Monday, May 31, 2010

Shalom Hartman Institute - Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Using Prepared Scripts Perpetuates Hateful Rhetoric
Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes about today's unfortunate news. "It is time for all those of decency to declare, "Enough." It is time to begin a new conversation, one in which legitimate acts of self defense on Israel's part are no longer labeled automatically as acts of aggression and war crimes. Nor should attempts to better the plight of Palestinians, including those affiliated with Hamas, be labeled by definition as anti-Israeli and political."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wrong Numbers

Wrong Numbers
This article is a critique of Peter Beinart's article. The authors observe:
Our response to Beinart and others who share his view of a profound and growing schism between liberal American Jews and establishment advocacy organizations is not based on political differences. Rather, our concern is that he and others have allowed their own political allegiances to color their interpretation of the views of the broader American Jewish public. In so doing, they give a distorted impression of American Jewish opinion and overlook important developments in the relationship of American Jews to Israel.
As a result of these [Birthright] initiatives, for the first time, in some studies a larger share of young adults report having been to Israel than older adults. For these young adults, Israel is a central part of their identities in a way that was simply untrue for the vast majority of their parents’ generation. They have more direct ties to Israel including Israelis they met during their trips. They are more likely to return to study, volunteer, or work. And they are more likely to connect to Israel in the United States, through film, music, food, and via the web. Israel advocacy—of either the AIPAC or J Street variety—is just a part of the broader repertoire of connections that young adults increasingly maintain with Israel.
Although Beinart may not be a reliable guide to American Jewish opinion in the past or present, he may yet prove to be a bellwether. When he writes that under the Netanyahu government lines are being crossed and Zionism increasingly seems at odds with liberalism, he expresses the sentiments of an influential segment of the American Jewish intelligentsia. The tension between American Jewish liberalism and the policies of the current Israeli government is real, and the prospect of substantial alienation in the future cannot be dismissed. It should be remembered, however, that American Jews have had plenty of experience with U.S. administrations they did not support politically. For the foreseeable future, diverse personal connections, alongside a basic belief in the need for a Jewish state, will help the next generation of American Jews remain committed to Israel even in the face of distressing political developments.
And if you can read more, see as well this article in Commentary magazine.  Let the discussion and debate continue!

Despite Obama’s Delusion, Changing The Words Does Not Change The World | TNR

Despite Obama’s Delusion, Changing The Words Does Not Change The World | The New Republic
More on the question raised by this week's parsha. Marty Peretz writes: "It's official now. You cannot use "Muslim extremism" or "Islamic terrorism." Not because the words don't describe a real phenomenon in the world. An ugly phenomenon. And, alas, an abundant phenomenon. But because the president doesn't like the thought. And he certainly doesn't like the religious adjective."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment | The New York Review of Books

The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment | The New York Review of Books
This is a very powerful article and with it Peter Beinart has generated a great deal of discussion and controversy about the failures of the American Jewish establishment. He argues that the establishment is failing to create a sense of attachment among young American Jews towards Israel. I urge you to take the time to read the article in its entirety. What follows are a few quotes from this article.
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs... The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives. Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. 
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce. But there is a different Zionist calling, which has never been more desperately relevant. It has its roots in Israel’s Independence Proclamation, which promised that the Jewish state “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets,” and in the December 1948 letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and others to The New York Times, protesting right-wing Zionist leader Menachem Begin’s visit to the United States after his party’s militias massacred Arab civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. It is a call to recognize that in a world in which Jewish fortunes have radically changed, the best way to memorialize the history of Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.
But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Let’s hope that students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.
Given the centrality of the State of Israel Beinart's observations are deeply troubling. Although I believe in the necessity of the ethical use of Jewish power, I remain unsure if the solutions he proposes will correct the disconnect many American Jews feel towards Israel. Nonetheless we cannot dismiss his observations. The majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations. Yet American Zionism is becoming increasingly dominated by Orthodox youth. We must fashion an American Zionism that speaks to the majority of American Jews.

Bret Stephens Article

For those who are unable to access Bret Stephens' article online here is the complete text.
The Mosque at Ground Zero by Bret Stephens
The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2010

The conservative blogosphere is buzzing with outrage over plans to build a 13-story mosque and Muslim cultural center just a few hundred feet from Ground Zero. As a resident of lower Manhattan, I see it differently: The center—to be known as Cordoba House and built (if it is ever built) at a cost of $100 million—might yet serve as an excellent test case for tolerance.
Muslim tolerance, that is.

That, at least, is how the concept is being advertised by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Kuwaiti-born imam whose brainchild this is. "We see it as a major step toward the Americanization of the Muslim community," Mr. Rauf told members of the financial district's community board, which approved the project unanimously less than a week after the attempted Times Square bombing. His wife, Daisy Khan, who runs an outfit called the American Society for Muslim Advancement, adds that "it's going to be a place not only for Muslim activity, but interfaith activity of the highest order."

