Saturday, March 27, 2010

For the Sake of Heaven

In the spirit of machloket l'shem shamayim (argument for the sake of heaven) I share here the views of my good friend and colleague, Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Chicago, about the current crisis between the United States and Israel.
I believe that President Obama wants what is best for Israel and the Middle East. He is fully in favor of the “Two State Solution” for the Israelis and the Palestinians, two states for two people. The Two State Solution should not be seen as a gift to the Palestinians or some kind of surrender by Israel. It is rather the best solution for Israel itself. Israel cannot remain both democratic and Jewish unless the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have a state of their own. The Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state is impossible to achieve as long as Israel controls another people within its borders who are denied the basic political rights of self determination, while Israelis, living in that same area, are granted full citizenship....  When building permits for 1,600 houses were approved for a section of East Jerusalem, I believe it was an intentional insult to Vice President Biden and the United States government. Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement but not the substance. Then other apologists claimed that this was, in fact, a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem that would never be returned under any peace agreement. The arguments are disingenuous at best. Just this week a settlement was approved in the Shepherd’s Hotel complex in Arab East Jerusalem in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. This has always been considered an Arab neighborhood, but the Jewish settlers are supported by the right wing American bingo czar, Irving Moskowitz [no relation to my good friend, Rabbi Steve Moskowitz]. The group, Ateret Cohanim, is committed to taking over land and housing in specifically Arab areas. The Netanyahu government has approved this move, knowing full well that both the United States and Britain strongly oppose that action. For those of you who have been in Jerusalem, this area is near the American Colony Hotel and near Salahadin Street, the very heart of Arab East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has chosen to build a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman as his Foreign Minister and various other right wing parties that have absolutely no desire to create a viable democratic Israel living side by side with a democratic Palestine. They demand that there be only a Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and democracy is of little or no concern to them. Prime Minister Netanyahu has chosen to ally himself with that ideological position, consistent with his position throughout his life. I believe he also thinks that Israel can “manage” the Palestinian problem, and that the status quo can continue forever. I believe he is profoundly wrong.  The United States government has never accepted the right of Israel to occupy all of the West Bank and Gaza, while at the same time denying some of that land’s residents the basic rights of self-determination. President Obama is acting in full consistency with past American policy. I believe this policy is in Israel’s own best interest. President Obama is attempting to move Israel towards a peaceful and secure state living in peace with her neighbors. It is what the majority of Israelis desire as well. Ad hominem attacks on the President and his aides will not change the fact that Israel is pursuing a policy that is, at its heart, inimical to the basic values of the Zionist dream.

Washington Diarist: Mean Streets | The New Republic

Washington Diarist: Mean Streets | The New Republic
Leon Wieseltier's article is an important read, albeit disturbing, and troubling...

Friday, March 26, 2010

On Jerusalem

This week Netanyahu spoke before the AIPAC Convention and declared, "Jerusalem is not a settlement.  It is our capital.  The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel cannot be denied.  The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today."  Amen.  This is the point that Obama does not seem to understand or appreciate.  Judging by his words in Cairo last year, Obama's view of Israel is more along the lines of Herzl's vision of the Jewish state.  Israel is a response to antisemitism.  Israel is recompense for the suffering in the Holocaust.  This of course is partially true, but it fails to address the historical connection to the land of Israel.  And this point is at the heart of the issue today. Even today's Times called Jerusalem holy to Muslims, but failed to use the same adjective when describing Jewish claims.  The continued failure of the Palestinian leadership (and the world) to recognize and affirm this Jewish connection is fundamental to the perpetuation of the crisis.  Where Obama is correct however is the failure in particular of Netanyahu to recognize that the suffering of the Palestinians also perpetuates the simmering of tensions.  Having historical legitimacy never justifies adding to others' suffering.  Israel of course has every right to defend itself against attack, even those and perhaps especially those that are only in the planning phases. The state must protect its citizens.  That is part and parcel to the function of any state.  Where we transgress is when we allow historical legitimacy and our own past sufferings to excuse causing harm to others.  There are a few examples of this occurring even in the city that is closest to my heart.  Then again I don't think everyone is treated equally in Chicago.  That of course is no excuse, only an observation.  But Ramat Shlomo is not the heart of the issue.  There are two recognitions  required to move forward.  Palestinians must say the Jewish people have deep and abiding historical ties to this land and this city.  Israelis must say Palestinians have suffered.  We are partly responsible for their suffering. If Obama wants to twist arms, I wish he would twist both of our arms to say this. I wish he would not fixate on this neighborhood or that.  I wish he would be even-handed in his pressure for both sides to address the heart of the matter.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


