Friday, March 30, 2012

Tzav

Our Torah portion offers us more sacrifices and perhaps an additional lesson.

This week we learn that the sacrificial fires must be tended and kept burning day and night. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it.” (Leviticus 6:5)

Rarely noted is the preceding command that the ashes must be removed almost as frequently. I am sure the job of tending the fire’s flames was more glamorous than that of removing the ash. But both are required. Both are holy. You can’t have a fire if its fuel is not continually replenished. You can’t as well build a fire in a pit that is filled with ash. The lowly work is required just as much as the lofty.

But who likes to clean? Everyone of course likes to wear clean clothes (except perhaps young boys), but who likes to do laundry? Everyone likes to eat a great dinner, or even cook a delicious meal, but who likes to do the dishes? Perhaps part of the lesson is that you have to also do the dirty work in order to gain the rewards. Passover is of course not just about the seder. It is also about the mundane tasks of cooking and cleaning. It is just as much about the preparation as it is the grand meal.

Interestingly it was the priest himself who cleaned out the ash. “The priest shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” (Leviticus 6:4) Tending to the sacrifices and their fires involved both the glamorous and the mundane. Both were the job of one person.

The Hasidic rebbes were known for cleaning their synagogues themselves. They did not view the mundane tasks of maintaining the buildings as beneath them. They saw each and every aspect of their work as holy. Like the Zen masters who toiled over rock gardens, even sweeping the floors was a religious enterprise. Nothing was ever beneath them. Thus they taught by their example that nothing is beneath anyone.

Too often a spiritual life is seen as lofty and on high. Hence the architecture of so many synagogues and churches has towering pulpits and impressive sanctuaries. Hasidic synagogues by contrast were more often non-descript homes or even rooms. The lesson is clear. Our spiritual pursuits also involve the mundane and everyday. They must at times even involve what appears beneath us. Is it any less important, and holy, to cut up the potatoes at a soup kitchen than to serve the meal? Is it less holy to dress the Torah than to chant its words?

Again an example from recent funerals. There I am often awed by who is thanked. Thanks are frequently extended to those people who cared for the deceased in his or her last months and perhaps years. This person is rarely a family member. I often discover that these caregivers are people of deep, but quiet faith. They do things that we cannot do. It is not that this work is beneath us. Instead it is that sometimes the most intimate care requires a distance that a loved one cannot sustain. Nonetheless it seems to me that there is no holier work. It is certainly not as glamorous as the doctor who offers expert wisdom or even as lofty as the rabbi who visits with his (or her) prayers. Yet I am grateful to these people who like the priests of old who stooped to remove the ashes from the sacrificial fire pit.

Everyone always looks at the fires and exclaims “Ooh…Ah.” Too often we forget about the mundane, and even dirty, work that is required to achieve those exclamations. Too often we forget about those who stooped low to keep these fires burning.

Let us not forget about the priests who walk among us cleaning up the ashes that we cannot. Let us always remember that their work is as holy as tending to the brightly burning fires.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Vayikra Sermon

There are many sacrifices detailed in this week’s Torah portion.   There is the burnt offering, everyday sacrifice, the meal offering, sin offering and guilt offering.  The ancient system was built on sacrifices not on prayer.  The ancient Israelites believed that the world was sustained by this system.  If it was done wrong, if there was a miscue, a wrong sprinkle here or there, the whole world might collapse.  In traditional circles these sacrifices are still seen as the ideal.  We just can’t do them anymore because the Temple was destroyed.  When the messiah comes he will rebuild the Temple and re-establish this sacrificial cult.

I have no desire for a return to this system.  Likewise the Reform movement changed these traditional prayers that hoped for this rebuilding.  The question still remains: why was this seen as the ideal?  The first answer is because religions in general and Judaism in particular see the past as the ideal.  What we did yesterday is better than today; what was said long ago is better than what is said today.  The closer you get to Sinai the more wise are the words.  There is an idealization of the past.  My Reform perspective however is that sometimes the past also holds us captive.  Sometimes we must change.  Sometimes we must be influenced by the past but not beholden to it.  Nowhere does this seem more true than when reading the details of these sacrifices.