Opponents of the center insist that Mr. Rauf's image as a moderate is a sham. In the American Thinker, an online magazine, Madeleine Brooks reports that in a recent sermon she personally heard Mr. Rauf "deny that Muslims perpetrated 9/11," though she doesn't quote him directly. Alyssa Lappen of Pajamas Media website notes that the imam has urged the U.S. to allow "religious communities more leeway to judge among themselves according to their own laws," which in his case means Shariah law. There's also a question of how Mr. Rauf's Cordoba Initiative, which in 2008 had assets of $18,255 according to its IRS tax filing, plans to raise $100 million.

Opponents also argue that building the center so close to Ground Zero is an insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11. Germany has spent six decades in conspicuous and mainly sincere atonement for Nazi crimes. But it surely has no plans to showcase the tolerant society it has become by building a cultural center down the road from Auschwitz. Japan is no doubt equally disinclined to finance a Shinto shrine in the vicinity of the Pearl Harbor memorial.

But discretion does not seem to be part of Mr. Rauf's playbook: He is nothing if not American in his penchant for publicity-seeking. He also seems to know exactly how to play to the great conceit of modern American liberalism, which constantly seeks opportunities to congratulate itself for its superior capacity for tolerance. Apparently it did not occur to the members of the community board who so eagerly green-lighted Cordoba House to suggest to Mr. Rauf that the $100 million might be better spent building centers of "interfaith activity" in Riyadh, Islamabad and Kuwait City.

Be that as it may, I still think Mr. Rauf and his wife should be taken at their word—provided they are also held to it. As a confidence-building measure for those of us who live in the neighborhood, it would help if the pair voluntarily answered some questions about the nature of their beliefs. A sampler:
Who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, and what was their religion?
Are suicide attacks or other forms of violent jihad acceptable under any circumstances, including against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state?
Do they agree with the State Department's designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations?
What aspects of Shariah law, if any, do they repudiate?
Will their center invite the input and participation of Muslim gay and lesbian groups?
Do they consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be extreme?
What influence will any foreign funding of Cordoba House have on its programs or on the literature it distributes?

Finally, it is worth asking Mr. Rauf and Ms. Khan the broader question of how they think about tolerance itself. In the case of the famous Muhammad cartoons, "moderate" Muslims typically make the case that while free speech has its place, the sensitivities of the Muslim community should be respected. But tolerance can't just be a one-way street, and sensitivity is not the preserve of Muslims alone. So what do they make of the sensitivities of 9/11 families in the face of their mega-mosque? And if they are prepared to so lightly traduce on those sensitivities, will they perhaps return the favor by hosting an exhibition of pictorial depictions of the prophet?

The offending Danish cartoons won't be necessary: For material, they can draw on a rich tradition of Islamic portraits of their prophet, not least from the collection of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Eager as the imam and his wife are to present themselves and their center as progressive, mainstream and all-American, I have no doubt they will answer these questions in a way that satisfies community standards in Tribeca. It certainly should not embarrass the Tribeca city fathers—so keen to show off their liberal bona fides—to ask them.

And by the way, also on Tuesday in The New York Times there was an excellent article about religious tolerance by Tenzin Gyatso, a Buddhist.  His Op-Ed, Many Faiths, One Truth, is a must read alongside the Bret Stephens piece.

Behaalotecha

In this week’s portion, Behaalotecha, we read the words “vayihi binsoah ha-aron” sung during the Torah service. “When the Ark set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O Lord!  May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!’”  Long ago the Reform movement, and the Reform prayerbook we now use, excised these words from its liturgy, arguing that these sentiments were not befitting a prayer.

They believed that religion should only promote peace and not use the language of war.  I wonder about this decision.  While I steadfastly believe in the importance of peace, I also believe a religion’s most important teachings are the lessons of right and wrong.  Judaism seeks to draw a line between good and evil.  And so in our tradition’s view peace can only be achieved when justice is advanced.  Peace may be furthered by sacrificing grudges and burying anger, but it is never about giving up on justice.  It is not about sacrificing right and wrong.  And this sense of justice entails calling some, friends and others, enemies.  Sometimes we worry so much about sounding like our enemies that we stop using words that contain important moral lessons.

The essence of Memorial Day is about this very concept.  Its meaning is not of course found in the picnics, barbeques, carnivals and sales we enjoy.  For generations, American soldiers, some Jewish, many Christian and even a few Muslim, have given their lives to preserve the idea that religions can co-exist and even nurture each other in this great country.  Each of us can teach what is most important in our respective traditions.  We can shout loudly for all to hear what we most love about our faiths.  Here we believe that all benefit from this shouting and teaching.

