Saturday, April 30, 2011

Yom Haatzmaut Article

What follows is an article about the upcoming holiday of Yom Haatzmaut that was recently published in The Orchard, a publication of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet.  Follow this link to download the Spring 2011 edition.  My article appears on page 19.

Why is tragedy compelling? Why is fear motivating? Why is mourning viewed as a greater obligation than celebrating? Why are more people familiar with the details of the Holocaust than the history of Zionism and Israel? These are the questions that occupy my thoughts as we approach Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, and the celebration of 63 years of Jewish sovereignty.

To garner our support for the State of Israel we are inundated with images of Hezbollah missiles, Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, suicide bombings, divestment campaigns and in the estimation of many, dwindling support from the Obama administration. These are great worries to be sure. Israel does indeed face numerous threats. Some very real and some imagined. But my question on this Yom Haatzmaut is not about the dangers Israel faces, but instead about our personal connection to the Jewish state.

Why do we rally in far greater numbers when Israel is threatened rather than dance for joy each and every day that Israel continues to thrive? We live in an unparalleled generation of Jews. In our own day we find ourselves in a vibrant and successful diaspora community alongside a successful and vibrant Jewish state. Never before have these two co-existed. Either there was a thriving diaspora community as in Babylonia in the fifth century or a successful Jewish community in Israel as when King David ruled three thousand years ago. And so we lack historic parallels. How do we live and thrive side by side?

Of course we rise up when Israel needs us. Each of us knows how to stand by friends when they are in mourning, or experiencing tzuris. But why don’t we feel just as a great an obligation to celebrate? We should stand by Israel and sing and dance—each and every day. For two thousand years a Jewish state was only a dream. We live in a time when the dream is a reality. In a mere twelve hours (ok that is only the plane flight) you could be in Israel touching the very stones generations of Jews only dreamed of touching.

In Jerusalem in particular the air is thick with prayers. At first one thinks it is thick with the prayers of the thousands and thousands and thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews running to pray. That is one’s first impression. It is true that a lot of people do a lot of praying in Jerusalem. I think it is instead that the air is thick with the prayers of generations. My great grandparents prayed that one day their people would return to the land of their ancestors. A hundred years later their great grandson visits there regularly. What a privilege it is to live in our generation!

In our own day our prayers have become reality. When we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut I plan to sing (and maybe even dance—watch out party enhancers!). On this day especially I don’t want my support for Israel to be motivated by fear, or tragedy. I want it only to be out how fortunate we are to live during these times. How blessed is our generation that we live alongside a vibrant and thriving State of Israel!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Yad VaShem Testimonies

In observance of Yom HaShoah read the testimonies of this year's Torchlighters.  Every year Yad VaShem chooses six survivors to light the commemorative torches.  I would also suggest that you watch the below video. I keep coming back to this testimony, but I cannot escape its closing words: "Shalom yeladim."   "....We never saw them again."

You can watch other video testimonies here. As Elie Wiesel said: "For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness."

Yom HaShoah

This evening we will add special prayers and songs to our Shabbat Services in order to commemorate the Holocaust.  Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is officially observed on Sunday.  It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies.  But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy.  Still it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar.

Fifty years ago Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial.  David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large.  To mark this anniversary and prepare for our Yom HaShoah observances I began reading Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, The Eichmann Trial as well as rereading Hannah Arendt’s controversial, Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Arendt provocatively claimed that evil appeared so ordinary and banal in Eichmann’s visage.  Lipstadt expertly recreates the details of the trial in her gripping account.  So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented.  It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity.  It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard. 

In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities.  Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same year.  The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the world’s attention.   The Nuremberg trials that immediately followed the end of World War II did not do the same.  With the Eichmann trial the recent victims, now embodied in a fledgling state, tried their former tormentor.  With this trial the memory of the Holocaust was forever tied to the State of Israel.

The prosecution paraded 100 Holocaust survivors before the judges in order to add human faces to the millions of victims and the crimes of the accused.  Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi’s final solution.  One of the most famous of these survivors was Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and leader of the Vilna ghetto’s resistance.   While the intention of showcasing the testimony of survivors was noble and most certainly served to humanize the innumerable faceless victims, its long term effect may prove undermining to our future survival.  The parade of survivors suggested that the modern State of Israel represents justice for the Holocaust.

We have been living with this unfortunate linkage ever since.  We must stop perpetuating this myth.  The modern Jewish state is not recompense for the suffering our people endured in the Holocaust.  Israel is not about justice for the Holocaust.  It is about an end to Jewish homelessness.  It is about our return home.  By contrast there can never be justice for the Holocaust. 