Why would I want to slaughter an animal and sprinkle its blood on the altar?  Of course it would be really awesome if I sinned and I could then just bring a goat and give it to the priest and he could slaughter it and I would be forgiven.  That would be great of course if I had any goats.  But it would be terrible if I did not do the really hard work of correcting my failings.

This of course points to the meaning of sacrifice.  The sacrifice was all about offering something that is really precious.  You don’t offer your scrawny, unhealthy, runt of the herd.  You have to offer the unblemished, best of the flock.  You had to search and search for the best.  That was part of the power of the sacrifice.  Searching for the best; choosing the unblemished, perfect animal must have been an enormously powerful undertaking.

With the exception of soldiers we rarely if ever do this in our own lives.  We offer little to others, to our community, to our country.  When have we ever taken something that is most precious and given it to another?  This week I have been thinking that as much as dislike all of the blood and guts of the sacrifices maybe we would be better served to rediscover their deeper meaning.  We elevate our own lives, we make our lives more holy by giving up, by relinquishing control, by sacrificing for others, all in the name of the greater good.  That is what the ancient Israelites understood.

It is for example my belief that democracies cannot wage wars, especially long wars, if only soldiers are asked to sacrifice.  If the general population is not asked to sacrifice so that the nation will succeed the wars become unsustainable.  There are of course a lot of problems with the recently ended war in Iraq, or at least our involvement in it, and the soon to be ending war in Afghanistan.  But one of the greatest problems is that everyone was not asked to sacrifice.  There is a disconnect between those who fight and those of us who continue on with our merry lives.  If all are not asked to sacrifice then these wars become unsustainable.  You might say, they should never have been waged.  But that is not my point.

My contention here is only about sacrifice.  We succeeded in WWII not because of D-Day or the few soldiers who withstood the Battle of the Bulge or ran up the hills on Iowa Jima but because the entire country fought that war and sacrificed so that we might succeed.  If we cannot summon everyone to sacrifice, if we refuse to ask everyone to participate even in the smallest of ways, then we will fail.  You can send in the Navy Seals for this skirmish or that but you cannot sustain a war without everyone sacrificing.  Until all are asked to sacrifice in the current struggle we will fail.

That is my contention.  That is part of the lesson of this week’s portion.  A nation, a country is built on sacrifice.  It is the same with a community.  The group is greater when individuals sacrifice for the larger good.  It is the same with our individual lives.

In order to achieve greatness you have to sacrifice.  You want to earn more, you want to achieve more, then work harder, then sacrifice.  It is a traditional formula; but it works.  There is no lottery ticket for an easy way to success.  To be really honest it does not even work all the time.  Sometimes you might work really hard and sacrifice a lot and still not have great success.  But you will still achieve a measure of meaning.  That can be my only contention.

Sacrifice is about giving something up for the sake of something potentially greater.  There is no guarantee about the potential for greatness.  The key is that it involves giving up.  And that is something we are unwilling to do in our current society.

There are two possible examples of modern sacrifice.  We can sacrifice money when giving tzedakah.  In giving money to others I could be giving up a piece of my retirement.  But in order for it be a sacrifice I have to be losing something.  I might have less to spend on myself, my family, my future in order to give to others.  It is only sacrifice if I actually lose something that I also value.

I could as well sacrifice my time.  How many times do we sacrifice time with family, friends for the sake of a stranger?  You might say that family and friends are more important.  And that is true.  But in order for it to fulfill the definition of sacrifice I must give up something I love for the sake of something else.  My time with my family, with my friends, is most precious.  Giving up my time with them is then a real sacrifice.
There are times when we must offer this on the altar.  And these are our modern sacrifices.  Even strangers are to be loved says the Torah.  To live by that command I must sacrifice what I hold most precious.  I can think of nothing we value more than our time with family.  This is what we might offer.  This is pushed aside so that we might love the stranger.