My enemies are not those who do not revere Torah.  My enemies are instead those who can only be religious by excluding other religions.  I knew, for example, that the Taliban were our enemies before 9-11.  It was the moment I read they had destroyed two sixth century Buddhist statues, in March 2001.  Any leader who could only be faithful to his own religion by obliterating objects revered by another is my enemy.  I struggle as well to find many adherents of Islam’s claim to be a religion of tolerance when non-Muslims are barred from entering its holiest of cities, Mecca.

Which is why, although I admit misgivings, I applaud New York City’s approval of the proposed building of a mosque near Manhattan’s ground zero.  I agree with Bret Stephens who wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that the money might be better spent by the construction of an interfaith center in Saudia Arabia.  Nonetheless what makes America great is its tolerance of all religions and the fact that this freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  This is the very thing that our soldiers died fighting for.  And we should remember our fallen soldiers on this Memorial Day.

This belief in religious pluralism is part of what I am; it is part of who we are.  There are those who do not believe as we do.  There are those in the world who can only be who they are by destroying others or smashing their holy shrines.  I stand against those who stand against tolerance and pluralism.  They are my enemies.  Peace will not come by shying away from naming our enemies.  Peace will only come by maintaining a clear sense of right and wrong.  This means knowing who is an enemy and who is a friend.

Justice is our obligation, peace our most heartfelt prayer.  And so I conclude with a prayer for peace, with words from an earlier Reform prayerbook, published in 1940: “Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be its messenger unto the peoples of the earth.  Bless our country that it may ever be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate in the council of nations…”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

West Bank Settlements

West Bank Settlements Become Havens of Israeli Suburbanites - CSMonitor.com
I don't typically read The Christian Science Monitor but recently received a free copy in the mail. This article by Yasmine Soiffer is a worthwhile read, even though it was written September 2009. It explores the motivations of those moving to communities outside the Green Line. What the world calls settlements most living there see as suburbs. A few excerpts:
Ideology was what brought the first waves of settlers into the land Israel captured on the west bank of the Jordan River in the 1967 war, some of them keen to return to earlier settlements they'd lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that led to Israel's establishment. In the early 1970s, a socioreligious movement called Gush Emunim, or bloc of the faithful, drew to settlements people motivated by the concept that Israel's success in 1967 was divinely inspired, that the Jewish people's return to their biblical homeland signaled the coming of the messianic age. While that worldview continues to attract some, the majority of today's new arrivals come primarily for practical considerations. A Kiryat Netafim resident says, "I had three priorities in choosing where to live. The first was finding a good place to bring up kids. The second was financial. Third comes ideology. It's in that order. To think of only one of these is not the right approach to life. It's a mixed salad."

One of the fastest-growing settlements in the West Bank is Tekoa, which in 2008 grew by 11.6 percent. That's even more rapid growth than in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit. Tekoa, which appears in the Bible, is southeast of Bethlehem and has natural attractions: It sits atop a hill that provides breathtaking views of the desert mountains and, on a clear day, of Jordan. It also has man-made draws: a public swimming pool and an intentional progressive mix of religious and secular families – Israel's main social divide. Its official Orthodox rabbi has an unconventional habit of meeting with local Islamic figures, including members of Hamas. A Tekoa resident reflects, "I came here for more space and a good community, but I had to realize that I was doing something politically that many people don't agree with. I'm not one that says we should get rid of the Arabs; I so completely disagree with that attitude. I've always supported a two-state solution. But I don't think it's really going to happen.... [I]t became clear to me [after the Gaza rocket attacks] that giving away land and cutting back our borders is not the answer."
I have often argued that characterizing all "settlements" as the same, and as ideologically motivated is mistaken and unhelpful. This article helps to shed light on the true character of these communities. The vast majority of Israelis moving to these communities are motivated not by ideology but by the same things that motivate people to move to any city's suburbs, the issues of quality of life: the price of homes, good schools, nature...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Naso Sermon

This week’s Torah portion is Naso from the book of Numbers.  Much of this portion and the previous portions in Leviticus reflect a priestly culture.  If you need to say thank you to God, bring an animal to the priest to sacrifice.  If you have a problem go to the priest.  In fact this week’s portion details the strange sotah ritual in which a husband who suspects his wife of adultery brings her to the priest and has her drink a magic potion in order to determine her guilt or innocence.  Leaving aside the details of the ritual, the context clearly reflects the ultimate power and authority of the priest. 

Everything goes through the priest, even of course the priestly blessing.  This blessing is one of the most familiar blessings in the Torah, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you; may you always find God’s presence and be blessed with peace.”

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Judaism shifted away from this priestly culture to a democratic culture.  We of course retained vestiges of the priestly, Temple culture.  We pray for the restoration of the sacrificial cult, at least in traditional synagogues.  We offer the priestly blessing on holidays (and in Israel everyday).  We call forward those who are descended from the kohanim, the priests, to recite this blessing for their congregation.  In our congregation we do so on the High Holidays.

