Monday, March 23, 2009

Crosses at the Wall

There is yet another controversy brewing in the city and country seemingly filled with controversies. The pope is planning a visit to the State of Israel. The rabbi (Shmuel Rabinovitch) in charge of the Western Wall has ruled that Pope Benedict should not wear his cross when visiting this Jewish holy site. This is absurd. How is it that the pope's beliefs impinge on my beliefs or his practices on the sanctity of my holy place? Let the pope come to our Western Wall and offer a prayer. Let him pray to God as he as always done. Let him wear what he always wears. It does not lessen my faith. We will be doing more to honor the history of hatred and enmity between us by allowing him to be an authentic representative of his Christian faith than by asking him to hide his cross. I remember the previous Pope Paul's words at the Wall, said some nine years ago this month: "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant." I also remember Rabbi Melchior's words said to the visiting pope at that time: "For today we commit ourselves to end the manipulation of the sanctity of Jerusalem for political gain. Jerusalem must reject hatred, struggle, and bloodshed, and be again the 'City of Peace' and a source of holiness." Those were of course different days but I still say, even after 9-11 and the Second Intifada, Amen!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Headwinds and Tailwinds

I have been thinking about the economy and our current crisis. I have this sense that we will be writing history in 2009. Everything is going to be rewritten. How businesses are run and how their employees (and executives) are paid. How charities are supported. How synagogues function. Much has been said about the making of history. And now we are really in the thick of it. History is hanging over our heads. For this reason I am pulled to the first century. I know that how I practice my Judaism was written during those years. I understand that the rabbis then made historic choices. They chose the Torah over the Temple--after the catastrophe of 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. They chose relevance over irrelevance. The rabbis seized history over the Sadducees and Zealots. I know I am simplifying their struggles but how many Sadducees are still quoted in Jewish circles? I can only imagine the fear that gripped our people during those days. I can only imagine how afraid they were of the future. Such is the mood today. But I will not be taken in by depression. I am already planning tomorrow. I take strength from my reading of history. I believe success is determined by turning and changing. Struggling to rebuild the past is impossible, pining after what we once had a distraction. Remember the past. Turn to the future. You may be surprised to know that I not only gain strength from our history and tradition, but also from of all places, my passion for bicycling. This is why. The wonderful thing about heading out on your bike into a headwind is that you know you are going to be coming home with a tailwind. The lesson in this is simple. Every headwind can be turned into a tailwind. You just have to figure out which way to turn. People think the secret is pedaling harder but the real secret to success is turning. Don't be afraid to turn. There are many blessings to be written in your turning.

Israel's Army

This morning's New York Times has an excellent, albeit unflattering, article about Israel and its army. My teacher Moshe Halbertal, with whom I study every summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is quoted at length. Moshe helped to rewrite the IDF's code of ethics and helps to teach in the Institute's officer training course. The goal of his teaching, as I see it, is to place modern, humanistic values within the language of Jewish tradition and texts. That of course is simplifying the enterprise for his project is no small job and no small matter for Israeli society. How can Israel remain a modern, democratic state, infused with Jewish language and discourse, while fighting enemies bent on its destruction? Do our enemies every forfeit their right to humanity? When does our love for the land of Israel become an intoxication that overshadows all other values and commitments? When does our love of the Bible and our enthrallment with its words overwhelm our devotion to democratic values? For me, living in the diaspora, the answers to these questions are merely theoretical. In Israel the answers are matters of life and death. There are some Israelis who take the easy way out and reject democracy--as antithetical to Judaism and others who reject Judaism--as antithetical to democracy. I am thankful to my teachers for their continuing efforts to wed the two--Judaism and democracy--in the modern State of Israel. Even though today's article might be unflattering on the surface, I remain deeply committed to the enterprise it brings to light, the painful and wrenching internal debates that are a part of the fabric of Israeli life. I pray these debates make Israel even stronger and better.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Madoff Again

Last week Bernie Madoff finally went to jail. But his punishment will never befit his crime. I remember reading that Elie Wiesel (who lost all of his personal money as well as his foundation's dollars) suggested that the only fitting punishment would be if in Madoff's cell there was a TV screen with a perpetual interview of his victims. 24 hours a day, every day of the year, Madoff would have to watch an endless loop of interviews. He would have to watch the tears of pain, the anger, the feelings of betrayal. That would be the only show he could ever watch, the only story he could ever read. To that end Vanity Fair's video produced by Stephen Wilkes is worth watching. The sad truth is that I doubt this would have any effect on Madoff's soul. He is no different from the pocket thief (except in terms of dollars) who hugs someone while reaching into his pocket to steal his wallet. He laughed and vacationed with people who called him friend and then stole from them. Madoff gave to tzedakah with stolen funds. He was praised for his generosity and piety--when in fact his virtue was at the expense of others. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Koidonover, a 17th century ethical master, leveled this charge against the Madoffs of his time: Our sages have written that one does not have to guard himself against a really bad man who expresses his evil openly, but one must be on guard against the person who acts as if he were righteous, who kisses the prayer book, recites psalms and prayers day and night, yet in money matters is a “crook.” There really is no punishment that would fit Madoff's crime, although I for one think that he should be made penniless. There should be no plea bargain deals until the last of his ill gotten gains are recovered and every co-conspirator is found. That would serve justice best. Punishments I leave in God's hands. And with that I leave you with this final word from Jimmy Kimmel and Sesame Street.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! For more pictures from JCB's Purim celebration follow the link in the sidebar under My Pictures. Chag Purim Samayach--may it be a Purim filled with fun, laughter and joy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Purim Def Poem

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Purim (beginning Monday, March 9) which celebrates, among many of its themes, Esther's growing awareness of her Jewish identity, I recommend watching the following Jewish Def Poem with Vanessa Hidary: The Hebrew Mamita. Even though this performance was recorded some years ago it is still a wonderful statement about the awakening of Jewish pride and consciousness. On Purim we remind ourselves that our people's survival is dependent on standing with Esther and declaring, as she did in the megillah, that our personal survival is intertwined with our people's.