Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ekev

This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, offers us a classic formulation of reward and punishment contained in the second paragraph of the Shema:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.  You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.  Take care not be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.  For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you….  (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
This formulation is troubling because it conflicts with how the world works.  It offers us a stark, and perhaps even harsh, correlation between the observance of mitzvot with rewards.   Simply put, if you observe mitzvot, you get rewards.   All of us can think of people who were good yet were not granted long life.

But our Torah, our prayers, state that the more you observe the better your lot.  We, however, see far too many examples where this is simply not the case.  The Reform movement therefore eliminated this paragraph from our prayers, and the prayerbooks we currently use, arguing that its words run so counter to reality that they cannot be our prayer.  How can we say something which is so manifestly untrue?

Yet there might be other ways of understanding this paragraph.  First of all the formulation is directed in the plural, to the entire people.  It is not a promise to individuals, but instead to the entire group.  We rise and fall together, as a people.  This paragraph is talking about our collective fate and lot, not our personal.  Second the promise is not about a person’s long life, but instead about our land’s fate, in particular the land of Israel’s long life.  We will be able to eat our fill because the land will be blessed by our actions.  Our observance is connected to the land’s bounty.  This is an important reminder during this summer of Deepwater Horizon.  If we do right, and only if we do right, will the land provide.  Especially in the harsh climate of the Middle East, reward is not measured in years, but in rainfall.  

Finally the brilliance of the ancient rabbis was to place the theology of Deuteronomy in our prayerbooks.  This act muted the paragraph’s starkness, and perhaps even transformed its theology.  By placing these words in the siddur, the rabbis changed a theological statement into a prayer.  And what a wonderful prayer it is!  I really, really wish the world worked this way.   I pray: the more good you do, the more good you get.  That is my most heartfelt prayer.

Ultimately, the question of reward and punishment misses the larger goal.  Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, wrote: “It is not enough to serve God in anticipation of future reward.   One must do right and avoid wrong because as a human being one is obliged to seek perfection.”  This is our goal and our holy task.  The reward should be secondary.

Vaetchanan Discussion

At Shabbat Services we discussed the Shema and V'Ahavta, and in particular the command to love the Lord your God.  I asked how does one love God?  When is it easy?  When is it difficult?  The answers varied, but many agreed that love of  God is most pronounced when one needs God, especially when one is asking for healing.  When such prayers are not answered, when our struggles intensifies and is even lost, many feel it is difficult to love God.  This view is analogous to the parent-child relationship where the child defines love by needs.  I also suggested that there are those who profess a love for God but do not live it and there are others who live day in and day out a loved of God but find it difficult to profess.  We discussed two opposing views from our tradition, that of the Midrash who argues that we love God by loving people and the Sefat Emet who suggests that our natural inclination is to love God but the daily grind and clutter of living gets in the way.  I am unsure if the Sefat Emet is right and that this is indeed our natural inclination.  I worry that his view would lead us in an ascetic direction.  I oppose such tendencies and would therefore vote with the Midrash.  The only thing I can be certain of is loving others.  I hope this will lead me to loving God.  I believe that the only way to love God is to love others.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Faces And Faiths | The New Republic