One of the radical moves of the rabbis, however, was to remove rank by birth.  Leadership was attained through learning.  Prayer and blessing, learning and leadership is accessible to all.  This is the essence of the Shavuot message.  This is the essence of the holiday we just celebrated.  Torah was given to all!  It was not given to a privileged few.  The Torah was given to each and everyone of us.

The rabbi does not serve as an intermediary.  The rabbi’s blessing does not make it official.  You can approach God yourselves.  Drawing near to God does not require a special place or a special person.  You can bless yourselves.  My favorite blessing is the priestly blessing said by parents for children on Shabbat.  My greatest desire is to empower everyone to take charge of their own Jewish lives and to say this blessing themselves.

Despite this I recognize that there are times when we want and need someone else to say a blessing for us.  There is the comfort in the familiar voice, that is not our own.  I understand this.  The rabbi who buried my grandparents also officiated at my wedding.  Hearing the same voice intone the blessings of our tradition brings a comfort that I could not myself bring to those moments.  There is a continuity in the voice.  There is a music in his blessing.

It is not that he is the only person who can say it.  It is instead that his voice is the connecting thread spanning the milestones of my life.  That is of course what it means to belong to a community.  When belonging to a congregation each milestone is threaded together.  They are not some discreet ceremonies presided over by some officiant.  The blessing of the rabbi is received and given meaning in the context of community.  He might very well be the weaver, but the congregation is the tapestry.  I relish the privilege of offering the priestly blessing at milestone occasions.  It binds us together.

I also wish that it was not only reserved for my lips.  I wish that each of us would utter these words on any number of occasions.  I wish that parents would bless their children and that spouses would bless each other.  I wish that people would not feel as if they have to wait for me to recite the motzi blessing, but that these words would naturally roll off their tongues as well. 

I will continue to count it a privilege to recite the priestly blessing at momentous occasions.  I will also continue to teach that each and everyone of us can say blessings and have our own direct, connection to God.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Peace, Love and (Mis)Understanding

Elvis Costello just announced that he will cancel his concerts in Israel.  He writes on his website: "It is after considerable contemplation that I have lately arrived at the decision that I must withdraw from the two performances scheduled in Israel on the 30th of June and the 1st of July. One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament. Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent...."  What a shame!  The growing anti-Israel campaign where Israel is seen as increasingly illegitimate and likened to apartheid South Africa is gaining adherents in many circles.  There are divestment campaigns and now calls for boycotts.  All of these suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation.  Israel is by no means perfect, but it has steadfastly sought peace despite decades of Arab belligerence.  Most Israelis support a two-state solution.  Even Netanyahu affirms the idea.  To be sure there are more Israelis to convince, but it is Palestinian intransigence in general and insistence in particular of a "right of return" that stalls progress.  Costello will not advance peace or love or understanding by refusing to play in Israel.  He has only sided with those who say that Israel is always wrong and state that if only Israel would withdraw from here or there, then there would be peace.  I will always say, "Great songs Elvis."  Now I must add, "Shameful decision.  You have not advanced 'peace, love and understanding.'"  

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Naso

This week’s Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89).  It details a number of items: a census of the Levites, the tribe assigned to priestly duties; the sotah ritual for determining the guilt of an adulterer (although I remain skeptical that drinking a water and earth mixture can actually determine guilt and so I believe the ritual was instead intended to assuage jealousy and anger); the Nazarite vow, pledging those adherents to God and setting them apart from the people by insisting that they abstain from drinking alcohol (rather un-Jewish if you asked me) and by refraining from cutting their hair (hence the most well known Nazarite is Samson); and finally in chapter seven, the last bit of preparations for the tabernacle’s use.

At the conclusion of chapter six about the Nazarite’s vow occurs one of the most familiar blessings in the entire Torah, the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may you always find God’s presence in your life and be blessed with shalom, with peace.”

It is these words that I recite when blessing brides and grooms, babies and of course b’nai mitzvah students.  It is these words that are known as the birkat cohanim, the priestly blessing recited at holiday services, most especially the High Holidays.  I call forward those tracing their lineage to the ancient priests.  At this service the cohanim stand and bless their fellow congregants.  It also these words that comprise the traditional blessing for children recited by parents at the Shabbat dinner table.

I have always found it interesting that people prefer that I offer this blessing at momentous times in their lives, rather than parents or other family members.  People seem to feel that somehow my blessing, offered at a simcha, is more important or perhaps even better than a parent’s.  I don’t want to write myself out of job, but why do people feel that the rabbi is required to recite a blessing?

We belong to a democratic tradition.  I hold no special connection to God; I have no special power to offer God’s blessings that is not available to everyone.  A rabbi is first and foremost a teacher.  Blessings can be offered by everyone and anyone.  Each of us can find our own connection to God.  I do not serve as an intermediary.  Praying to God does not travel through the rabbi.  Many of our prayers do require others, do require the community.  We pray best when standing with our congregation.  But each of us has our own direct line to God.  Our blessings and prayers, while aided by the community, travel through no one but ourselves.

