Monday, June 28, 2010

Camp, Then and Now

Camp, Then and Now
"For many of us, sleepaway camp is the first sizeable chunk of time away from parents. It’s a taste of adulthood. Nikayon, daily cleaning time, was the first time I really scrubbed a sink or swept an entire floor. Because camp means building a society in miniature, in which kids have more independence and power than they do back home, friendships there seem more vivid, more intense–a lifetime poured into a concentrated month or two."  Unlike the author, Marjorie Ingall, I, on the other hand, just sent my son off to camp for his final summer as a camper.  I love the independence, self-esteem and Jewish identity sleep away camp builds.  It is irreplaceable in terms of building character!

Balak Sermon

Our Torah portion gives us the Mah Tovu prayer, a prayer of unrivaled majesty and beauty, but one nonetheless authored by non-Jewish hands.   Let us take a few moments to explore the implications of its origins.

All of us have favorite poets and singers.  I love Derek Walcott as well as Yehuda Amichai.  I love Taj Mahal as well as David Broza.  What makes them our favorites?  It is that they speak to our hearts.  It is that they mirror our feelings and aspirations.  Does it matter whether the singer or poet is Jewish?

There are those who see outside influences as forbidden.  One need only recall the recent protests in Jerusalem.  There the Supreme Court is taboo.  There Sephardic customs are forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews.  In a bitter irony of modern Zionism, there are those in Jerusalem who wish to live in a ghetto of their own making.

Such is not my world!  Yet I am still plagued by the question, what is the influence of non-Jewish poems and prayers on our Jewish hearts?  Should we decry their voices or welcome their insights?

If I take too much of the outside world do I lose my Jewish identity? Can a Jew embrace yoga?  Should a Jew embrace an exercise stemming from another religious tradition?  Where do we draw the line?  If all our prayers were recited in English would we not feel comfortable?  If all not authored by Jewish hands do we then lose our connection to the Jewish people?  Does Jewish authorship guarantee Jewish aspirations?  Can Walcott capture my spirit as well as Amichai?

We live in two worlds.  We need to live in both worlds, with a foot in the Jewish world and a foot in the non-Jewish world.  If praying is also about seeking truth then believing that one language or one people has cornered this truth is not only troubling but contrary to the effort.

The most remarkable point about Mah Tovu opening our prayers is the implied admission that no one has a cornerstone on approaching God.  We are all just stumbling and grappling to express our feelings just as Bilaam stumbled from cursing to blessing.  Every prayer, every poem is only an attempt.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balak

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we read of the origins of the beautiful Mah Tovu prayer.  Here is the story.  Balak, the king of Israel’s enemy, the Moabites, becomes alarmed at Israel’s military victory over the neighboring Amorites.  So the king instructs his prophet Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites.

Rather than cursing his enemy, Balaam blesses the Israelites.  He offers several moving tributes about the people of Israel.  It is here that he offers the words of the familiar Mah Tovu prayer that opens the morning service: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24)

A beautiful poem to be sure, but one authored by a non-Jewish, idolatrous prophet.  His blessing opens our prayerbook.  Every other prayer in our siddur is authored by Jewish hands.  Yet we open with the words of someone from outside the tradition. Have you ever thought of what this might mean?  Have you ever thought of the significance of this opening to our great compendium of prayers and strivings for God?

There are those who dismiss its origins and say, “It is an exception.  The rule is Jewish prayers are written by Jewish hands.  Balaam only reinforces the point.”  But what if the Mah Tovu prayer is suggesting that we can find truth outside of our tradition, that we can discover spiritual yearnings in the non-Jewish world?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love our Jewish prayers.  Nothing really comes as close to expressing my views when I awake each morning than the Elohai Neshama prayer: “As long as this soul is within me I will give thanks to You, Adonai my God…”  Then again perhaps sometimes we can also find meaning from outside of our people.  Sometimes as well, like Balaam, the outsider can help us see the best in ourselves and help us express our devotion to God.

My favorite poets not only include the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, but also Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century Jesuit priest.  His writing reflects the majesty of the Bible’s psalms: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil…”

There are those who believe that truth and pathways to God can only be found from those who are like them, from those who think and act as they do.  Last week we read of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews who do not want their children even to pray and learn with ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  This is the most extreme example of shutting the outside world out.  This is not how truth is discovered.  This is not how truth is revealed.