Faces And Faiths | The New Republic
This is another phenomenal and challenging article by Leon Wieseltier. His critique of Israel's Chief Rabbinate is extraordinary and well articulated.
...The problem is the very existence of the Chief Rabbinate. It is a poisonous institution. It has diminished Judaism into an apparatus of the state and conflated it with power and patronage. It disguises low politics with high theology. Its resort to coercion in matters of belief is a mark of spiritual emptiness. In its outrageous pretension to central religious authority, it is a deeply unJewish office that would abolish the local and improvisatory and variegated character of Jewish religious life since the Sanhedrin. The Chief Rabbinate was not created by God at Sinai; it was created by the attorney general of the British mandatory government in Palestine. Many of its occupants (though not the one who was my cousin, of course) have been intellectually mediocre. It has become the most powerful instrument of the takeover of Orthodoxy by the ultraOrthodox, who grow wilder and more insular all the time: they prefer the Torah without Jews to the Jews without Torah [italics mine], and their lack of compassion for anyone but themselves is sinister. Worst of all, the Chief Rabbinate solves nothing: if it did not exist, the legal and denominational perplexities of Jewish life after the era of religious reform—the rupture, again—would still be with us. Two hundred years ago this week, in the town of Seesen, in Westphalia, “Jacob’s Temple,” a synagogue with a bell tower and an organ, was dedicated with a German chorale and a sermon about universal brotherhood—and there is nothing that any of the holy beards in Jerusalem can do about it.
This is the actually existing Jewish people. Insofar as the ultras in Israel do not believe in religious liberty, they are at odds with the state in which they live, whose Declaration of Independence “guarantees full freedom of religion [and] conscience”; and insofar as politicians in Israel pander to them and play their sordid games, they, too, are in defiance of first principles.“Laws do not alter convictions; arbitrary punishments and rewards produce no principles, refine no morals. Fear and hope are no criteria of truth. Knowledge, reasoning, and persuasion alone can bring forth principles.” Those Jeffersonian words were not written by Jefferson. They were written by an observant Jew in Dessau, in the most neglected classic of the Enlightenment, and the greatest Jewish contribution to it. Moses Mendelssohn established this wisdom in Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism, in 1783. In one of the more sublime coincidences of history, he was composing these reflections at precisely the time when Jefferson, a world and a culture away, was preparing his own argument, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “[i]t is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”  The rabbis Mendelssohn and Jefferson.
Indeed truth can and should stand by itself.  It is in moments of desperation and weakness that we resort to coercion.  And it is then these very moments that push people away.  Coercion is the enemy of religion and faith.  Truth is our friend--even when it might be an ugly truth.  Read the article in its entirety!  There is even more there to discern.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains one of our most well-known prayers, the Shema and V’Ahavta.  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

We recite this prayer every time we gather as a community, but have we ever paused to think about its meaning and ponder its words.  What does it mean to love God?  Moreover, how does one love God?  Love can be challenging and difficult.  This is why there are so many songs and poems about love, especially about losing love. The ancient rabbis recognized this difficulty.   So let’s turn to some of our tradition’s commentaries and look to the wisdom of our predecessors.

The Sefat Emet, a great Hasidic master, teaches that everyone wants to love God, but distractions and obstacles always get in the way.  By performing mitzvot, he taught, we remove these obstacles and distractions and let our souls fulfill their natural inclination of loving God.

The Midrash, on the other hand, notices that there are only three mitzvot that command love.  We are commanded to love the neighbor.  We are commanded to love the stranger.  These commandments are given in the Book of Leviticus.  We are commanded to love God later, in the Book of Deuteronomy.  The Midrash comments: this teaches that we learn to love God by practicing love of God’s creatures, by loving our fellow human beings.

In these commentaries we find opposing views.  The Sefat Emet suggests that love of God is natural, but life unfortunately gets in the way.  Get rid of the clutter and we will naturally love God.  The Midrash suggests that we must first love life and only then can we love God.  By loving human beings we will learn to love God.

Which commentary do you prefer?   Do you side with the Midrash or Sefat Emet?   Would you write another commentary?  How else might we learn to love God?

A Call for State-Sanctioned Religious Tolerance

A Call for State-Sanctioned Religious Tolerance
More on the Conversion Bill and the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall by Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College. He concludes:
For Jews in both the Diaspora and in Israel who are committed to Israel as both a democratic and a Jewish state, these episodes call into question whether the state itself actually possesses those commitments. The impediments and restrictions placed before non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism by the Israeli government are matters of serious concern because they reveal that the State employs coercion and imposes a limited range of acceptable practices on Jews who have diverse conceptions of Jewish religious authenticity.
This struggle for Jewish religious freedom is a principled fight for justice that expects the state to be impartial in defining authentic religious Judaism. It is high time that the legitimacy and authority of different branches of religious Judaism be affirmed in Israel. This will surely enhance and strengthen the commitment significant numbers of American Jews feel towards the Jewish state.