All of us can offer blessings.  This is perhaps more obvious when it comes to giving thanks for food or when reciting the kiddush over wine.  One does not, for example, need the rabbi to come to one’s house to recite the kiddush at the seder table.  Why then when it comes to blessing other people are we uncomfortable doing this ourselves?  Why do we defer reciting the priestly blessing to a spiritual authority?  Why not bless our children ourselves, each and every Friday night?

Imagine this.  Every Shabbat we hold our children close, perhaps only for the one minute that they allow us, and we say not only “I love you,” but also, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”  I am so very thankful for the trust you place in me by asking me to offer this priestly benediction at the special occasions in your lives, but children also require the blessing of parents.  Husbands and wives need blessings from each other.  Perhaps we should not wait until the milestones in our lives to hear these words.  We should hear this blessing roll off our tongues each and every week.  Each of us can bring blessings to our lives.  Each of us can bring blessings to our family’s lives!  Offering weekly blessings can sustain us.  And that sustenance is within the power of each of us! 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bamidbar Sermon

Let’s begin not with Jewish tradition but with some observations about other religious traditions.  In the Muslim tradition, Mecca is the most important city.  This is where Muhammad first proclaimed Islam.  The fifth pillar of Islam states that everyone who is able must make a pilgrimage, at least once in their lifetime, to Mecca.  This is called the Haj and it is the largest pilgrimage celebration in the world.

Hinduism as well has several holy cities to which people make pilgrimages.  Christianity has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified and Bethlehem where he was born.  Visiting these places, walking in Jesus’ footsteps, is an enormously important act for believing Christians.

By contrast we still can’t find Mount Sinai.  Perhaps that is part of our tradition’s intention.  No place should ever become overly venerated.  Ours is a search for truth rather than a search for a destination.  Perhaps we can even say that the journey is more important than the direction.  Our religion was proclaimed in a wilderness, in a desert.

Truth and revelation were not revealed at some place that we can find, but in a non-descript, deserted revelation.  This is the notion about which I have been reflecting.  It is the notion that we can find truth anywhere and everywhere.

It is of course ironic that I say this only two days after marking Jerusalem Day and in a congregation that has so many employed in the real estate business.   Yes we have a holy city that is worthy of visiting and a holy land that is central to our people.  This came later in our tradition, not too much later, but after the Torah.  The land of Israel is not the origins of our religion.

Israel’s declaration of independence states:  “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.  Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.”  As much as I love Israel this is not accurate.  We were born in the desert, in the wilderness.  Israel is extraordinarily important.  It is important, however, because it is our home.

Home provides comfort and security.  The problem is when we look to our home to provide all truth and revelation, when we place everything, every hope and prayer, in a few places.  The beauty of our tradition is that every place can be holy.  Every place is a source of truth.  If you can find revelation in the desert then it can be found anywhere.  One small example.  This evening we are celebrating the achievement of our confirmation students.  These students met for three years at Mario’s Pizzeria.  In the basement of a local restaurant we discussed and debated questions about God and tradition.  There, in the least likely of places, we uncovered truth.

Perhaps part of the power of the desert is that the small things are most prized.  You have to search carefully for water.  There truth and meaning are not taken for granted.

We spend our lives building our homes and planning vacations to destinations that we hope and pray hold promise.  But promise and truth are to be found in unexpected places.  We learn the most in the places where we don’t seek it.  It is in the unplanned places where we find meaning.  We have to only be open to this possibility.  Every place, every moment is potentially filled with meaning.

That is the message of the midbar, of the desert.  That is the meaning of this week’s portion, bamidbar.  May we always find meaning—everywhere and anywhere.

Happy Shavuot

Tomorrow evening begins the holiday of Shavuot.  Unlike the festivals of Passover and Sukkot there is no seder to prepare and no sukkah to build and so Shavuot is the least observed of our major holidays and probably as well the least well known.  This is rather ironic given that the holiday celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Then again given that the central act of Shavuot is studying rather than eating one can understand why it is less compelling than the other holidays.  (To learn more about Shavuot visit Tablet Magazine’s website.)

Nonetheless Torah is central to our lives, specifically Talmud Torah, the study of Torah.  It has never been the mere act of reading Torah that is so important but studying and pouring over its words year in and year out.  This of course is the essence of the weekly Torah reading cycle.

The mystical tradition of kabbalah gives us what has become one of the most important customs of the holiday, Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, an all night study session.  Like preparing for a college final exam, the mystics spent the entire evening immersed in studying Torah in preparation to receive the Torah anew.

Interestingly people rarely translate the word “tikkun” when explaining this custom.  The term means “repair” and is most often associated with the mystical phrase, “tikkun olam,” repair of the world, now linked with social action.  The mystics however believed that tikkun olam was connected to observance and in particular the study of Torah rather than social action.  Through the study of Torah, they argued, we repair the world.