How are you going to learn or grow if you only talk to those who are like yourself?  How are you going to better pray to God if you never listen to the prayers and poetry of others?  Can we find inspiration from outside of our tradition as well as from inside?  How many in our congregation for example practice yoga?  Is yoga merely exercise or is there a spiritual component to this practice as well, a component deriving from Eastern religious traditions?

Our prayerbook opens with the words “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” and with this blessing, the implied observation that no one has a cornerstone on truth and approaching God.  What an extraordinary admission for a prayerbook filled with the strivings of generations of Jews!

All our prayers are but imperfect attempts to touch the divine.  Let us nonetheless enter the sanctuary and begin the attempt.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shalom Hartman Institute - Haredi School Fight Undermines Israeli Democracy

Haredi School Fight Undermines Israeli Democracy
My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes:
It is time to end the ludicrous reality in which the State of Israel funds education that undermines its existence, accepts the use of its funds to implement policies it abhors and which violate its core principles and interests. It is time to end the policy in which the State funds programs beyond its means and perpetuates an unemployable class that threatens the future of the State socially and economically.

However, the public must also recognize and concede that no fault lies with the ultra-Orthodox. They have not stolen State resources but were legally allocated them. They are not to blame for wanting the State to fund a perpetual 19th century Polish ghetto. We are to blame for perpetuating the myth that we can and are willing to do so. Only when we recognize our responsibility will we avoid future standoffs between the Supreme Court and the mothers.
If you have not yet read Thursday's The New York Times article about these events follow this link.  To summarize, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a school receiving public funds to separate Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.  The Ashkenazi leaders argued that the Sephardic rulings were not exacting enough and did not want their children to be influenced by the Sephardic students.  Sephardic families were by the way permitted to join the Ashkenazi side of the room, on the other side of the divider.  Israel's Court even referred to the United States' famous Brown v. Board of Education opinion.  The protesters came out to support those ultra-Orthodox Jews we were held in contempt of court when they refused to abide by the court's opinion.  Let us hope that this opinion leads to an untangling of state funding for Hasidic education where students are trained to spend a lifetime of yeshiva learning never serving in the IDF or aspiring to gainful employment where they would contribute income tax dollars and give back to Israeli society in a tangible way. Torah learning was never meant to be sustained by a welfare state.  The great medieval commentator, Rashi, argued that it is better to flay carcasses in the market (I am not sure what that it is, but it sounds like a really bad job) than be dependent on tzedakah.

Addendum.  For more on the same issue, read this Jerusalem Post Blog about separate seating for men and women on Jerusalem buses whose routes travel through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hukkat Sermon

We learn in this week's Torah portion that Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.  The episode is recounted in Numbers 20 where he hits the rock in anger in order to produce water for the complaining Israelites.  The commentators debate what was Moses sin?  There are several suggestions.  1) He hits the rock rather than commanding the rock.  2) He did not give God the proper credit for the miracle, saying, "Shall we bring forth water..."  3) Although we understand why he lost patience with the people, his anger nonetheless got the better of him.  4) Or, he lost faith in the people he led, saying, "Listen, you rebels..."  This final suggestion offers us a lesson for leadership.  We must never lose faith in the people we lead.  We must never see a distance between a leader and the people.  When Moses called the Israelites "you rebels" he lost faith in his congregation.  The task of leadership is to lead from within, to be a part of the community, but never apart, to be ahead but never distant.  On this Shabbat when we install our new presidents and new board we should take note from this week's portion.  We learn from Moses' example to always have faith in the future and its promise.  We also learn from his mistake to never lose faith in the community.  May we always believe in our congregation and our community.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Elton John Concert in Israel

Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News
Unlike a number of other musicians like Elvis Costello and Carlos Santana, Elton John refused to bow to pressure to cancel his performance in Israel. About 50,000 attended his concert in Ramat Gan stadium outside Tel Aviv. John said, "I have always believed that music inhabits a world set apart from politics, religious differences or prejudice of any kind." This is welcome news. It should be noted that last month Egypt banned Elton John from appearing in its country because of his comments calling Jesus "a super intelligent gay man." I will allow my readers to surmise what this says about debate and pluralism in the Muslim world.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hukkat

This week's Torah portion, Hukkat, tells the story of why Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

A recap.  After arriving in the wilderness of Zin the people again complain against Moses.  They scream, "If only we had perished when our brothers [led by Korah] perished at the instance of the Lord!  Why have you brought the Lord's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even enough water to drink!" 