At services tomorrow evening I will discuss the upcoming holiday of Passover, which begins on Monday evening, March 29.  For most, Passover is first and foremost about family and food.  The Seder is of course about more.  It is a meal filled with rituals and symbols.  All of these are intended to remind us of the joy, privilege, blessing and responsibility of being free.  One of my favorite symbols is haroset.  This apple, walnut, cinnamon and wine mixture is intended to be a remembrance of the harshness of slavery.  Unlike many of the other Seder foods this mixture’s symbolism is all about looking like something, like mortar.  It can be a mixture of just about anything.  At my family’s seder we have at least three different haroset recipes and have a haroset tasting.  For some of Claudia Roden’s haroset recipes follow this link.  My son Ari has been adding his own haroset recipe to our seder since his early years.  It has always had the perfect look, although not always the perfect taste.  We just leave him in the kitchen with a Cuisinart, apples, bananas, dates, Manischewitz, and whatever else he might find in the spice rack or refrigerator so that he can create the perfect looking haroset.  I am thankful that as he has aged, the taste of his haroset has become even more delicious.  Another familiar custom is the four cups of wine.  You might be surprised to discover that the ancient rabbis argued over the number of cups of wine. Each cup is supposed to represent one of the Torah’s verses about God’s redemption.  Some said there were four verses.  Others five.   Rather than sit at different Seder tables the rabbis compromised and left the disagreement unresolved.  They said, “teiku,” a Talmudic acronym meaning, when Elijah comes and heralds the messianic age this disagreement will be resolved.  For now, they said, let’s just enjoy each other’s company.  Later this unresolved debate was transformed into Elijah’s cup.  Long ago, the rabbis decided community was most often more important than being right.  I have been thinking about “teiku” lately.  Only this week we watched as our House of Representatives decided a major issue along party lines.  Whatever one might believe about health care reform, it is disheartening that it was only Democrats, and no Republicans, voting in favor of this bill.  It is upsetting that Democrats and Republicans were unable to compromise and resolve some of their differences.  As a result our American community feels divided and fractured.  I longed for “teiku” this week.  And so this is my question for tomorrow evening.  What disagreements do you long for Elijah to solve?  About what would you like to say, “Teiku”—let’s just enjoy our meal together; Elijah will one day resolve our dispute?”  You are welcome to email me your responses.  Shabbat Shalom and happy Passover!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Idol Worship

Idol Worship
This is a wonderful short story by Israeli author, Etgar Keret, in the online journal, Tablet.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Today I inaugurated a new weekly email.  It is not about upcoming programs.  It is instead about Torah.  I hope you find it meaningful.  During good times and bad we should draw from the wellspring of Torah.  Interestingly this week’s Torah portion is Vayikra.  It is all about sacrifices.  It is all about stuff we no longer do.  It is about killing animals and sprinkling blood on the altar.  Pretty gross if you asked me.  Pretty foreign if you asked just about anyone.  But we believe there has to be something for us to learn even in a portion all about stuff we no longer do.  Otherwise why keep reading the Torah.  The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban.  It comes from karov, meaning to draw near.  The ancients believed animal sacrifices were therefore about how you get closer to God.  That desire is still part of our discussion and it is my question for this Shabbat.  How do we draw closer to God?  You are welcome to email me your thoughts about this question and I will have more to say about this question at Shabbat services tomorrow evening.  Here is an initial thought.  When you offered an animal for sacrifice it could not just be any animal it had to be the best animal, without blemish.  You had to give up something that was valued and prized.  Perhaps that is how we can draw closer to God.  We must give up something that we really like.  Granted you can take this idea to an extreme.  And that is exactly what ascetics do.  They give up everything to get closer to God.  Giving up everything is decidedly un-Jewish, but giving up something, sacrificing something, can bring us closer to God and those we love. The question remains what must we give up, what must we sacrifice in order to draw closer to God and to others?  For a different take on the Torah portion listen to my weekly podcast through iTunes.  I hope to see you at Shabbat Services tomorrow evening at 6:30 pm.  Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Settlements