That study and learning can help to transform the world is a centerpiece of Jewish belief.  For the mystics, studying alone repaired.  For me study must lead to action.  The Talmud asks: “Which is greater, study or action?”  The Rabbis answered, “Study is greater, because it leads to action.” We hope that our study we will not only better ourselves but our world.  May our study help us to repair our world!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hava Nagila in Kuwait

Singer's Performance of Hava Nagila Sparks Debate in Kuwait
Unfortunately most articles posted by MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute, an organization devoted to translating the Arabic media into English) paint an unflattering view of the Arab world. Such is the reality of what is said in Arabic in Middle Eastern papers. The following story, however, is thankfully atypical. Below is the introduction from MEMRI's report. You can read more, especially the debate that ensued in Kuwait's daily paper, by following the link. 
On February 27 and 28, 2010, a Kuwaiti folk group headed by singer Ema Shah, which performs songs and dances from around the world, gave two concerts at the Kuwait University Alumni Club. In addition to songs in Arabic, English, Spanish and Japanese, the program included the Hebrew song "Hava Nagila," as well as some songs by Jewish French singer Enrico Macias. On the first night, the songs were received with warm applause by the audience. However, during the second performance, there was some protest from the audience and demands to remove the songs from the program.
Ema Shah rejected these demands. In an April 6, 2010 interview, she explained that her group performed folk music in order to connect people around the world and remove barriers created by extremists who oppose freedom, liberalism and democracy. She stressed that there was nothing in the song "Hava Nagila" that was offensive to Arabs, that performing a song in a foreign language is not tantamount to spying for a foreign country, and that art should not be mixed with politics. She added that Kuwait, which is not a theocracy, should uphold its laws of freedom of belief and expression, and that the Arabs should drop their racist attitude towards others.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

O Jerusalem

O Jerusalem
Another Tablet Magazine article worth reading. We might prefer to believe in the mythic Jerusalem over the earthly, but Zionism means that we must face the reality.  We can no longer live in an idealized Jerusalem.  We must come to terms with how apart Jerusalem stands from the rest of Israel.  As much as I love Jerusalem, the reality is not nearly as perfect. Liel Leibovitz writes:
One, of course, may disagree that a capital must, or can, represent its nation. We may argue whether or not Washington, D.C., say, embodies the United States, or what is quintessentially Dutch about The Hague. But Jerusalem has always been special: While it is an earthly city, it is, unlike most of the world’s capitals, also a theological concept, the sum of all the Jewish people’s yearnings and beliefs. When Israeli paratroopers reunified the city 43 years ago, many, like Kollek, believed that now, finally, heaven and earth would move a little bit nearer together and that the actual city would come as close as any actual city can to resembling the idyll Jews have been praying for. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposite is true: Jerusalem represents a narrow portion of the Jewish population, highlighting the conflicts and the differences that plague Israel, never further from heaven.
So, it’s Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem—a Jerusalem I never knew—I commemorated on Yom Yerushalayim this year. By the time I was old enough to learn to appreciate the city, Ehud Olmert and his ultra-Orthodox associates were already in power, and the secular exodus from Jerusalem had begun in full force. But like the many Jews who pine not for the earthly city of Jerusalem but for Jerusalem that’s in our prayers and in our minds and in our hearts, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, I, too, yearn. One day, I pray, Jews will once again return to Jerusalem and rebuild it, Jews who have faith in the ancient traditions but also in the promise of a better future, Jews who feel as comfortable with Twitter as they do with their tefillin, Jews who are confident enough in their birthright to treat others with dignity and respect. If they ever come back to Jerusalem, these Jews will make it the city Teddy Kollek fought for, both particularly Jewish and truly international, a city, in other words, I would very much love.

Bamidbar

This week’s portion begins the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers.  In Hebrew the portion and book are called, Bamidbar—in the wilderness, specifically in the wilderness of Sinai.

Isn’t it remarkable that nearly the entire Torah, from leaving Egypt in the beginning of Exodus to Moses’ death in the closing of Deuteronomy, occurs in this non-descript place, the wilderness?  The most significant events in our early history occur in the midbar, wilderness.  The Torah, our most treasured possession, is revealed not in some sacred precinct that we visit in yearly pilgrimages but instead on a mountain that has yet to be discovered.  We know only that Mount Sinai is a mountain somewhere in the vast expanse of the Sinai desert.  Our faith was born, and God revealed, in a deserted wilderness.

We spend a good deal of our lives building, decorating, painting and landscaping our homes as if they were our sacred towers, as if they contain revelation, as if they are where the most important truths are discovered.  In fact this week’s Torah portion reminds us that revelation and truth are not to be found in homes or destinations but in the wilderness.

Our question for this week is: where is revelation best uncovered, where is truth discovered?  According to this week’s Torah portion it is not where you would expect, but instead in a vast wilderness.  Truth is uncovered while wandering through the wilderness.  The root of the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, comes from davar, to speak.  Words, and teachings, are uncovered in the midbar.  We build our homes, expectantly, hoping that this is where truth will be revealed.  In fact our greatest lessons are often in the most unexpected places.  And this is the most important lesson found in the wilderness, bamidbar.