Another name for sacrifice in Hebrew is olah.  It is the term for the everyday sacrifice, usually translated as burnt offering because the entire offering is burned up on the altar.  It is because it is all turned to smoke and the smoke ascends to heaven that it is called this.  Olah means to go up.

This gives another hint at the ancient meaning of the sacrificial rituals.  In order to raise our lives to lives of meaning we must add the notion of sacrifice.  In order to elevate our lives, we must give to others.  Not only what they need but also some of what is most precious to us.  Whether it be time or money we must sacrifice these on our modern altars.

The ancients had it wrong when it came to the animals and the blood.  But they had it right when they suggested that a meaningful life begins with sacrifice.  May we find the strength to sacrifice, to give to others, if only a portion of what is most precious to us.  Only in this manner we will discover the meaning we seek.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Vayikra

There is an ancient concept that in our own day has fallen into disrepute. It is called sacrifice.

We first read of this idea in the opening chapters of Leviticus. This week’s portion begins the lengthy book detailing these elaborate rituals. In ancient times one did not pray as we do today. One did not offer words. Instead one offered animals, or grains.

It was always the choicest of the flock that was chosen for a sacrifice. It had to be the most prized that was offered. The Torah demands that the animal be without blemish. That requirement was part of the power of sacrifice. One could not casually peruse the flock. One had to carefully examine the animals to choose the one perfect, unblemished animal.

Once the choice was made it was brought to the priest, who would slaughter the animal and sprinkle its blood on the altar. Imagine this. Your most valuable animal is slaughtered before your eyes. Moreover you rejoiced in this act. You took great pride and pleasure in this sacrifice. To be sure many ancient cultures believed that sacrifices were foods for the gods, appeasing them and staying their anger. There are hints of this even in our own Torah. As the slaughtered animal is turned to smoke on the altar, the Torah comments that it was a pleasing odor to the Lord.

All of this is foreign. I want nothing of these rituals. I want little of killing animals on an altar. Yet I long for the ancients’ comfort with sacrifice. We live in a society where we rarely if ever sacrifice for others. Our children especially do not know the meaning of sacrifice. Have we ever asked them to give up something they prize for the sake of another? We have struggled, and continue to struggle, so that they might not know want, that they lack nothing. But at what cost? Do they truly know the meaning of giving to others? Have we as well ever given up something we cherish for another? Can we discover the of meaning we seek absent of sacrifice?

At both of the last two funerals I attended there were military honor guards. Both funerals were for older men who served during Korea. Unlike prior generations of Jews so few of my generation serve in the military. The coffin was draped in an American flag. Taps was played. The honor guard carefully folded the flag and then presented it to the widow saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation…” Tears roll down my cheeks every time I hear this. Why? It is because the essence of this ritual is about sacrifice. Here was a man who served our country in the armed services and was therefore willing to sacrifice his life for something greater. The honor guard gives voice to the ancient premise. The willingness to sacrifice gives meaning to our lives.

This is why the generation who fought in World War II and built the industries that made our country into a leading economy is called the greatest generation. It is because they sacrificed so much for others; they sacrificed for this nation. Even those who did not serve in the military were asked to sacrifice, to ration food and gas and to buy war bonds. The ancients were right about sacrifice and its meaning. The willingness to give up what is most precious leads to greatness.

I have said this before and I am certain I will say it again, we have been asked to sacrifice nothing in the ongoing war on terror. To be sure our lives have become filled with inconveniences and nuisances, especially when traveling. But ordinary Americans have not been asked to sacrifice for their country. Even much of the soldiering has been contracted out. A military contractor is a job. It is not the calling to serve something greater that is the defining character of a soldier. We have not been beseeched with the words, “Our brethren serving in the armed forces continue to die defending our nation and so we must drive less, eat less…” Ask me to sacrifice just one thing for the sake of our nation! This past week Specialist Daquane D. Rivers (21 years old) and Second Lieutenant Clovis T. Ray (34 years old) were killed in Afghanistan.

In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is korban. It is related to the word to draw near. The meaning is clear. It was believed that offering a sacrifice enabled the worshipper to draw near to God.