Yes we must pursue Nazis and their sympathizers until they are no more.  We must redouble our efforts to recover lost Jewish property.   And we must always remember the Holocaust, but not as justification for the State of Israel.  Instead we must remember so that we may forever prevent another holocaust.  When others suffer we must speak out.  We must bring the likes of Eichmann to trial not so much in the pursuit of justice but instead in the service of memory.  Remembering can be ennobling and humanizing.  Punishment for our tormentors: yes.  Justice for the millions of victims: impossible.  I believe there can never be justice for the six million.  There can only be remembrance.

I have great faith in Israel’s judicial system.  (I also witnessed its court overturn a guilty verdict against John Demjanjuk when it could not prove that he was in fact Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible.)   I believe Israel was right to capture and try Eichmann.  It was the only place where Eichmann could be tried.  Nonetheless the modern State of Israel must never be seen as justice for our suffering.  There can never be adequate payment or recompense for suffering.   Eichmann was found guilty, hanged and his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean Sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters, thus denying a grave for his followers to pilgrimage and a country to claim his memory.  May his memory be erased by the ocean’s waves. 

Abba Kovner wrote of his sister who was murdered during the Holocaust:
My sister, in her bridal veil, sits at the table
alone.  From the shelter of the mourners
the voice of the bridegroom draws near.
without you we shall set the table
the ketubah will be written in stone.

May the memories of our murdered millions serve as a blessing, calling us to bring healing to our broken world.  May Israel forever remain our home.

Addendum: If you would like to watch attorney general Gideon Hausner’s opening statements at the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, as well as some testimony by survivors, you may do so on YouTube:

Hausner proclaimed: “In this place, where I stand before you, judges of Israel, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone.  With me, here, at this very moment, stand six million prosecutors.”  I would also suggest that you visit Yad VaShem’s extraordinary website.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


This week’s Torah portion is brimming with ethical commandments, the most familiar of which is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Leviticus 19:18)  When the Torah scroll is unrolled to the middle this verse stands at its center.  Many have therefore interpreted this phrase to stand at the core of Jewish ethics. 

I have always found this verse perplexing.  Who is my neighbor?  What does it mean to love?  A prior verse offers needed wisdom and clarification.  Rendered literally it reads: “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.”  (Leviticus 19:16)  Most translators interpret the verse as follows: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Jewish tradition has understood this phrase to mean that each of us has an obligation to help others.  When someone is in distress we must try to help.  If a person is drowning we must try to rescue him or her, whether the person is young or old, man or woman, Jew or gentile, stranger or friend.  Failing to even try to save another human being in distress is likened to shedding blood. 

How often have we driven around an accident when we are rushed saying to ourselves, “I am sure the police were already called.”  Even though 911 is an easy phone call how many times do we assume someone else has made the call?  Yet we have a Jewish obligation to help others.  We need not jump in the water if we can’t swim, but we must help.  In our age it as simple as making a phone call.  Fulfilling this command is but two buttons on our cell phones.

Failure to help others transgresses Judaism’s most precious obligation to the world.  We are responsible for others.  I may have trouble understanding how I can love all people.  I have little difficulty understanding the idea that when I see another human being in trouble I am obligated to try to help.  This is what it means to be a Jew.  This is what it means to be a human being. 

This is part of what we remember as we mark the Holocaust this week.  Countless people, and far too many countries, turned their backs on the Jewish people.  At the Evian Conference when 32 nations, including the United States, met prior to Kristallnacht, in order to decide what to with Jewish refugees who wished to flee Nazi Germany, only the tiny country of the Dominican Republic offered to accept Jewish immigrants.  Later the passenger ship, St Louis, filled with German Jews, was turned away from our own country’s shores. 

Because so many turned a blind eye, the Nazis were empowered to murder six million Jews.  It was not just the Nazi regime’s murderous actions that led to the Holocaust. It was as well the world’s silence.  It was this deafening silence of the masses of humanity that allowed the evil few to perpetrate their crimes.  Can there be greater evidence of the meaning of the Torah’s command?  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor! 

I may never be able to understand how to love all human beings, but I can say that all human beings are my neighbors.  As we commemorate the Holocaust we must learn to say that all human beings are my neighbors.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ahrei Mot-Passover Sermon

This sermon was written for Friday, April 15th.

Why is it that the holiday that celebrates the creation of the Jewish people appears today to give rise to far more divisions?  There is the Ashkenazi and Sephardi divide.  Do you eat rice on Passover?  Do you only cook with potatoes?  There are the Reform and Orthodox divisions.  Do you observe seven days or eight?  There are the endless discussions about kitniyot (legumes) and of course this year’s quinoa controversy.  Apparently rabbis have been dispatched to South America’s Andes to discern if there are wheat particles mixed in with the quinoa.  Personally I have been enjoying this gluten free grain for years.  I recommend the red variety in particular.  I recently read that there are even some who won’t eat meat, drink milk or eat eggs from animals that have been fed hametz.  (If you don’t believe me listen to Tablet Magazine’s Vox Tablet podcast “Against the Grain” here.)