I am very practical when it comes to buildings.  Homes are about comfort and security.  I don’t mean to discount aesthetics.  It has its value.  A blooming garden can change a mood.  A beautiful sculpture can brighten an entrance.  But the fundamental meaning of our tradition is that we are never at home.  We are always wandering.  We are always in the wilderness.  And it is in the wilderness where truth is discovered.

It is the unexpected places that offer the greatest lessons in our lives.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Supreme Court Justice

I have been reading with great interest the stories about the nomination of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court.  I have always found the Supreme Court the most interesting of US institutions so such nominations renew my interest and admiration for the court.  The fact that liberals are complaining that she is not as liberal as they would like, especially given some of her writings on the prosecution of terror suspects and the fact that conservatives are complaining that she is too liberal on such questions as gay and lesbian rights, might make her the perfect justice.  The New York Times today editorialized that she lacks the opinion paper trail to determine her judicial mindset and therefore properly judge her credentials.  All this complaining and negative editorializing actually comforts me.  I believe there should be two simple qualifications for a Supreme Court justice.  She must be an intellectual heavyweight and be exceedingly knowledgeable about the law.  It would appear that Elena Kagan meets these qualifications.  Her leanings, her politics, and even her religion and home state are secondary and unimportant.  I have faith in the institution of the Supreme Court.  I believe in the Talmud's machloket l'shem shamayim, arguing for the sake of heaven.  I have faith that nine intelligent and knowledgeable people can listen, weigh arguments and then debate the pros and cons.  Predispositions are meant to be cast aside and each issue openly challenged.  The law lives through the interpretation of the courts and its justices.  Together, through intellectual debate, these justices decide how to interpret the law.  Hearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at the Y (through our new 92Y Live program) about her friendship with Antonin Scalia despite their obvious intellectual disagreements restored this faith in the Supreme Court.  It seems to this casual observer that Elena Kagan may very well be above politics and ideology (even if by her own design).  This is exactly how the institution she might come to serve is supposed to behave.  The Supreme Court is defined not by politics or ideology but by intellectual debate.  May it always be so!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Song Cycle

Song Cycle
Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, is celebrated on Wednesday. This day marks the reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War. The song, Yerushalayim shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, symbolizes that event and this holiday more than any other song. Naomi Shemer's song is not without controversy. To learn more about the song and its convoluted history, this Tablet Magazine podcast is worth listening to. One question raised in the podcast should be pondered at length. Is our heavenly, mythic vision of Jerusalem a betrayal of the earthly return to history envisioned by modern Zionism?

Behar-Behukotai Sermon

A number of people have asked me to share my answers to the questions I pose in my Thursday email.  Although my sermons are mere responses to these questions, and never answers, I am thankful for the request. I share here a summary of Friday's drasha.  For the full, detailed, version you have to come to Shabbat Services.

The Torah speaks with a certainty about life and death, reward and punishment that is contrary to our real world experience.  "You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security..."  As much as I would like to say that the more you observe the more you get it is not true.

So my question for this week is why should we observe.  I reject the notion that we should observe out of reward and punishment.  I don't want our Torah to become a protective amulet.  This is demeaning to our greatest book.  Such a view makes the Torah into a mere to do list.

Why observe?  Why do Jewish things?  Why eat matzah?  Why give tzedakah?  Why light Shabbat candles?  Why not steal?  Let us recall that doing Jewish things is about the ethical as much as about the ritual.  There are two simple reasons why we observe.  Observance gives meaning to our lives.  It points to something bigger and something greater.  And ritual observance points us toward our ethical obligations. 

The grand purpose of our tradition is not the length of our own individual years but instead to better our world.  According to our tradition, the world is waiting to be completed by our hands.  The question of why bad things happen to good people will forever remain a mystery.  You can do a lot or a little.  I can't promise you long life.  I can promise you a connection to something greater.  I can promise you a life of meaning and a life of purpose.

Hold the Torah close to your heart.  Study its words not out of fear of punishment, or promise of reward, but for the sake of something greater: a life of meaning, and even more important, a better world.

Forgive Not | The New Republic

Forgive Not | The New Republic
Gary Wills' recent piece is a powerful article about the failures of his Church. He writes: "All those who honor the name of Jesus are engaged in a joint search for the Jesus who will not be found in marble halls or wearing imperial costumes. He is forever on the run. He is the one who said, “Whatever you did to any of my brothers, even the lowliest [elackistoi], you did to me” (Matthew 25:41). That means that the priests abusing the vulnerable young were doing that to Jesus, raping Jesus. Any clerical functionary who shows more sympathy for the predator priests than for their victims instantly disqualifies himself as a follower of Jesus. The cardinals said they must care for their own, going to jail if necessary to protect a priest. We say the same thing, but the “our own” we care for are the victimized, the poor, the violated. They are Jesus." This identification with the suffering victims is a Christianity I most admire.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Connect to Care

Yesterday evening our congregation helped sponsor the Jericho Networking Event for those seeking employment as well as a B2B Professional Networking Meeting for employers.  For more information about this community resource please visit the Connect to Care website here.  What follows are my remarks from the event.