Moses becomes distraught with the people's incessant complaining.  Freedom is no longer enough for them.  They want pomegranates as well!  Moses consults with God and is instructed to command a rock to bring forth water in front of all the people.  Moses assembles the people and says, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?"  Moses raises his staff and strikes the rock two times and out comes water.  But God exclaims, "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20)

The commentators debate with each other, trying to answer what was Moses' great sin, a sin apparently so terrible that Moses is punished with not being allowed to fulfill the promise of entering the land.  Some suggest it was that he hit the rock.  Others, that he hit the rock twice or that he did not give proper credit to God for the miracle.  Still others say that it was his angry tone.  Apparently even the great Moses has an Achilles' heal.  It is his anger.  Like other great literary and historical giants Moses is a tragic hero because of this fatal flaw.  This is one way to read the story.  Moses lost his temper.  Moses was not patient when he most needed to be.  He is punished for his anger. 

Another way to read the story is to see Moses as representing unfulfilled promises.  If we are to see ourselves in the Torah and to see our lives mirrored in its heroes, then the question is not what did Moses do that was so terrible and deserving of punishment, but instead how do we learn from Moses how to face unfulfilled promises. 

Throughout our lives others will make promises to us.  Some will be fulfilled.  Others will not.  How will we face these?  Will we become angry?  Not everything we hope for, or wish for, or plan for will come to fruition.  People will disappoint us.  We will disappoint ourselves.  Even God will disappoint us.  Will we blame others?  Will we lash out in anger?  Will we lose faith?  Life will present us with disappointments.  The only question is how will we face them.

In a later Torah portion, Va-ethanan, Moses begs God to allow him to enter the Promised Land.  God refuses.  Moses pleads, "O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal.  Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deuteronomy 3) We can sense Moses' pain.  He begs God to allow him to touch the land.  God only allows him to see the land from afar.  But the promise remains unfulfilled.

We are left to wonder.  After all that Moses endured and did for God and the people, his last wish remains unrealized.  How much more so the situations in our own lives.  If Moses does not have every wish realized, then who are we to expect every promise to attain fulfillment?  We are left with incomplete answers.  And so how do we respond?   Perhaps the only answer is the recognition and acceptance that we cannot fulfill every promise.  Every dream is not achieved. 

Still we cannot let go of hope.  Promises and dreams are not always realized with our own hands and in our own lifetimes.  Sometimes our promises are for others to fulfill. Like Moses, our hopes and dreams are not always wrapped up in our own lives, but in future generations.

We rest our promises on those who follow us.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Korah and the Gaza Flotilla Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion we see further evidence that nothing goes according to plan.  In fact the entire Book of Numbers is evidence of this.  Such is also the case with recent events and Israel’s raid on the so called, Gaza flotilla.  Much of the Israeli press has expressed what I believe.  Here is my view.  The raid was right but not smart.

Here is why Israel was right.   Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip.  Hamas now controls the Strip and still fires rockets at Israeli civilians.  Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction.  Despite this Israel still actively sustains Gaza.   A few facts.  Israel’s hospitals accept thousands of Gazans for medical treatment.  It lets food and medicine through its checkpoints—of course, not too much building supplies because these could be used for constructing tunnels.  It supplies Gaza with electricity and gas.  No other country in the world sustains a government bent on its destruction in this way. (Gadi Taub, “S.O.S.,” TNR, June 9, 2010)
 
But the raid was not smart.  The raid was all about PR and the world’s perception of the struggle.  Israel’s actions played into the hands of those who wish to delegitimize Israel.  Although the world is wrong, the world now perceives Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the victim.  This is what the flotilla was about and Israel played into its hands.  Stopping a boatload of advanced weaponry is a different question—and this Israel has successfully done on a number of occasions.

This is the same problem with the settlements.  I have always believed that there is an important difference between a Jerusalem suburb and a settlement in Hebron.  But again right does not always make smart.  The world is again wrong—but the expansion of housing in the West Bank erodes Israel’s standing in the world.  Although I would very much like to say buck world opinion, we cannot.

Zionism is not just about power; it is about international legitimacy. It is about raising the status of the Jews to the family of nations.  We can’t just say, “The world will always hate us, the world is wrong.”  We must also be smart—most especially in how and when we yield power.

During Olmert’s tenure as prime minister there was a similar attempt to break the blockade.  Olmert’s government let the ships pass through and dock in Gaza.  The strategic equation was not altered.  A few more rockets will not alter this equation.  The world quickly forgot this event.  And Hamas was robbed of an opportunity to portray itself as a victim.  This is what should have happened a few weeks ago.  Israel should have said, “We will not let them in” until the very last minute and then quietly let them in.  Now Israel’s actions have further eroded its standing in the world and even more importantly, its relations with Jews worldwide.  This greatly worries me. 