You can really start losing sight of the import of this holiday in its details.  These “kosher battles” and the accusations of who is more religious can diminish the ideal that we are supposed to be promoting.  We are one people despite our many different ways of observing.  All must hold fast to the idea that we are remembering slavery and celebrating freedom.  These are the essential messages of the Passover holiday.  The rest is commentary, or if you prefer decorations.  The potential small pieces of wheat in a box of quinoa or the microscopic bits of hametz in milk are not the essence.  By the way the left is not entirely innocent.  There is a restaurant that I read about, also in Tablet Magazine, which goes out of its way to make its food traif.  It serves matzah balls wrapped in bacon. (Again you can read that article here.)  Yes we are free and can eat whatever we want, but need we flout Jewish history and memory as well?   Bacon donuts might be one thing, but matzah balls dripping with pork fat seem an entirely different matter.

In case these differences are not enough, in this week’s Torah portion we find another law that divides us.  Ahrei Mot contains Leviticus 18, a detailed list of prohibited sexual relations.  So controversial was this portion that it is no longer read in the vast majority of synagogues as Yom Kippur’s afternoon Torah reading.  In all Reform synagogues, and many Conservative, Leviticus 19’s holiness code is read instead.  In this week’s portion it relates: “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife…or your sister… or your son’s daughter…”  These are of course not the controversy, although many seem to feel that all of this talk of nakedness is not befitting Yom Kippur.  The controversy is not about bestiality or incest but found in one verse: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 18:22) 

This law is the biblical basis for the prohibition against homosexuality.  We should be careful to note that traditional Jewish law understands this to mean a prohibition against the homosexual act alone.  It is not a statement of feelings.  It is only about actions.  The Talmudic rabbis added a prohibition against lesbian sex.  Still the Jewish world remains terribly divided about this issue.  The Reform movement openly ordains gay and lesbian Jews as rabbis.  Some Reform rabbis officiate at commitment ceremonies.  Others do not.  The film, “Trembling before God,” explored the excruciating challenges of gays and lesbians living in an Orthodox world.   It is a wrenching film.  (You can watch the entire movie on Hulu.)  Years after first watching this film, I still find that it continues to have a profound effect on me.  I cannot forget the endless statements of abandonment and pain.  Parents shunned children.  Rabbis advised young people to remain celibate rather than transgress the Torah’s words.  Many expressed over and over again how they would choose another life if they could.  But their attractions could not be swayed, just like mine for a woman cannot be changed. “Why can’t I be both gay and Orthodox?” they asked.  “Why can’t the Torah’s words, like so many other verses, be reinterpreted?”

Rather than see these individuals, and couples, as human beings standing before us, Jewish leaders make rulings.  We rule and draw divisions.  “We accept you.”  And under our breath, we say, “We are therefore more compassionate.” Or we say, “We cannot accept your desires.”  And under our breath, we say, “We alone are the guardians of Torah true Judaism.”  We speak as if homosexuality is some theoretical issue about which we can agree or disagree.  But then lines are drawn across peoples’ lives.  We divide ourselves by our theories and interpretations, beliefs and ideologies.  We pretend that people are like bits and pieces of hametz.  And we therefore remain forever divided and fractured—and fellow Jews feel cast aside.  Can we still remain one people?  If we looked instead into the eyes of others perhaps we would be drawn together.

And that is what pains me the most during this year’s celebrations of Passover.  We are but 14 million people at best.  Rather than being drawn together we draw lines between us.  Why can’t we hear the command also in our Torah portion, v’chai bahem—live by them, as a command to our entire people?  We must live—together.  Instead we scream and yell at each other.  We believe that our way is the only way.  Only this week a Reform synagogue was vandalized in Tel Aviv.   Do we prefer violence and potentially even death to living together? 

It pains me that the holiday that made us one people today makes us even more divided.  But I will not let go of Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people.  We are one people.  Most people think that the Shema is only about proclaiming God’s oneness.  But it is also about declaring our people’s oneness.  Shema Yisrael is in the singular.  Hear O Israel is its opening words.  You can read this, as the tradition mostly does, as a statement made to each individual Jew who must hear this command affirming one God as directed to him or her.  I prefer instead to hear it addressed to the Jewish people when we stand as one.  God is only one when we are one.  When we stand as Am Echad, one people, then and only then is God one.

Only together can we proclaim God’s oneness.  We need each other.  We need less kosher for Passover products (although I really do like the jelly rings).  We need fewer divisions.  We need less looking over our shoulders at others, or looking down at others.  We need more standing together as one people.

On this Passover we need more unity and oneness.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another Newsletter Article

And here is my article from the March-April 2011 Newsletter.
Continuing with the tradition begun in the last newsletter, here are some of our students’ “questions for the rabbi” along with my answers.