Rabbis for Israel Mission Statement

Mission Statement
This is worth signing!  The statement says in part: "We, the undersigned, believe that Israel has a legitimate right to exist as a sovereign, democratic Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. We support a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that will recognize two independent states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace, security and prosperity.  We call upon the Arab and Muslim world to accept unequivocally and publicly Israel’s permanent right to exist in peace."  Amen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Creating Sabbath Peace in a Beeping World

Creating Sabbath Peace in a Beeping World - NYTimes.com
Great article about creating a sense of Shabbat in the modern world.  Here is one quote to tantalize: "'The second you write down the rules, it doesn't work for me,' Reuben Namdar said.  He believes that the Sabbath of everyday Jews, rather than the Sabbath of the disputers and the thinkers, was never as strenuous or elaborately thought-through as the Orthodox Sabbath is today: 'You ate well, you slept well, you had sex, you were in a special state of mind, you did not chastise the kids.  It was organic.'"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av 2010

Tisha B'Av 2010 - Why Mourning AND Recovery are Sacred
I appreciate Brad Hirschfield's take on the video of a survivor dancing at a concentration camp to the tune of "I Will Survive."  (You can find the video at the below link.)  Rabbi Hirschfield writes:
In that spirit, I found this video of Holocaust survivor Adolk Korman dancing with his family in the very places where he was victimized 65 years ago to be truly beautiful. I appreciate that others may find sacrilegious what I find to be sacred, but how different is that than those early rabbis who were busy creating Judaism 65 years after the collapse of the Temple in Jerusalem? Like Mr. Korman and his family, they chose to celebrate life even in those places where they had suffered. Like Mr. Korman and his family, they sang and danced in the shadow of those places where they had seen their loved ones perish and their spiritual center burned. I am sure that then as now, some people felt that such behavior was tasteless, inappropriate, disrespectful, insensitive, etc. But were it not for people whose love of life triumphs over their sadness in the face of past death, we would never create a future. We need not forget the past in order to move beyond it. And that is a truth which Adolk Korman, his film-maker daughter and the sages of the Talmud all appreciated. I am grateful to them all.
His point is well taken.  The ability to dance and celebrate, despite tragedy and near destruction, is what has enabled the Jewish people to survive.  I hesitate to criticize a survivor, yet it seems to me that it does matter where you dance (and perhaps even when).  A concentration camp can only be a cemetery.  I think I would only be able to cry there.  I am thankful that Adolk Korman has survived and found the courage to sing and dance.  And so given that he is a survivor he can dance wherever he wants.  Like him I am not much for mourning, even on this day of Tisha B'Av.  I see not destruction and past tragedies but only celebration and dancing.  That is the only mindset that will carry us forward.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Devarim

Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, argued against Zionism believing that sovereignty would inevitably corrupt morality.

Recently The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has offered numerous op-eds about Israel and in particular its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.

And this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, reiterates God’s promise to the Jewish people of the land of Israel: “See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.” (Deuteronomy 1:8)

I have spent the past two weeks studying Zionism and Israel and exploring the complexities of life here in the land of Israel, examining for example the morality of war and the difficulties of fighting terrorism. These are no easy topics and the sessions have been both enlightening and at times disturbing.

On Monday, I traveled with Friends of the Earth Middle East to the Jerusalem suburb of Tzur Hadassah. There we walked along the Green Line, the 1967 border and peered over this imaginary line at the West Bank and the settlement of Beitar Illit and the Arab village of Wadi Fukin. Beitar Illit is a settlement situated on the opposite hills from where we stood. It is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Since its founding in 1990 it has grown to some 40,000 people. It is expected to grow to 100,000 by 2020. Below the settlement in the valley is the Arab village of Wadi Fukin, home to 1,200 people. In Wadi Fukin the residents primarily make their living farming the land. In Beitar Illit the majority sustain themselves through Torah study and government subsidies. We were saddened to learn that the sewage from Beitar Illit often runs down the hillside poisoning the farm lands below.