The reflexive response of Israel defense organizations only further entrenches us in our own self-righteousness.  You can’t reshape the discussion when there are hundreds more people than weapons on board these ships.  Such responses do not solve the problem or offer solutions.  We have to look at these problems anew.

Israel stands at a crossroads.  It is struggling with how to be both Jewish and democratic.  A few sobering observations about changes that are happening in Israel.  There are six transformations and changes in Israeli society that you must be aware of.  (Lecture by Moshe Halbertal, Jerusalem, February 2, 2010)

1. The transformation of the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox (“religious”) community.  It is no longer a small percentage of the population.  No longer does it not participate in the government—in fact it is part of the current government.  Moshe Halbertal argues that these Jews are maintaining a sense of galut (exile) in Israel.  They have no sense of Jewish pluralism; they do not believe in democracy.

2. The transformation of individual rights.  Like people here, Israeli parents are more concerned with individual liberties than nation building.  This makes for great difficulties in building an army and building a country.  The notion of sacrificing for the greater good is, like many young people here, no longer a part of the general vocabulary.

3. Russian aliya.  Today over 20% of Israelis are from the Former Soviet Union.  25% of combat soldiers are Russian.  They are by and large nationalistic.  Even more important these olim did not bring with them a legacy of democracy.

4. The weakening of groups that were once a bridge between the secular and religious.  The weakening of Sephardic culture shapes this transformation for the Sephardim often served as this bridge.  Ashkenazi culture is black and white; it is this heritage that sees things in categories of all or nothing.  It is this culture that sees consistency as a primary value.  The Sephardic culture by contrast is more fluid.  You can go to services in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon.  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem no longer look like different cities.  They look more like different societies.

5. The transformation of the Israeli Arab.  No more do they see themselves as a discriminated minority but as occupied.  Their agenda is now to redefine the state.  Their goal is to undermine Israel’s Jewish character.  And Israeli Jews labeling the Israeli Arab as a fifth column undermines country’s democratic principles.  Israel must figure out how to be Jewish and promote Arab culture.

Each of these five changes represents 20% of Israeli society.  This means that 2/5 of Israel does not accept the Jewish-democratic vision of the state.  The Haredi don’t accept democracy; the Arab population does not accept the state’s Jewish character.  Both don’t serve in the IDF, the institution that continues to shape Israel society.  One more final, sobering statistic.  49% of current elementary school students in Israel are Haredi or Arab. 

6. Finally these transformations influence changing relationship between the diaspora and Israel.  Half of the Jews today do not remember the 6-Day War and that righteous victory.  Many feel history is boring and even worse, embarrassing.  American Jews are by and large embarrassed by the wielding of Jewish power and young Jews seem uncomfortable with overt displays of Jewish particularism.  In addition recent attempts to use the state’s power to disenfranchise non-Orthodox Jewry draws a further divide between diaspora and Israeli Jews.  

The challenge is how does Israel maintain its Jewish identity while also remaining true to its democratic values.  We are in this fight.  We must be in this fight.  This was the vision of Israel’s founding.  The transformation of Israeli society and the recent blunders that we continue to read about erode this historic relationship between American Jews and Israel.

It is time we return to the principles on which Israel was founded.  It is time that we lend our support not in defending every single Israeli action but by supporting its aspiration to be Jewish and democratic.  Israel cannot sacrifice its Jewishness.  Israel must not sacrifice its democratic principles.  Otherwise we will be forever trapped in the Book of Numbers and continue wandering throughout the wilderness, repeating the mistakes and blunders of our ancestors, and never realizing the promise of the Promised Land.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Korah

The Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, writes: "I love soccer because it is so painfully similar to life: slow, unjust, fairly random, usually boring, but always holding out the hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning.  There’s no getting away from it—life isn’t about limber athletes sinking hoops from the three-point arc; life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we’re lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kak√°, or some other dribbling magician.  And then, for one split second, that whole damp 90-minute mishmash will turn into something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile. And,when that moment and its endless playbacks fade, we will all return to our same drab reality of wasted time, pointless fouls, unreceived passes, and wild kicks that miss the goal by kilometers, only to wait with infinite patience and boundless hope for that next moment of grace." ("Goal-Oriented," TNR, June 2, 2010)

I do not share Keret's observation that most of life is boring (or his talent for spinning humor out of the ordinary), but I do share his thought that life is punctuated, like soccer, with flashes of brilliance and grace when everything seems to work and everyone seems in sync.  Such is not the story of this week's Torah portion, Korah.  Our portion is about the greatest rebellion against Moses and the authority God placed in him.  In fact one can read much of the Torah, especially the Book of Numbers, as a record of how bad things can really go and how telling Keret's observation may be.  Very little goes according to plan.  God frees the people from Egypt, gives them the Torah and prepares them to enter the Promised Land.  They in turn whine and complain.  They gripe about Moses and his leadership. 