Were Adam and Eve the first people on earth?
According to the Torah Adam and Eve were the first people who were made by God. I think part of your question, however, is how come they teach me one thing in school and another thing in Religious School. How can science and evolution be true and religion and the Bible also be true? Evolution and science teach us how human beings came to be. Religion and Judaism teach us what the purpose of our life is. We don’t read the Bible as a science manual. Instead we read it to tell us what we are supposed to do with our lives. Only the Torah can tell us that God wanted to create human beings for the purpose of perfecting our world and bringing healing to the world.

Did any sport come from Hebrew?
The latest Jewish sport is Ga-Ga which is a friendlier and safer form of dodge ball and started in modern day Israel. But did you know that the entire roster of the first New York Knicks team was Jewish? Here is their lineup: Ossie Schectman, Stan Stutz, Jake Weber, Ralph Kaplowitz, and Leo "Ace" Gottlieb. The first points ever scored in the NBA were by the Knicks' point guard, Schectman. Take that Stoudemire! (Oops I forgot. He might be Jewish too.)

Can the fourth graders sing at services again?

Is the Maccabees' temple still standing and is everything still in it?
No and no. But one of the really awesome things about visiting Israel is that you can touch parts of that ancient Temple.  The Western Wall contains some stones from that time. Recently they uncovered the steps that led up to the Temple. In Israel you can stand next to stones that are thousands of years old and touch our history while also enjoying everything that is modern, like a really great falafel or espresso (that’s Hebrew for strong coffee).

Are we going to get a temple?
Yes. And soon. But remember that a building is not the most important part of our congregation. Just like your house does not make your family, our building does not make our synagogue. It must always be first and foremost about the people.

Why can’t Jewish people swear?
Because it is really not nice to swear. It shows that you are angry and that kind of anger always gets you in trouble. But the most important thing about swearing is that you should never use God’s name in a curse or swear. God’s name should only be used in prayer, when saying thank you. God should lead you to do positive things.  Doing good things starts with positive words.

Since Jews can’t have tattoos, does that include washable ones?
No. You can get washable tattoos. The problem with tattoos is that they are permanent and we believe that our bodies are a reflection of God and you don’t mess with God’s image. We believe that you can’t do whatever you want even with your body. You have to take care of yourself and you should never do anything that might be dangerous to your body.

What is your favorite color?
Blue. But not Carolina blue. More like Duke blue which is close to the blue of an Israeli flag, which is supposed to be like the Bible’s techelet. So go (royal blue) Blue Devils!

Keep asking your questions. They are always the most important thing about being Jewish!

Newsletter Article

I neglected to include my recent newsletter articles.  What follows is my article from our January-February 2011 Newsletter.
Recently Mrs. Bertash, our Religious School principal, began collecting questions for the rabbi. Our students could write down any question that was on their mind and that they wanted me to answer. What follows are a few of their questions and of course my answers.

How was God named?
In the Torah God is called by many names. God’s name is “Y-H-V-H.” But we no longer know how this name was pronounced so we say, Adonai, meaning my lord. There are many names for God in our tradition. I like to think that these many names offer us just as many different ways of approaching God.

How do you become Jewish?
If your parents tell you that you are Jewish then you are Jewish. But sometimes people choose to convert to Judaism because they think being Jewish is so awesome.

Why did you decide to become a Rabbi?
Because I like to talk. And listen. Mostly it is because I like learning and teaching and helping people.

How many times have your read the Torah?
Since I started rabbinical school when I was 22 years old, I have read the Torah once a year every year. So that is about 24 times.

Do you regret being a Rabbi?
No. How could I with these kind of questions and students like you? But if you mean is being a rabbi sometimes hard, then the answer is yes. Sometimes people ask me to stand by their side at really, really difficult times and that occasionally breaks my heart.

Is it considered a sin to be Jewish but not to believe in God?
No. But being Jewish is about trying. You always have to try to be a better person. You have to believe that the world can be better. Believing in God, or trying to believe in God, helps. So believing in God helps us become better people!

What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Sukkot. I love building and decorating our sukkah and eating and sleeping outside.

What is the Kotel like?
Jerusalem and the Western Wall are awesome. It is wonderful to stand where so many Jews have stood and prayed. The stones are massive, but smooth because so many people touched them and kissed them.

How many letters are in the Torah?
304,805 letters and 79,847 words. I had to ask a scribe for the answer to this question because I am not so good at math.

How many cars long is the Torah?
It depends on what kind of car you are talking about. If it is an SUV then 5. A smart car then a minyan of 10. Mysteriously when we unroll the Torah scroll it fits almost perfectly around the inside of the church sanctuary.

Are Jewish people allowed to celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving or New Years Eve?
Yes, but don’t have as much fun on these days as you do on Purim, Sukkot and Shabbat!