We often complain that we live in a world that is fractured and disconnected. Perhaps it is because of our unwillingness to sacrifice. The essential truth found in this week’s Torah portion is that when we sacrifice we draw near. And when sacrifice is not even part of our lexicon we only draw near to ourselves. Thus we find ourselves far more distant from ourselves, our community, our nation and even our God.

We must speak again the word of sacrifice. Its wisdom is not just for ancient times. It is needed today as well.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

This week’s Torah portion opens with the prohibition against lighting fire on Shabbat. The rabbis of course interpret this literally. They ruled that you cannot light a fire on Shabbat. You can light the fire before Shabbat. Hence there is the somewhat elaborate ritual of lighting Shabbat candles. Unlike almost all other rituals, in this case you perform the action before reciting the blessing. You light the candles, then cover your eyes, and then say the blessing. And then you open your eyes. Magically, it is as if the candles were lit. Had the blessing been said prior to the action, then you would be lighting the fire after Shabbat commences.

In addition candle lighting is set eighteen minutes prior to the start of Shabbat (and 36 minutes in Jerusalem) to avoid any errors and the chance that a fire might be kindled on this sacred day. Thus you can turn on lights before Shabbat and leave them on, but not during the day. You can warm food on a stove left on simmer but can’t cook on Shabbat. In addition you cannot drive because this would be igniting fire. Driving and the turning on of electric lights are all about this prohibition and not about forbidden work. It is not about the efforts of these actions but instead about the fires contained within them.

But fire can have symbolic meaning. Fire is after all the essence of the ner tamid and of the candles that mark the beginning of every holiday. They serve as a beacon, a reminder. Fire can also be dangerous; it can burn. I wonder if this is why it was prohibited. It can consume; it can destroy. Such powers are contrary to Shabbat; they are forbidden on this holiest of days.

The dual meaning of fire is part of its power. It echoes the Hebrew term for religious, yirat hashamayim. Literally this means fear of heaven. I prefer to translate this as standing before heaven, placing heaven at the forefront of our thoughts. I do not very much like the idea of fear. Then again perhaps fear is not that bad as a motivator.

We are sometimes motivated to do good out of fear. When your kids are young you don’t really care how the message is conveyed about running out into a busy street as long as it is heard. If you have to resort to fear then, ok. As long as your kids know they cannot run into a street, as long as they are protected from harm, in the end that’s all that matters. When your kids are older, again you just want that message about drinking and driving to be heard. You will take fear if it works. It would be nice if we could only say, “Don’t because I love you…” But it is rarely that easy.

Would it be so terrible if we were more generous, more caring, more compassionate simply because we were afraid of God’s wrath? I would take the generosity, concern and compassion. Do I care about the motivation? Or am I more concerned with the result?

I understand the discomfort. The rabbi now sounds like a conservative, right wing Christian. But for centuries Judaism has spoken and taught about the actions, the behaviors, rather than the motivation. In a word Judaism has said I will take any motivation that works as long as more people do the right thing. Is generosity tainted because it is done out of fear of heaven? Does the recipient of tzedakah, the needy person, really care about the giver’s motivation or instead the content of the gift? If you need a coat during the harshness of yesteryear’s winters do you really care why you got that coat? All that matters is your warmth.

Back to the fires. That is why fire is an apt image. Its duality gives us insight into our religious motivations. It can light the way; it can warm. It can also consume; it can burn.
Likewise yirah can also mean awe, to hold up in reverence. Yirah contains a dual meaning. Sometimes we do the right thing out of fear. Better to do it out reverence. Regardless the best is just to do the right thing.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
Our lives are filled with small acts. They can be as small as lighting Shabbat candles or giving tzedakah, or as small as beholding the ner tamid or reaching out to feed the hungry. In each of these we glimmer the divine. In the smallest of acts we see the light of God’s concern. It can start with kindling the Shabbat lights. It can begin with the eternal light of last week’s portion.