In this week's portion, Korah screams, "You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?"  (Numbers 16: 3)  In the end Korah's rebellion is violently crushed.  God does not easily forgive those who question Moses' authority.  The Israelites move on to the next episode.  Again they complain; this time about a lack of water.  In this episode it is Moses who questions God's authority and is punished.  Where are the flashes of brilliance?  Where are the models to emulate?  My teacher use to say, "There is no one in the Bible you would want your son or daughter to grow up to be like."  Then why read the Torah?  If it is not to provide us with models to emulate and characters to which we aspire, why read it at all?

It is because the Torah mirrors life.  It is filled with ordinary people who occasionally do extraordinary things and more often than not do embarrassing things.  We can see ourselves in its characters.  We can find ourselves in its pages.  There is a little bit of Korah in each of us.  There is a measure of Moses in all.  Such is also the case with the modern State of Israel.  It is a country I love.  It is a country whose miraculous founding I cherish and whose vibrancy continues to nourish my soul.  Yet it sometimes stumbles.  And this is exactly what happened with its recent actions regarding the Gaza flotilla.  My remarks tomorrow evening will touch on these events and their repercussions.  Loving Israel does not always mean agreeing with its actions, praising its behavior and apologizing for its leaders.  It is the same with Torah.  Loving the Torah does not always mean imitating it.  Loving the Torah and Bible does not mean saying, "It must be right if David did it.  It must be true if Moses said it."  Torah means instead learning and growing from is words.

There are times when you can appreciate Keret's observation.  Standing on the sidelines I watch my son slide to make a save and then leap to knock the unexpected shot out of bounds.  Most of the time is spent on the sidelines kibbitzing with fellow parents, talking about schools, parenting, the news and weather.  The hours of driving and watching are redeemed by those brief moments of beauty.

We travel from moment to moment, through ordinariness to such grandeur.  We are sustained by the moments of illumination and brilliance.  We pray that they might be more frequent.  We recognize that they are elusive.  Such is life.  Such is soccer.  Such is Torah.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jacob Milgrom z"l

Jacob Milgrom died this past weekend. He was a great scholar and the world's foremost authority on the Book of Leviticus. This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting him. I was introduced to Jacob and his wife Jo by their daughter Shira, a friend and colleague and for this introduction and meeting I will always be grateful. I have often struggled with balancing doubt alongside faith. Do too many questions undermine faith? What happens if we can't find the real Mount Sinai or prove the veracity of the exodus? I asked Professor Milgrom how he balanced the requisite doubt and skepticism of scholarship with the faith and trust of belief. His person was his response. He did not find it to be a struggle. You can regard Torah as holy. And at the same you can pull apart the strands of Torah, labeling some verses as written by one author and others by another school. Skepticism need not become cynicism. Scholarship points toward faith and in fact fortifies belief. Like the physicist who sees in the stars evidence of quarks and as well evidence of God's handiwork, Dr. Milgrom sees in the Torah evidence of God and humanity reaching towards each other. Faith is about bringing God into the world. Scholarship is about uncovering the hidden meanings in the Torah, and these are sometimes discovered by unraveling the many generations of writers who authored the Bible. Doubt must not as well undermine prayer. Not only can you pray, but you must pray, as Milgrom did on a daily basis. He once said (as retold by his son), "Of all things in the universe that God created, only the human is capable of chasing God out of his mind and heart. The human being, however, with his free will and his power of creation can fill his mind and heart with negativity and darkness, and expel God. However when I daven [pray], even if kavanah [proper feeling] doesn't come, at the very least I have dedicated a few minutes every day in which I don't create any negativity and darkness. In this way I have created a space for God to come in and fill me. This is the most important thing in life, because we can't base doing anything good in life on having experiences of kavanah. For kavanah is a gift for which we can't be accountable. But opening a space for God a few minutes each day we can do, and for this we can be accountable. Ultimately these few minutes each day are the foundation of hope that we can create meaning in our lives and they are the first step in tikkun olam [repair of the world]." I have come to see that questions renew and strengthen faith. I have also come to recognize that the greatest meaning can be derived from chance encounters and meetings. I admire Jacob Milgrom for balancing questions and devotion and of course for sharing his person with me.  May the memory of Jacob Milgrom always serve as a blessing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Richard Cohen - What Helen Thomas Missed