Is God real?
Yes. Sometimes I admit it does not feel that way, but I believe God is real.

Keep those questions coming!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Passover Thoughts

Eighteen minutes.  That is the difference between matzah and bread.  From the moment the flour is mixed with water to the time this mixture is placed in the oven must be eighteen minutes or less.  If it is longer the mixture is deemed bread.  If less it is matzah. 

Our tradition recognizes that leavening is a naturally occurring process.  It happens any time flour is mixed with water.   And so it is a minute that demarcates the difference between leavened and unleavened bread.  One minute can make all the difference between kosher and not, between matzah and bread, between what is proper and what is not. 

According to the rabbis the leavening agent of yeast symbolizes the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.  The yetzer represents passion and drive, ambition and competition.  Too much of any of these and our lives become ruled by lust and greed.  Too little and we lack motivation.  We require the yetzer hara, never in abundance, but always in the right measure and within the proper framework.  With it in such measure, bounded by holiness, husbands and wives are pulled toward each other.  With it as well the desire to succeed pushes us to create and invent.

Too much yeast and bread becomes sour (and wine becomes spoiled).  And so the rabbis taught that the yetzer hara must be controlled and framed.  On Passover we liberate ourselves from the souring effect of the yetzer hara.  For one week we live without the effects of this leavening agent.

Eighteen minutes.  That is the difference between matzah and bread.  One minute is all the difference between kosher and not, right and wrong.  It is only a matter of minutes.  Nineteen minutes and the matzah is transformed into the ordinary bread of every week and every day.  Eighteen minutes and it remains the kosher bread for this holiday of Passover.

One minute, one word, one action that as well is the difference between right and wrong. It is always a fine line.  It is rarely if ever a matter of hours or days.  In a brief moment we must choose between right and wrong.  That minute is what defines our actions as kosher or not. 

And that is the spiritual lesson of the matzah we eat at this evening’s Seder.  It is never just about food!

Passover Card

Your JCB family wishes you a happy and joyous Passover!

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav said: Seek the sacred within the ordinary.  Seek the remarkable within the commonplace.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ahrei Mot

The Talmud reports: “Except for the prohibitions against murder, incest and idolatry, any commandment must be set aside for pikuah nefesh, saving a human life.” (Sanhedrin 74a)

This week’s Torah portion concurs: “v’chai b’hem, you shall live by them” (Leviticus 18: 5)  The commandments are intended to be life affirming.  We are not to die because of them.  Only in extreme examples when faced, for example, with committing murder do we choose martyrdom, preferring death over life.

On Monday evening the holiday of Passover begins.  Passover is given to scrupulous observance.  We are commanded to rid our homes of hametz, leavened products, and eat only matzah and kosher for Passover foods for the holiday's eight days.  One encounters many different levels of observance within the rituals of Passover.  Unfortunately at this time of year one also hears statements that are disparaging of other Jews’ observance.  “That’s not kosher for Passover.  How could you eat corn syrup?  I keep Passover for eight days.” 

On the holiday that marks our freedom from Egypt and our beginnings as a people there should be room for all manners of observance.  Within Judaism there should be room for many different rituals and ways of marking our Jewish identities.

It saddens me that the holiday which celebrates our becoming a people has been transformed into one marked by disparate observances and a fractured community.  Why can’t we be one and enjoy this joyous holiday together?  On this Passover we should pledge to relearn how to better live together.  While the tradition understood the verse “you shall live by them” in individual terms I wish to hear this command as directed to the Jewish people. 

My question is: can we still live together—as one people?  The mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, is one that should help us to transcend our differences, to look away from our disparate styles and levels of observance, and see instead one people.  Love of the Jewish people is one of the guiding principles of my faith. 

I must love the Jewish people, despite our differences and disagreements.  I must love all the Jewish people.  We are not so numerous (14 million worldwide according to the most optimistic of counts) that we can afford to divide ourselves even further.  Why must we measure how much matzah or how little bread others eat?  Why must we number how many sets of dishes others have?  Why must we count how often others pray? 

Thousands of years ago, on that first Passover night, we became a Jewish people.  This year we must rekindle that oneness.  We must reaffirm our love of all Jews.  That is far more important than what we eat or don’t eat.  That is how the commandments will help us to live again. 

Rabbi Leo Baeck, a great 20th century German rabbi and survivor of the Holocaust, wrote:  "The Jew knows that the greatest commandment is to live."  I would add: “to live together.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Beware of Democracy?

This week's Wall Street Journal offers an excellent, if troubling, interview with Bernard Lewis, arguably one of the Western World's foremost experts on the Middle East.  Lewis argues against moving too quickly to elections in the Arab world.  While the protest movement is encouraging, he cautions:
Elections, he argues, should be the culmination—not the beginning—of a gradual political process. Thus "to lay the stress all the time on elections, parliamentary Western-style elections, is a dangerous delusion."
He advocates not the bringing about of a Western style democracy but a more open, tolerant society that incorporates Arab and Muslim traditions.