While the world appears to treat every Jewish neighborhood outside the 1967 green line as a settlement, settlements are not in fact a unified term.  The Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo that is now in question is not a settlement.  I don't know any Israeli who considers it as such.  It is part of the Jerusalem municipality.  There are large settlement blocs (Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel) that all agree will have to become part of Israel proper in any deal with the Palestinians.  There are just far too many people who live there to withdraw.  The pain (and continued price) of the Gaza withdrawal is not some distant memory.  As I have stated before, the issue, at least from the Israeli side, is not Ramat Shlomo or Maale Adumim but those settlements that are geographically and ideologically isolated.  These should be withdrawn for Israel's sake.  The practical costs of supporting them are too much for Israel to bear.  Even more important are the ideological issues.  Many of these settlers represent dangerous anti-democratic leanings, where for example their rabbi holds more authority than their commanding officer.  For Israel to continue as a Jewish and democratic state it must divorce itself from this growing ideology where the land (and even religion) has become more holy than people.  I love the land of Israel and I love my Judaism but in a modern state these are not more important than democratic principles.  It is in these isolated places, to borrow Tom Friedman's analogy, where we have become intoxicated, in particular with the land of Israel and the biblical vision of it.  These isolated settlements have become ideological islands.  Surrounded only by those who share the same ideas, these settlers are no longer nurtured by the democratic foundations of modern Israel.  These settlers need to return to the cities and towns of modern Israel, and live with those with whom they fundamentally disagree, in order to help create a pluralism that Israel so desperately needs.  For the sake of our souls we must let go of even those places that hold power over our Jewish hearts.  For more reading on the week's events see Barry Rubin's op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, as well as Dan Raviv's column on  And for a daily synopsis of the news see the DailyAlert prepared by the Conference of Presidents.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Follow Up

Yesterday's papers presented a number of articles about the ongoing political crisis in Israel and between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government regarding Biden's visit. Tom Friedman in the Times compared settlement construction with driving drunk. "...Israel needs a wake-up call. Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, and even housing in disputed East Jerusalem, is sheer madness. Yasir Arafat accepted that Jewish suburbs there would be under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal that would also make Arab parts of East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital. Israel’s planned housing expansion now raises questions about whether Israel will ever be willing to concede a Palestinian capital in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem — a big problem." Again I would suggest that the crucial issue is the acceptance of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and the land of Israel not so much housing. The Washington Post explored the perceived growing divide between Israel and America in an article that featured a range of commentators. Personally I start worrying when a top ranking US official like David Axelrod characterizes last week's events with the words, "What happened there was an affront. It was an insult." The Israeli press has been scathing in its treatment of Netanyahu. It should be noted that the Israeli press is almost always critical. Yediot Aharonot editorializes: "Netanyahu can become inebriated as much as he likes from the support of the Jewish Right, he cannot alter the political reality: Obama will sit in the White House for at least three more years, surrounded by a group of liberals, some of whom are Jewish. The vociferous ovations that will precede Netanyahu at the AIPAC conference will not help him in his future contacts with the White House." Israel will certainly have to make great compromises. I hope and pray that the compromises of the future will not bring a third intifada as Oslo brought the second. For more insights about the situation watch today's news report from Israel's channel 2 TV news, in English.
Addendum. And for good measure today's editorial in the Journal blames the Obama administration for the current breakdown in relations between Israel and the US, commenting: "Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama's foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Donniel Hartman Article