Richard Cohen - What Helen Thomas Missed
Richard Cohen writes, "The mini-Holocaust that followed the Holocaust itself is not well-known anymore, but it played an outsize role in the establishment of the state of Israel. It was the plight of Jews consigned to Displaced Persons camps in Europe that both moved and outraged President Harry Truman, who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine and, when the time came, the new state itself. Something had to be done for the Jews of Europe. They were still being murdered." Helen Thomas of courses misses this point. She also misses the point, that Obama and others miss, that the modern State of Israel is connected to the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel and most importantly derives meaning from this connection. When will the world recognize this fundamental point? Peace and co-existence will also not be achieved by one group packing their bags and leaving. Jews and Palestinians are bound to the same land. I feel the Jewish connection. I recognize the Palestinian connection. Let us both recognize each others' claims and affirm each others' historical ties. Only then might we draw closer to peace.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Our First Ten Years

Our First Ten Years
The following is an excerpt from the sermon I delivered marking my first ten years at the JCB.  The complete text can be found by following the link.

...I discovered in the rabbinate a job where I am asked to care and asked to question.  I believe that every person must be loved and cared for and every idea questioned.  Everything is subject to scrutiny and questioning, especially pronouncements that come without reasons.  My parents are, I think, thankful and relieved that I was able to find gainful employment for my questioning.  If you want to be better then you must question.  I can be relentless in this task, but it is the only way you can better yourself and better community.  Kim will tell you that the worst reason for why we might do something is to say to me, “That is how other synagogues do it.”   I am not trying to be different for the sake of being different but I do believe that everything must be examined.  First of all myself, each and every day, each and every moment.  Second, our world.  Third, our traditions.  Nothing is a given.  Everything must be examined, from each and every angle.  That is the only way we can build a Judaism for tomorrow.  That is the only way we can continue to build a synagogue.

That is what attracted me to this place.  I discovered in the Board and those I met on that first occasion a certain courage in carving out our own path and creating a different kind of synagogue.  All of us continue to share the passion that certain values need to be restored to synagogue life: a sense of caring, a commitment to be loving, priority of learning, engaging prayer services.  I have always found the Hasidic shtiebel to be the better model, a place where the rabbi knows each and every family, a place where people enjoy prayer.  A Brookville shtiebel might be a bit of an oxymoron, but such is my quest.

I admit.  My passions can sometimes get the better of me.   In fact truth be told I returned from my interview and told Susie, “I didn’t get the job.”  “Why?” she asked.  “I actually told them what I really think about a whole bunch of things.”  Apparently the committee decided they liked the passion even if a few of the ideas were out of the ordinary for a Reform rabbi.  I can be liberal on some questions and conservative on others.  I don’t want to be categorized.  I just want to continue thinking and questioning.  I will always continue loving Judaism and loving even more, teaching Judaism.  Most of all I will always continue to love this congregation.  I hope I have lived up to the expectations and trust that that committee and Board saw in me.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we learn of Joshua and discover some of his character traits.  I have always admired Joshua, in many ways more than Moses.  Moses is an impossible model to emulate.  First of all who really wants to be alone on a mountain top for 40 days talking to God, especially without any food or water?  That does not sound like much fun.  It does not even sound particularly meaningful.  What kind of Jewish life would that be, especially without the food?  Ask God questions; get answers.  What is there left to do if all of your questions are answered in a few weeks?  That does not seem particularly Jewish to me.  The quest would be over before ever leaving the mountain top.

I love Joshua.  He has faith and he appears to draw strength from within and even strength from questions and doubt.  He remains steadfast in his beliefs while not losing faith with people.  His faith does not blind him to reality, but instead gives him the strength to see beyond the present.  He sees the positive, where others see the negative.  He sees a better tomorrow, where others only see fear.  A Joshua we can be.  A Moses we cannot.

To Joshua, Moses says, “Chazak ve-ematz—be strong and courageous.”  Such is my charge to myself.  Such is my charge to the congregation I will continue to love and care for.   Be strong and courageous.  May this charge carry us through to our next decade.