Bernard Lewis has been studying the Middle East for over sixty years.  We would do well to heed his words.  He offers a number of sobering observations:
First, Tunisia has real potential for democracy, largely because of the role of women there. "Tunisia, as far as I know, is the only Muslim country that has compulsory education for girls from the beginning right through. And in which women are to be found in all the professions," says Mr. Lewis.

"My own feeling is that the greatest defect of Islam and the main reason they fell behind the West is the treatment of women," he says. He makes the powerful point that repressive homes pave the way for repressive governments. "Think of a child that grows up in a Muslim household where the mother has no rights, where she is downtrodden and subservient. That's preparation for a life of despotism and subservience. It prepares the way for an authoritarian society," he says.

Egypt is a more complicated case, Mr. Lewis says. Already the young, liberal protesters who led the revolution in Tahrir Square are being pushed aside by the military-Muslim Brotherhood complex. Hasty elections, which could come as soon as September, might sweep the Muslim Brotherhood into power. That would be "a very dangerous situation," he warns. "We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want."

And yet Western commentators seem determined to harbor such illusions. Take their treatment of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. The highly popular, charismatic cleric has said that Hitler "managed to put [the Jews] in their place" and that the Holocaust "was divine punishment for them."

Yet following a sermon Sheikh Qaradawi delivered to more than a million in Cairo following Mubarak's ouster, New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that the cleric "struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching." Mr. Kirkpatrick added: "Scholars who have studied his work say Sheik Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy."
Professor Lewis has been here before. As the Iranian revolution was beginning in the late 1970s, the name of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was starting to appear in the Western press. "I was at Princeton and I must confess I never heard of Khomeini. Who had? So I did what one normally does in this world of mine: I went to the university library and looked up Khomeini and, sure enough, it was there."

'It" was a short book called "Islamic Government"—now known as Khomeini's Mein Kampf—available in Persian and Arabic. Mr. Lewis checked out both copies and began reading. "It became perfectly clear who he was and what his aims were. And that all of this talk at the time about [him] being a step forward and a move toward greater freedom was absolute nonsense," recalls Mr. Lewis.

"I tried to bring this to the attention of people here. The New York Times wouldn't touch it. They said 'We don't think this would interest our readers.'

And in other troubling news today's Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported:
The Palestinian Authority has just honored the terrorist mastermind responsible for the Passover Massacre, a terrorist atrocity which claimed the lives of 30 innocent Israeli citizens attending the Seder, the traditional Passover meal, at Netanya's Park Hotel on March 27, 2002.

The Palestinian Authority has chosen a bizarre and troubling way to mark the upcoming Jewish festival of Passover. Despite an often voiced Palestinian commitment to end the glorification of terrorists and incitement to violence, on March 28 Issa Karake, the Palestinian Authority Minister of Prisoners' Affairs, visited the family of Hamas suicide-bomb mastermind Abbas Al-Sayed, awarding them with an official, festive plaque, in celebration of the anniversary of the massacre.
Will democracy bring to power our enemies or friends?  I believe in democracy.  I am afraid however that I cannot always trust it.

Addendum: I failed to note that the author of this interview is Bari Weiss who is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.  Her thoughts and opinions are apparently interspersed throughout the interview.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Two weeks of leprosy!  This week’s Torah portion also discusses the details of leprosy, including a leprous plague occurring on the walls of a house.  Thankfully the rabbinic sages transformed metzora into a moral lesson.  They spun a midrash from the letters of this Hebrew word for leprosy, expanding metzora into motzi shem ra, the spreading of malicious gossip. 

They reasoned that gossip is morally disfiguring just as leprosy is physically deforming.  Their teachings on gossip continue to resonate today.  When we gossip, repeating something that is unflattering of others, we disfigure ourselves as well as others.  We must recognize that just as words can build worlds, so too can they destroy.  A person’s reputation can be destroyed with the press of a keyboard’s send.  We follow a tradition that is built on the power of words.  We can bless, as well as curse.  We can praise, as well destroy.  Once such negative words have been passed on to others, gathering them up can be an impossible task. 

There are far too many examples from which we can draw to illustrate this point.  This week for instance we read that Judge Goldstone retracted his most damaging claim against Israel.  In his United Nations report on the recent Gaza War he wrote that Israel and its soldiers had purposely targeted civilians.  Now he writes that his previous claim was false.   I always knew that such claims were false, but how can he now gather up these words and undo the damage they have caused to Israel’s image and prestige?   

Judaism counsels us that even if the story is true we should not repeat it.  When speaking of others we must be most cautious.  Our words can cause irreparable harm.  The Chofetz Chaim, and nineteenth century Mussar teacher, offers us nine guidelines for right speech.