My teacher, Donniel Hartman, wrote a worthwhile article about the place of Israel advocacy in the Jewish pantheon. In light of last week's imbroglio and the upcoming AIPAC conference in Washington, it makes for interesting reading. Click on the post's title for the complete article. What follows are a few excerpts.
Since Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent Goldstone Report, there has been an increasing sense that anti-Israeli opinion has moved beyond criticism of some of Israel's actions and policies to the delegitimization of the Zionist project as a whole. We Israelis and Jews must have no problem with constructive criticism. Our tradition has taught us that criticism is first and foremost an act of love and loyalty. We welcome it as a necessary check-and-balance in ensuring moral behavior. In fact, we have always been our own greatest critics. When we define all criticism of Israel's policies as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic, we are neither accurate nor serving Israel's interests. However, undermining the essential legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish State or as the homeland of the Jewish people is not criticism but rather a danger which we must confront and combat... It is time for us to recognize that the Jewish community in general and Israel in particular have failed to develop a new Jewish narrative for the Jewish people around the world on which to base their relationship with Israel. Jewish organizations and Israel have held steadfast to the three arguments above [Israel is necessary as a safe haven in the event of a new Holocaust; the survival of the State of Israel is in danger; and Israel is a central ally in the West's war against the Axis of Evil] for they were successful in creating a crisis-centered relationship with Israel which was effective in raising money. These actions, however, have mortgaged our future on the altar of immediate and short-term institutional needs. Repayment is now due, and the resources are lacking. The Jewish community is not in need of an Israel advocacy campaign of facts and figures alone, but also of a new Jewish narrative based on Jewish ideas and values for engaging Israel in a way that will help integrate Israel into a modern Jewish identity. Jews today need to be able to address crucial questions for which they currently do not know the answer. For example: What is the role of "peoplehood" in modern Jewish identity? What is the meaning and purpose of Jewish sovereignty connected to territory rooted in the land of Israel to modern Jewish life? What are the requirements of morality of war, and how can Israel use its power in a way that is consistent with the highest standards of Jewish morality and values? How does Israel balance its legitimate right of self defense with the rights of others? Can a Jewish state be reconciled with the values of Jewish pluralism and freedom? Does the aspiration for a Jewish state automatically define Israel as a racist, apartheid state? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed and answered by this new Jewish narrative of Israel and Zionism. If one cannot answer them, there is neither a foundation for connecting to Israel nor the ability to sustain a viable and meaningful relationship. We need to educate and empower the Jewish community to engage Israel in a meaningful way before we can even think about asking them to advocate on its behalf....

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clinton's Rebuke

Today's papers reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu by telephone yesterday offering him a stern rebuke regarding the planned expansion of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.  According to the papers President Obama was furious over the ruckus created during Vice President Biden's visit last week.  Clearly Netanyahu's government erred in the timing of the housing permission's issuance.  Then again perhaps this is exactly what the right wing Interior Minister Eli Yishai intended.  Here is my view for what it is worth.  Jerusalem is not the same as the West Bank.  Call it East Jerusalem if you want, but the city is unified and must remain so under Israeli sovereignty.  Only under Israeli sovereignty have Jews, Muslims and Christians had access to their holy sites (except of course when rioting).  Israel gained control of these areas from Jordan during the 1967 war.  The ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo sits near French Hill and is part of the bustling Jerusalem municipality.  (It is most helpful to look at a map.)  When in Jerusalem I often drive by Ramat Shlomo on my way to my cousin's apartment in the northern suburb of Pisgat Zev.  I agree with Biden's words: "Sometimes, only a friend can deliver the hardest truths," in particular that "the status quo is not sustainable."  Sometimes friends see things about us that we cannot see ourselves.  But what status quo are we talking about here?  The status quo of Arab belligerence against Israel?  Unfortunately not.  The issue is that Israel is far more sensitive to rebuke than the Palestinians and therefore more crucial to moving any American peace process forward.  The fact of the matter is that Israel listens to the United States more often and far better than the Palestinians.  Netanyahu has halted construction on West Bank settlements since taking over as PM.  Where is the thanks for this bold and difficult undertaking?  This act is especially remarkable given that Israelis are rightly far more concerned about Iran.  Where is the other side reaching out across the divide?  Instead the refrain is "Israel should be doing more..."  Did I miss the Palestinian's gesture?  I have noted countless Israeli gestures.  Again I say that if the Palestinians would recognize the State of Israel's legitimate claim to this land if by no other authority than the United Nation's 1947 vote and recognize in particular Israel as a state connected to Jewish history and Jewish aspirations (in Arabic), you would see the vast majority of Israelis falling over themselves and giving territory for a Palestinian state.  Until that day I continue to pray for peace and will try to look past the latest diplomatic row--and the next.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Biden's Visit to Israel