My Thanks

My Thanks
The following is an excerpt from my speech at Thursday evening's fundraiser in my honor. For the complete text follow the link.

Thank you for this evening and for this honor. I am grateful to all for attending. It warms my heart to celebrate together. I consider it a gift to serve as a rabbi and in particular as your rabbi. Thank you for that privilege. Thank you for recognizing all we have done over the past 10 years with this party. It is so wonderful to celebrate together and dance together!...

Parties and simchas are of course the quintessential Jewish occasions. They remind us of what I most fond of teaching and it is the following. Judaism says, you can’t dance by yourself. You must dance with others. It is not because you look stupid doing so. One need only watch a certain rabbi’s YouTube videos to find an illustration of this. Now my kids will say, “Abba, it is not that you can’t dance by yourself. It is, you can’t dance.” That may be true, but it is not the most important point. You need your community to dance. You also need your congregation to cry. We just don’t do stuff by ourselves. Judaism is not the religion of the rugged individual. We are at our best when we are with others. Our faith is not about solitude. We achieve greatness not on our own, but with friends and in the arms of community. That is what I am about. That is what this synagogue is about.

People often ask me, “When will you have your synagogue?” This question confuses the meaning and purpose of a synagogue with a building. We rightfully want and need a building not because we require a monument but because we can’t do all we want or need without our own home. But square footage does not make a synagogue just like it does not make a house into a home. In towns that too often measure people by the size and architecture of their houses our gathering here tonight reminds them and ourselves that meaning is found in the community we have already built, the people sitting around this room.

We will build a building (and I won’t quit on this point) not because it is an end but because it is a means to further our vision of a caring and learning community. Let us be clear. Meaning and purpose are found in friends and community. This meaning we have already built. This purpose we have already achieved. Our community will only grow stronger in the years ahead, furthered by a building, sustained by the devotion of leaders and ensured by the participation of all. Our friendships will only grow deeper. And so I thank you for your friendship. Thank you for the privilege of serving this community.

I pray. May we never lose sight of the fact that square footage only tabulates area. It can never calculate meaning. On this occasion we have affirmed that no building can ever contain the meaning and purpose we have already grasped. Most people spend a lifetime pining after the friendships and sense of community we already hold. I thank God for this congregation and for its members. I thank you for calling me rabbi. May we continue to go from strength to strength. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Operation Make The World Hate Us | The New Republic

Operation Make The World Hate Us | The New Republic
Leon Wieseltier's recent article is an insightful and provocative piece. He writes: "When, in the modern era, the Zionists concluded, quite correctly, that the Jews must extract themselves from anti-Semitic societies and establish a society of their own, a sovereign one, in the land of Israel, it was in part to “normalize” them by making them “reckoned among the nations,” and therefore like other nations. Zionism was a reversal of Balaam’s phony blessing. The state was not supposed to be a bunker, even if it had enemies." The problem, he argues, is that Israel, and Netanyahu in particular, increasingly approaches its problems with a bunker mentality. About the Palestinians and their supporters he writes: "You are not for co-existence if you advocate the disappearance of one of the terms. Consider...the recent adventures of Noam Chomsky in the region. It was widely noted that the Israelis, again idiotically, turned him away at the Allenby Bridge. It was less widely noted that a few days later a reporter for The New York Times accidentally discovered him in Lebanon at the home of Nabil Qaouk, the deputy head of Hezbollah, which is not what Voltaire had in mind."

Read as well Marty Peretz's article in the same magazine.
In The Great Flotilla Debate, The Facts Are On Israel's Side | The New Republic
"Sympathy for Hamas is an odd reality in the Western world, and Israel needs to puzzle over how it has lost so much ground in its struggle against Arab and Muslim barbarism. I understand that the revival of a certain chic anti-Semitism has paved the way for the grosser anti-Semites and for the Muslim phantasts who deal in torment and salvation. Among these were the voyagers on the ship of fools who, a clip from Al Jazeera demonstrates, awaited the shores of Gaza ... or martyrdom."

More Articles

If you would like to read more about Monday's events and the Gaza flotilla, read the following commentaries:

Amos Oz, Israel Force, Adrift on the Sea
Tom Friedman, When Friends Fall Out

Daniel Gordis, A Botched Raid, A Vital Embargo
Micheal Oren, An Assault, Cloaked in Peace

There is more to be learned and more commentaries to read and ponder...