There are those who believe that their faith is a private matter spoken in hushed tones and observed within the confines of their homes.  There are others who think that their Judaism is best practiced within the walls of their synagogues. 

We believe however that our Judaism must reach beyond our homes and synagogues.  These are places where our faith begins and from where it draws sustenance, but our Judaism must never end in the synagogue and home.  The synagogue is but a means to an end of bringing healing to our world.

This evening is dedicated to this very task.  We are keenly aware of the fact that there are those who continue to search for employment.  As Jews we believe that there is meaning in labor and that everyone must be given the opportunity to find such meaning.  We hope and pray that this evening’s program helps those searching for work to find employment and thereby find fulfillment in these jobs.

I am always honored to serve as the rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville.  On this day in particular I am especially proud that our congregation has taken to heart the lesson that our Jewish faith must matter for the world and for others in order for it to matter for ourselves.  I am proud that our leadership and in particular Jim Krantz and Jack Cohen have taken it upon themselves to give flesh to this vision.  We are honored to be a part of our community’s efforts and I thank the UJA-Federation, Sid Jacobson JCC, Jericho Jewish Center and numerous congregations for joining together in this important effort.

I hope and pray that those among you searching for jobs find meaningful work that befits your experience and credentials.  May God’s blessing combined with our efforts bring good fortune to our community and to our world.  Amen.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

In the Toilet

In the Toilet
Shalom Auslander writes: "I think the first question you need to ask yourself when writing a book about the Holocaust is this: Who wants to read another book about the Holocaust? About any Holocaust. Because I sure as hell do not. I was once asked to review a book about the Holocaust, and I couldn’t even do it then—and that was a paid gig. If a Jew can’t even bring himself to read a book about the Holocaust for money, then, folks, something has gone terribly wrong. And so I set out not to write a book about the Holocaust but to write a book about the endless talk of genocide, about the glorification of suffering, about the possibility that “never forgetting” and “shutting the hell up about it for one god-damned minute” aren’t mutually exclusive." Read more here!

Behar-Behukotai

This week’s Torah portion is Behar-Behukotai and concludes the book of Leviticus. It describes the sabbatical and jubilee years. Every seventh year the land must lie fallow. In the seventh year even the land observes Shabbat. Every fiftieth year all debts are forgiven and everything and everyone returns to its original state. Freedom is restored to all people and every acre of land on this year. While the sabbatical year is still observed, although only in the State of Israel, the fiftieth jubilee year is not. However the command about the jubilee year forms the basis of the inscription on the Liberty Bell. The description of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:10 reads: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land…” This verse was selected because the Liberty Bell marked the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges.

In Leviticus 26 the Torah also proclaims: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” (26:3-5)

The Torah says over and over again that if we observe mitzvot we will receive reward, that if we observe God’s Torah then there will be plenty and the land will never want. The reward is promised not in the next life but in the here and now. This of course begs the obvious question. Have you ever felt as if God is not keeping this promise? Each of us could cite far too many examples of friends, or family, who were not granted a full measure of years or natural disasters that destroyed cities and lives. So how are we to make sense of these verses?

There are of course those small minded Jews who see in such tragedies not a failure of God or an opportunity to examine themselves but a failure of other Jews. They say, “If only they were more observant…” These Jews examine not their own ways and their own failures. They do not re-examine their beliefs and theology. Instead they only speak about the failures of others. Worse still they blame tragedies on others. They speak with a certainty about God’s ways that should give every thinking person pause. God’s ways are mysterious. Who then can speak with such confidence?

Yet this is exactly how the Torah, our greatest book, speaks. Every verse is filled with certainty. “If…then” is its mode of thinking. “If you follow God’s commandments then you will receive rewards” is its mantra. Given the plain fact that the world does not live in accord with this precept, how are we to make sense of such verses? I refuse to cast blame on others. I refuse to weigh the benefits of observance according to a life and death calculus. I still, rather frequently, examine my own ways when confronted with a crisis. I, even more frequently, examine my faith.

And so let us examine our faith. Why do we do Jewish things? Why do we observe? Why do we go to Shabbat services? Why do we eat matzah? Why do we give tzedakah? Why do we not steal? Is it, as the Torah expounds, for the promise of reward or as this week’s Torah portion also states, out of fear of punishment. “If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you…” (26:15-16)

To my mind these statements are not good reasons to observe. Such notions of reward and punishment make the mezuzah into a protective amulet and the commandments a shield. Then why do Jewish things?