1. Do no spread a negative image of someone, even if that image is true.
2. Do not share information that can cause physical, financial, emotional or spiritual harm.
3. Do not embarrass people, even in jest.
4. Do not pretend that writing or body language or innuendo is not speech.
5. Do not speak against a community, race, ethnic group, gender, or age group.
6. Do not gossip, even to your spouse, relatives, or close friends.
7. Do not repeat gossip, even when it is generally known.
8. Do not tell people negative things said about them, for this can lead to needless conflict.
9. Do not listen to gossip.  Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness)

Everyone is guilty of gossiping.  We often speak of others.  I admit, it can be fun and entertaining.  Recounting others’ problems makes us feel better about ourselves.  But in the end gossiping only lessens our stature.  So let us be more cautious when speaking about others.  We should strive to use our words only for healing.  Another Mussar teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, added: “Say what you mean.  And do what you say.”  That is an excellent motto by which to live our lives. 

In these ways the rabbis transformed metzora into timeless moral lessons about the power of words. The leprous infections on houses, however, the sages were unable to transform into a moral lesson.  Some even doubted that such an infection could exist.  They questioned its meaning.  And then Hurricane Katrina occurred and I realized the lesson.  Too many were given to declare the Torah’s words, “Something like a plague has appeared on my house.”  (Leviticus 14:35)  Even after the waters receded, the black line remained. 

And that is the moral lesson of gossip as well.  It forever stains us.

And by the way, for more on New Orleans’ black line, listen to the Blues guitarist, Spencer Bohren, sing his song, Long Black Line: “Beautiful New Orleans, oh, she was so fine.  Now everywhere you go, there's just the long black line.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Johnny Clegg

Ari and I enjoyed a great concert this week at City Winery with Johnny Clegg.  Here is his song "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World."

Check out his website for more of his music and songs.  By the way, 46664 was Nelson Mandela's prisoner number and now the name of the humanitarian organization that promotes HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

Goldstone Recants

Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and War Crimes - The Washington Post
In Friday's Washington Post Judge Richard Goldstone withdrew the most damning charge of his report on the Gaza War. In that report he accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians. In the Post he writes: "While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy." I believed this to be the case then. I never doubted the IDF's integrity or the State of Israel's ethics. The Goldstone report was deeply flawed in large part because its investigation was deeply flawed. "In the end, asking Hamas to investigate may have been a mistaken enterprise." But alas the feathers have been scattered to the winds and Goldstone's belated recognition will not be able to stuff them back into the pillow. Harmful words have been set free, free to create damaging and damning impressions. His words enshrined in the U.N. report have stained Israel. Still I believe as Goldstone concludes. "Simply put, the laws of armed conflict apply no less to non-state actors such as Hamas than they do to national armies. Ensuring that non-state actors respect these principles, and are investigated when they fail to do so, is one of the most significant challenges facing the law of armed conflict. Only if all parties to armed conflicts are held to these standards will we be able to protect civilians who, through no choice of their own, are caught up in war." But the problem remains. Goldstone failed to recognize this challenge when it mattered most. Or perhaps he naively believed that he could singlehandedly overcome this challenge. His failure to do so when it truly mattered has left a stain that no opinion peace can erase.

Tazria Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion we read of leprosy.  In ancient times the priest served as the doctor.  It was he who examined the skin infections to determine if they were leprous or not.  If the person had leprosy he was placed in isolation for seven days.  If he still had leprosy he was moved outside of the camp.

Leviticus is obsessed with ritual purity.  So much so that it pushed those who had leprosy or who were deformed outside of the community.  In a word this is wrong.  It is wrong on two counts.  No one should ever be without his or her community in such a time of need.  To my mind the value of community supersedes that of ritual.  And #2 the obligation to care for the sick extends beyond the professionals, in this case the priest.

Let’s begin with #2.  The mitzvah of bikkur holim is a mitzvah that is required of all.  It is not just for the rabbi, or for the family, or for the doctor.  It is incumbent upon everyone.  I know that it is a very difficult mitzvah to fulfill, but perhaps that is why it is required, that is why it is an obligation.  So here are a few of our wise rabbis’ advice and counsel on visiting the sick.

One should not stay too long.  Then the sick person would in effect become a host.  One can visit frequently, but not during the first three hours of the day.  Why?  The person would more likely be feeling better and not need a visit then.  Conversely don’t visit in the last three hours of the day when the person might feel worse.  Then the visitor might lose hope.  Be careful not to give false hope but also not cause despair when visiting.  This is indeed a tricky balance.  Be truthful, but hopeful.