Shelach Lecha

What kind of person do you strive to be?  What kind of leader do you hope to become?
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we see two kinds of leaders, two kinds of people.  There is Moses, the most important personality in the entire Torah.  He stands up to Pharaoh.  He leads us from slavery to freedom.  He parts the Sea of Reeds, ok with God’s help of course.  He communes with God on Mount Sinai and gives us the Torah.  He talks to God face to face.  So close in fact is his relationship with God that when he doubts, he consults God.  Moses asks and God answers.  Then there is Joshua, the leader who takes over the reins from Moses.  We learn part of Joshua’s character traits in this portion.

In Shelach Lecha we read the story of the twelve spies who are sent to scout the land of Israel.   Ten return with a negative report.  “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32—33)  Joshua (and Caleb), on the other hand, report: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land.  If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into the land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us…  Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us.  Have no fear of them!” (Numbers 14: 7-10)

How is it that all twelve scouted the same land, but came back with different reports?  The answer is not they described a different reality.  It is instead that their assessment of this reality differed.  And it is their assessment that gives us a clue for measuring leadership and character.  Joshua saw things differently.  He looked at overwhelming challenges and rather than cowering in fear reasserted his faith and renewed his dreams.

How is that he was not afraid when others were terrified?  He saw the same things.  He saw the same challenges.  But for Joshua nothing seemed insurmountable.  The ten spies saw conflict, and battles, ahead.  Joshua saw beyond these.  Joshua understood the difficulties, but held in his heart the promise of what would result after struggle and challenge.  That is what makes for Joshua’s greatness.

The majority always focus on difficulties.  The majority worries about failure.  Joshua reminds us that greatness is found in looking to the future.  Joshua never ignores reality.  He sees what others see.  But he does so through the lens of future dreams, of promised gifts.  This is the faith that carries him to tomorrow.  This is why in his eyes even the mightiest of foes is not a giant and he is never as tiny as a grasshopper.

Joshua also appears to summon this faith from within.  With all due respect to Moses and his many achievements, he in some ways had it easy.  Moses asks for advice and God answers.   Joshua on the other hand had to summon the answers from within. Few, if any, can be Moses.  Many of us can be Joshua. He sees hope where the majority sees failure.  He believes when the majority loses faith.   

Moses is an impossible model to emulate.  Joshua is difficult, but not beyond reach.  Let us look to Moses’ Torah for wisdom and learning.  Let us look to Joshua as an example to follow, a person who sees reality clearly but also and more importantly never loses hope in the future.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gaza Flotilla

Let's take a step back from the outcry and make a few observations about Monday's tragic events. Let's first say that Israel lost this one.  It seems plain that Israel lost far more than it gained.  This was a PR battle from the start.  As soon as the ships sets sail from Turkey Israel lost.  The only option at that point was to quietly let the ships reach Gaza, despite the fact that more than a few of the "passengers" could very well have been dangerous terrorists and that there might as well have been weapons onboard.  As many Israeli commentators note, you don't send soldiers to a PR battle.  As soon as the ships set sail Israel was stuck in a catch-22.  In such situations military force does not work.  But if you do you send soldiers, you send them ready for any possible situation.  I don't watch many reality cop shows, but you only have to watch one to see that there are many non-lethal methods for subduing people that are far better than paintball guns.  Read Yossi Melman's column in Haaretz for more on this.  Let's also say that Israel was right.  Israel justifiably maintains a naval blockade of the Gaza strip and it must continue intercepting weapons ships, just as it did for example in November.  By the way Egypt also maintains a blockade.  Hamas' main objective is war with Israel. Hamas maintains a constant state of belligerence with Israel and Israel has every right to protect its citizens.  Time and again Hamas has shown itself more interested in importing weapons than food, more interested in building tunnels than schools, homes or roads.  No doubt the building materials on board these ships would have been used to build more smuggling tunnels than schools.  Now unfortunately the world will not see the legitimacy of Israel's blockade.  Israel will be criticized for "besieging" Gaza.  Maintaining its rightful blockade of Gaza will come under even more international scrutiny.  No amount of talking points from all of the organizations I support will help to explain this situation.  And this is why Israel's actions were so disheartening, and terribly unproductive.  The more important battle was not the struggle that happened at sea but the ongoing battle for Israel's legitimacy and its right to defend its citizens, as well as free Gilad Shalit.  The tragedy is that the Gaza flotilla and Israel's mishandling of it have obscured the more important fight.