Friends of the Earth brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to tackle such environmental problems in the hopes of making peace through mutual care of the land. In this small pocket of the land of Israel they have made some strides in addressing the problems of Beitar Illit’s sewage and Wadi Fukin’s farm lands. I have some concerns about the group and in particular the ideology of the Arab members who I met, yet I admire their efforts.

I believe wholeheartedly in the Zionist enterprise. I believe as well that it is possible to live as a sovereign Jewish state according to the highest moral values. I am saddened when I discover such instances where basic human decency is tossed aside in favor of settling the land. The land is certainly holy and our return to it gives the Jewish people hope, but this must not take precedence over the humanity of those who also live in this land. Jewish sovereignty cannot only be about our rights and our privileges. If this is to be a Jewish state, it must first be about this, but if this is also to be a democratic state, it must not only be about this.

It is such questions that I have spent my weeks here debating. I have also learned that it is easier to debate such issues here rather than at home outside the Jewish state. Israel has its problems just as the United States has its problems. Israel however also faces unique questions. Only about this country do people question its very legitimacy and ask, “Is it wise to grant sovereignty to the Jewish people?” My answer is of course a resounding yes.

It is harder to speak about Israel’s flaws outside of the country. I am far more comfortable debating them when here. There, at home in the United States, we feel uneasy and perhaps even disloyal debating such issues. We feel we must defend Israel against its attackers because underlying these attacks lies this question of Israel’s legitimacy. But here sovereignty is assured and accepted.

As you walk the streets and drink coffee in the cafes the question seems silly and preposterous. And so the debate about values and morality is what animates this place. The argument with ourselves and with Franz Rosenzweig is a daily struggle that I admire and relish. It is what gives life to this land. It is this struggle that gives meaning to God’s promise.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Graduation Ceremony

Follow this link to read more about my graduation ceremony.  The occasion marked the conclusion of three years of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  I was named a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jerusalem Film Festival

On Thursday evening I again attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival.  It is one of my favorite summer activities here in Jerusalem.  This year a French film, "La Rafle--The Round Up" opened the festival.  The film stars Jean Reno who was present to open the festival.  David Broza, the Israeli folk singer, also appeared to open the event with a few songs.  The movie tells the story of the round up of Parisian Jews during the summer of 1942, through the lens of a few families and in particular their children.  The film is not an extraordinary work of art, but the film and experience were extraordinary nonetheless.  This French Jewish film shows the active participation of French leaders and officials in the Nazi genocide.  It accurately portrays them as active decision makers, not forced accomplices.  It is most important that this have the widest viewing in France.  Even more remarkable was the experience of watching this film in Sultan's Pool, the ancient, outdoor amphitheater outside the Old City's walls.  Along with hundreds of Israelis I watched this movie.  Nearly everyone wanted to scream, "How could these French Jews not realize what was about to happen?"  We cried together (for almost all of the concluding thirty minutes) and then left the theater in near silence.  With hundreds of fellow Jews I watched this film in a sovereign Jewish state! Amen!     

YouTube Message from Jerusalem

Pictures from Israel

Enjoy the slideshow!  It contains pictures from a few of the sites I visited while in Israel.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mattot-Masei

Thoughts of war and reports of conflict preceded my arrival to Jerusalem.  I however found none.  I discovered only a city intoxicated with life.

This week’s Torah portion describes Israel’s war with the Midianites.  It is an ugly affair.  Moses instructs his commanders to spare no one.  “Moses became angry with the commanders and said, ‘You have spared every female!  Yet they are very ones who induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord...’” (Numbers 31)  

Today in Israel the papers reported a different approach to waging war.  They reported that Israel would prosecute a soldier for manslaughter in the Cast Lead operation of January 2009.  The staff sergeant is accused of shooting and killing a Palestinian woman.  The army’s advocate general has investigated 30 similar cases.

