He has written a multi-volume book, considered the subject’s Bible, The Art of Computer Programming. Although I am certain this book will never be added to my Amazon wish list, I found his life work fascinating. His philosophical musings were particularly insightful and illuminating.

Knuth comments: “I am worried that algorithms are getting too prominent in the world....


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Drawing Near

Sometimes the Torah packs meaning into one word.

Vayigash alav Yehuda—and Judah drew near to Joseph…” (Genesis 44)

Judah still does not know that the Egyptian ruler who has been supplying him with rations during the famine and who now threatens the youngest of his father Jacob’s children, Benjamin, with enslavement is his brother Joseph whom he sold into slavery. Fearful for Benjamin’s life and his father’s welfare, Judah now draws close to Joseph to plead for Benjamin.

He offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He concludes his plea with the words, “Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Judah is a changed man. He will no longer sell another brother into slavery. Joseph cannot control his emotions and says, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He then embraces Benjamin, and kisses Judah and the rest of his brothers.

This remarkable tale of reconciliation begins when Judah draws near to Joseph and demonstrates his repentance. It culminates with Joseph’s statement of forgiveness. Joseph says in effect, “You intended to do wrong, but now we can see that throwing me in a pit while you sat down to a meal, selling me to the Ishmaelites who then traded me to the Egyptians, and then telling our father that wild beasts killed me, turned to good. Our family would have starved if you had not done that wrong, if you were then not so motivated by jealousy.

I would have understood if Joseph kept his brothers in jail for a long time and said, “Look at me. You tried to get rid of me and instead I have become second only to Pharaoh.” I would have even understood if Joseph said, “I don’t want anything to do with you. You may be my brothers but you are bunch of good for nothings.” But that is not Joseph.

He is heroic in his forgiveness. And Judah is heroic in his repentance.

Elsewhere in the Bible the word “vayigash” is used to describe making war.

Vayigash Yoav v’ha’am—and Joab and the troops with him drew near to make war against the Arameans… (II Samuel 10)

I have come to believe that this instance more aptly describes our everyday interactions. We follow not the examples of Joseph and Judah, but instead Joab.

Every discussion quickly turns angry. Every argument appears like war.

Our political leaders scream at each other rather than reaching for compromise. Our Facebook feeds are filled with outrage. “How dare they! Look at those idiots!” we read over and over again. Exclamation points abound. Emails and text messages quickly become heated. Anger and vitriol color our computer screens. We retreat to our iPhones.

We withdraw to the certainties of our shared indignation. Our feeds confirm our outrage. They vindicate our anger.

It all could change if we but turned to this week’s opening word. Vayigash. So much can be lost in drawing near to make war. So much continues to unravel as we draw near in battle and self-righteous indignation.

So much more can be cured by drawing near in reconciliation.

We again require such heroics.