Regardless of where it begins the goal remains the same. It is to bring light and warmth to the world. It is to be sure that the fires of religious faith do not consume ourselves or others. It is to be certain that these fires only brighten our path.

We have a world to repair. It matters less the motivation and far more the result. There are too many people to help to argue about fear or awe. I prefer awe. Others prefer fear. Perhaps together we can better our world.

March-April Newsletter

What follows is my article from our March-April 2012 Newsletter.  In it I answer a number of our students' ask the rabbi questions.

Here are your questions, and of course my answers.

What’s your first name in English?
Steve, but you should continue to call me rabbi.

How old are you?
47. My birthday is in July when I will be 48.

This is a not smart question. R U married?
Yes. I am married to Susie. She is also a rabbi. Also I have two children. One is in high school and the other in college. By the way no question is stupid. You can only learn if you ask questions. But you may want to write out the words to your questions instead of writing in texting slang.


Are you from Israel?
No. But every Jew is connected to the land of Israel and I hope the State of Israel

Who is the President of Israel?
The President of Israel is Shimon Peres, but in Israel the real power is not in the president but the Prime Minister and that is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Why did you want to become a rabbi?
I always wanted to help people and I love learning. A rabbi is a combination of helping others and teaching and learning.

Do we ever have a field trip in Hebrew School?
I think it would be really great if we organized a youth trip to Israel for when you are in high school. How would that be for a field trip! We always visit the Holocaust Museum in Glen Cove when you are older, but it would also be really great if we went to the Jewish sites in New York City one time. I would also be happy to go with you to a Jets or Giants game.

Why did Hitler feel the need to hate our people? What’s there to hate?
There is nothing to hate. People like Hitler will hate no matter what. So the first lesson is that we can change nothing about ourselves to prevent antisemites from hating us. There are a lot of really smart people who have spent their lives studying the Nazis and the Holocaust. No one has come up with a really good answer for why Hitler, the Nazis, ordinary Germans and far too many Europeans, hated Jews so much that they wanted to murder them. To my mind there are two explanations that are important to remember. 1. The roots of antisemitism go back thousands of years. Children were taught to hate Jews for generations. From this long held hatred it is not such a logical jump to say “Let’s get rid of them.” That is why we must fight against those who hate, or make fun of, others for who and what they are. 2. Germany had so many problems right before World War II and people wanted to blame others for all of their problems. The Jews became the scapegoat. And that is the final lesson. It is always easier to blame others for our own problems.

What did Jesus do that made people believe he was the messiah?
According to the Christian Bible he performed many miracles and fulfilled the traditional Jewish vision of the messiah, a man sent by God who would save the world. The world still waits to be repaired however. Christians believe that he will return to save the world. Jews believe that he was an extraordinary man who taught some beautiful and meaningful lessons, but that he is not the messiah because he did not save the world during his lifetime.

On Mount Sinai did Moses receive the first five books of the Torah?
Yes. Moses and the entire people received not only the written Torah but all of Jewish teachings. Now I can’t prove this to you. Just like the last question it is a matter of belief so too is this question about what happened at Mount Sinai. I think we discover God when we study Torah. We bring God into the world when we live by the instructions in the Torah. I don’t worry so much about the details of what happened then. I am more concerned with what we do now.

Thanks for the questions!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Refuge from War

I am thinking about cities of refuge.

As I read about the US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in an apparent murderous rage, I think, as I am inclined to do, of the Torah and the ancient near eastern culture from which it came.  I think in particular of the Torah's cities of refuge where someone who committed manslaughter could seek asylum, thus escaping the vengeance of family and friends.

The US soldier is now in a prison in Kansas.  He was taken out of Afghanistan so that he might be given a fair trial here in the US.

The Torah's laws are of course about manslaughter and not homicide, and certainly not the massacre of sixteen men, women and children.  Still what is the intention and lesson of these laws beyond that of safeguarding a person from extrajudicial punishment?  They come to teach that life is most prized.  Human life is most sacred.  A person cannot be killed in order to assuage emotions and in particular vengeance.  If the crime was an accident then his (or her) life continues to be cherished.