Most Israelis appear proud that their country seeks to live by the highest moral standards, even when waging a conflict with terrorist organizations who refuse to follow accepted rules of war.  The Torah’s approach to the Midianites is not modern Israel’s approach to its enemies.  The dilemma in fighting terrorism is that it purposely makes every citizen into a combatant.  It intentionally blurs the distinction between soldier and civilian when for example firing missiles from a school playground or when hiding its commanders in a hospital.

In bringing this case Israel argues that its soldiers must see beyond this intended obfuscation and see the distinction between combatant and civilian brightly and clearly.  This is in part how Israel rises above conflict and war.  There are those who argue that the Middle East is a rough neighborhood and that Israel will only succeed when it fights as Moses appears to advocate, with ferocity and vengeance.  There are those who see in the Torah’s words license to kill all our enemies so that we might one day live in peace and security.

I spent this week debating such moral questions.  We argued whether for example, the woman who feeds a homicide bomber deserves the same judgment as the bomber, whether she is the same as an army’s cook. Israel operates as if she is different.  While Obama and Netanyahu debate peace talks, Israel continues to negotiate this difficult moral equation.  How does one fight terrorism while preserving our Jewish values and morals?

Our morality must be our guiding force. It is what gives life meaning.  It is what animates this city.  It is what gives life to the city of Jerusalem.  

In the United States we see only the conflict, we read only of the possibility of war.  We see only the images of battle.  We see only the pictures of ongoing conflict.  In Israel the questions and complexities of this struggle is what gives life to this city.  It is part of what brings me back to this place year in and year out.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pinhas

What is the worst sin?  According to the Bible and Talmud it is the sin of idolatry.  Why?  If you start bowing down to idols you will end up attaching too much importance to things rather than family, friends and people.  Such is the logic behind the story of Pinhas.

The Torah relates the following story.  The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan river, poised to enter the land of Israel.  They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal-Peor.  They participate in its orgiastic festivals.  Moses tries to get them to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but the people refuse to listen.  God becomes enraged.  "Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions...  When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." (Numbers 25)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion."  (Numbers 25)  Pinhas's passion quells God's passion.  Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.  The lesson is clear: idolatry is a dangerous thing and must be prevented at all costs.  Pinhas takes matters into his own hands in order to stamp out this danger.  If not for Pinhas taking his spear in his hand the people would not merit entering the land. In the Bible's estimation idolatry defiles the land as well as the people.

This exemplifies the approach to idolatry found in the Bible.  If nothing else works, smash the idols and kill the idolaters!  The rabbinic approach on the other hand, is thankfully less violent, but nonetheless equally zealous.  The rabbis forbid the food and wine of idolaters.  They forbid their bathhouses and temples.  While they share the ideology of the Bible they refuse to condone its methodology.  The Talmud states: "The deed of Pinhas was not approved of by Moses, nor by the elders.  Rabbi Elazar added: 'If not for God, Pinhas would have been excommunicated!'  As Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we are never to instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

Often the rabbis suggest an alternative approach in their Haftarah selection.  The reading from the prophets is occasionally used as a counterweight to the Torah reading.  The Haftarah assigned to Pinhas is about Elijah.  (For those synagogues who observe the Three Weeks the Haftarah shifts to Jeremiah and does not coincide with the Torah reading.)  The prophet Elijah, like Pinhas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with a similar heavy hand.  He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal.  But this story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God.  It is not in a thunderous voice (and actions) but in the still, small voice. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind...  After the earthquake--fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a soft murmuring sound."  (I Kings 19)

The rabbis therefore offer an antidote to Pinhas's actions.  They suggest by this Haftarah selection that God is found in the small details, in those difficult to discern. They suggest that we must strain to find God's voice.  It is not found in violence or even lofty pronouncements  The rabbis take full advantage of the many voices found in the Bible.  Taken together the Torah and Haftarah argue against each other.  This week the rabbis suggest that God does not want us to take our spears in hand and violently overthrow idolatry.  They urge us instead to do so in our hearts. 

That is the lesson in reading Elijah with Pinhas.  That is the purpose of reading the Haftarah with the Torah.