Vice President Joe Biden just returned from his visit to Israel.  He was there to reassure Israelis (and American Jews of course) of the United State's commitment to the State of Israel.  All was going according to plan until Israel's interior minister, Eli Yishai announced plans for the construction of 1,600 homes in a Jerusalem neighborhood on the other side of the green line.  "You see," everyone now says, "Israel is not really interested in peace."  Actually Israel and the vast majority of Israelis, as well as Jews everywhere, have been bending over backwards to make peace for generations.  Israel has steadfastly declared Jerusalem a unified city and not part of the West Bank.  That the timing of this announcement was mishandled by Yishai is of course true and Netanyahu has since publicly chastised him, but the more fundamental truth is that it is always easier to blame others than take responsibility for your own problems and failures.  So how about this one for starters?  The Palestinian Authority is planning on naming a square in Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi.  In a 1978 terrorist act, Mughrabi murdered 36 Israelis, one American photographer and injured 71 other people.  Last week Palestinians became exercised and even rioted over Netanyahu's announcement that the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem were going to be renovated and declared Jewish heritage sites.  Again the issue is not that Israel is exercising sovereignty over areas it captured in the Six Day War and now controls.  The larger issue is the Palestinian's unwillingness to recognize the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel.  That was the thrust of the rioters' contention.  In fact too many Palestinian leaders deny that the Temple even stood in Jerusalem or that Jews have lived in the land of Israel for millennia.  It would have been extraordinary if Netanyahu had challenged Palestinian leaders to renovate these historic sites together.  Wouldn't it be something for the history books if Palestinians and Jews pledged to renovate these holy sites together?  I imagine Israeli and Palestinian leaders could have stood together and declared, "Here our father Abraham is buried.  He changed the course of history forever.  We can change our history as well.  Both of our peoples revere this site.  We pledge to work together to guarantee the holiness of this place for all people."  Ok, now I am really dreaming, but such an act could change the course of history-- forever.  The issue is not so much sovereignty over Hebron or Jerusalem.  The larger issue is recognizing the holiness each of us ascribes to these cities.  That can be shared.  Holiness should be shared.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No More Snow, Please

Winter has waned
and with it my sorrow,
the fruit trees flower
like my joy.
Spikenard and myrrh
send up their scents,
and orchards of treasures
blossom and thrive
within them hearts
of friends delight....
So wrote Nahum in late thirteenth century Spain.  I echo his sentiments!  I heard the birds singing this morning.  For more Hebrew poems from medieval Spain see Peter Cole's The Dream of the Poem.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Earthquakes

Bret Stephens writes in today's Wall Street Journal: "Earthquake magnitudes are measured on a logarithmic scale. The earthquake that hit Northridge in 1994 measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. But its seismic-energy yield was only half that of the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti in January, which was the equivalent of 2,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs exploding all at once.  By contrast, Saturday's earthquake in Chile measured 8.8. That's nearly 500 times more powerful than Haiti's, or about one million Hiroshimas. Yet Chile's reported death toll—711 as of this writing—was a tiny fraction of the 230,000 believed to have perished in Haiti."  Stephens goes on to extol Chile's superior building codes and far superior economy as explanation for the vastly different number of casualties.  I don't know enough about economic theory in general and Milton Friedman in particular to make a judgment on the question that he addresses.  But it is of course obvious to even the most casual of observers that Haiti is a deeply troubled country and that its extraordinary poverty is more to blame for the thousands of dead than January's "act of God."  Haiti has been plagued for centuries with a depth of misery that is compounded more by humans than by God.  That of course is part of Stephen's point.  The earthquake might have been an act of God, but it was made more miserable and more deadly by humans--and in Chile by contrast it was made less deadly by humans.  Still as I read this morning's paper my thoughts turned towards nature.  I remain overwhelmed by the earth's ferocious power.  With all of our human achievements and advancements, as well as our negligence and troubles, when the earth slips and shudders it is as if one million Hiroshimas explodes. Let this be a reminder that we will never be able to tame such a monster. We cannot control nature.  No matter how many earthquake proof buildings we build, the tempest will toss us around at will.  We have only choice left: to live with it, to live alongside nature.  Never forget nature's power!  Pablo Neruda, Chile's Nobel Prize winning poet, speaks of death as a quiet shipwreck.
Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
Nature is both soothing and frightening.  It is the calming waves and the shipwreck.  It is the rustling of the leaves and the snapping of branches.  It is the sand under foot and the exploding of mountains.  It is the blossoming of spring flowers and the movement of tectonic plates.  It is death and it is life.  Let us again join together in prayer for the victims of yet another earthquake.