There are two reasons why we visit the sick—according to the tradition.  To look after the person’s needs.  The tradition likens such visits to a medicine that aids in recovery.  The Talmud says, “Whoever visits a sick person helps him recover.”  The second reason why we visit is to pray for the person.  At the bedside one can recite, “May God have mercy upon you among the other sick of Israel.”  At synagogue we say the familiar Mi Shebeirach prayer.  Praying lifts the spirits of the sick person as well as the visitor.  Or perhaps it offers us a concrete action to perform.  That is why we pray together as a community—with others we pray for those who are sick.

The second reason why we must never push the sick outside of the camp, outside of the community, is because they need community, most especially when they are sick.  We lift each other up.  Too often people think that their illness is their burden and theirs to carry alone.  They keep it private so as not to burden others.  But the meaning of belonging to a holy community is that we are there for each other.

We live in a world where the most trivial and silliest, and most intimate of things are posted by people on the internet.  Yet their struggles and pains are supposed to be kept hidden.  This stoicism is not Judaism.

Judaism is all about the community.  It is all about us.  We believe we must be there for each other.  To visit the sick is a sacred obligation.  No one at his or her greatest hour of need should be alone, should be left alone and be without community.

There is the Jewish belief that visiting the sick is an imitation of God.  It is because God visited Abraham after he was recovering from circumcision.  The highest mitvot, gemilut hasadim, are those where we imitate God.

This teaches an essential truth.  By visiting the sick we bring God’s healing to the world.  We can worry about who is pure and who is impure, as in this week’s portion, or we can get busy doing God’s work here on earth.

I choose to get busy.  I hope and pray that all of us will do the same, that we will each feel the import of this obligation, and help those who are in need of healing.  Together we can always accomplish far more than by ourselves.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Shemini Sermon

This sermon was delivered on Friday, March 25.

We toss the term “acts of God” around far too easily, attaching the label most recently to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  I understand that an act of God is a legal term used to describe events, such as natural disasters, that are outside of human control and for which no one can be held responsible. 

Yet as a lover of God I am uncomfortable with the term and bristle at its use.  I wish we were more comfortable ascribing positive events to God rather than the negative and catastrophic.  I choose only to assign good to God.  That is my posture.

In this week’s portion, Shemini, we read of Nadav and Avihu who offer an alien, strange, fire on the altar and were therefore killed.  What was so strange about their sacrifice so as to merit their deaths?  Some suggest that it was the manner in which it was offered.  Others say they were intoxicated.  I believe that were consumed by overzealousness.  They were intoxicated with their own piety.  They came to believe that they could bring about an act of God.  In the end such desires consume the believer—as well as many other victims.

In our world there are far too many people who think they know exactly what God thinks, and what God wants.  People think they can perform acts of God, bringing God to earth. There are people who think that their ideology is most holy.   Actually they think that only their beliefs are holy, and others must be cast aside.  They think that only they have God’s ear. 

Such beliefs only diminish the other.  They lead to terrible acts, such as those we witnessed in Israel these past weeks.  There were the gruesome murders in Itamar and the most recent bus bombing in Jerusalem.  By the way I must offer a correction.  Two of the Fogel children survived the attack not because they were out of the house but because they hid underneath the bed.

It is clear to me what feeds the hatred that leads to these terrorist attacks.  There is a direct line between the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel and these attacks.  Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, is the latest to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.  Israel is not apartheid South Africa.  The blurring of this distinction serves to contribute to the violence.  In the West Bank a square was named this week for the leader of a 1978 terrorist attack.  The celebration of such murders only feeds more violence.  Israel has every right to protect its citizens.  The distinction between purposely targeting civilians and not is most important. 

Ultimately this delegitimization of the State of Israel, whether it be by comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa or severing the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel, leads to this glorification of murder.  People speak of settlers as less than human beings.  They strip other people of their humanity so that can more easily murder.  That might not be the intention of all, but there is a straight line between the two.

To see Israel’s settlement as problematic is not the same.  To even think it is misguided and bad for Israel is not the source of the problem I am speaking about.  Delegitimizing the state ends up delegitimizing Israelis.   It leads to the dehumanization of others.  This is why the news speaks not of the murder of fellow human beings, but of settlers. 

I don’t understand how someone can murder a baby.  I cannot accept that this is ever justified.  I also don’t understand how someone can speak so confidently about what God wants.  There is a direct line between such zealousness and murder.  These are when God’s fires become alien fires!

I refuse to accept that God brings about such evil, or that God wants such evil.  I recognize that the earth is imperfect and that at times it trembles and quakes—sometimes in violent fashion.  By the way recognizing this fact does not mean we should be so unprepared.  The unfolding nuclear disaster is our doing alone.  But we must shy away from describing these events as acts of God.  That is to suggest that randomness and disorder are God’s.  I only wish to ascribe to God the good.

Most of all I draw from my faith the belief that all human beings are created in God’s image.  Every life is equally precious.  That belief is my fire.  That fire will sustain me and might even better our world.  All other fires consume the world.