Democracies with their notions of individual rights come to reinforce this.  Thus even an accused mass murderer is accorded rights.  And he is hurried to a city where he might receive a fair trial.

I wonder why there have been so few, if any, protests against these murders?  Why was there far more protests against the burning of a few Korans?  Can democracy truly flourish where the values of honor and reverence are most cherished?  Can we sow the seeds of democratic revolution where human life is less holy than holy books?  Stand up and scream for justice with similar passion.  I love my books as well.  I love people even more.  That is the lesson of the cities of refuge.  Honor and vengeance are secondary to justice and life.

I wonder as well whether this act is one more piece of evidence that it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain war for many years.  Over time war corrodes the soul.  The acts that young men are forced to do eat away not only at their own souls, but the country's as well.  We learned this in Vietnam.  Israel learned this in Lebanon.

This does not make war in general wrong.  Sometimes we are left with no other choice.  But democracies cannot sustain such things for very long.  We hold human life in far too high esteem.  Some might say this will prove to be our undoing.  I say it is our greatest asset.  It is our most cherished prize.

It is what the lack of protests over these senseless deaths and the many protests over a few books painfully remind us.  It is what the Torah's cities of refuge come to teach us.

Addendum:
Be sure to read this article from The New York Times regarding this issue.  The following sums up the disconnect between our culture and theirs.
"'How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?' said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. 'The whole goal of our life is religion.'”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Vayakhel-Pekudei

Last week’s Torah portion began with the details of the ner tamid, the eternal light. This week’s begins with the prohibition of kindling fire on Shabbat. “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)

The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are left on during Shabbat, but never turned on and stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent.

There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing was a response to these Karaites. Also in this blessing and the lighting of the Shabbat candles we discover the meaning of this prohibition for our times.

Fire can of course both warm and burn. It can be comforting and dangerous. It is similar to the Hebrew term, yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven. It is this term that the tradition uses to describe a person of faith. It is in a sense one who bows before heaven. Like fire’s dual meaning, yirah can also be translated as awe.

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
Awe is the more apt description of the faith we strive towards. We return to the lights of Shabbat.

Fire can be both dangerous and inspiring. The brilliance of the rabbis was to demand a blessing before the lighting of fire. In that way the fire is transformed into an object of holiness. Fire is not be feared. It is to be held in awe. At the beginning of Shabbat when fire is prohibited, and then again at the conclusion of Shabbat when fire is again permitted we thus offer blessings. We elevate fire to the holy. We no longer fear it. We transform the potentially dangerous and bask in its warmth.

We again turn to Heschel’s God in Search of Man:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
May our Shabbat lights help us to stand in awe before God and God’s world. May these fires only be awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Circle Closes and Widens

The internet both closes and widens the circles of our lives.

Last year I posted an article about the first funeral at which I officiated.  The article is re-posted below or can be found at this link.  In the article I was rather self-critical of those first efforts.  I am often self-critical.  It will always be one of my distinguishing features. In particular I then found my words wanting in the face of the enormity of death.  I still find my efforts lacking when they brush at death.  It is not that I believe I am unhelpful to the grieving families.  I recognize, even though I am also deeply humbled by this, the comfort and strength my presence brings to mourners.  Still I find all efforts in the face of death inadequate.  How can mere words measure a life?  There is a certain injustice in the eulogy.  A life well lived is summarized in well-chosen phrases, verses and perhaps even on occasion, eloquence.  That is from where the feelings of inadequacy derive.  They always accompany me to funerals.  They are a source of awe and inspiration.  May they also continue to be a source of humility.

A few months ago I received a beautiful email from the son of the first man I helped to bury many years ago in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  He wrote and sought to respond to my feelings, especially those self-critical words.  He was only appreciative of my efforts and grateful for my presence during those difficult days and their preceding weeks.  And then I read the following article in the Institute of Southern Jewish Life's quarterly newsletter.  In the opening chairman's column, Rayman L. Solomon writes:
Several months ago I received an extraordinary email from my friend, Charles Lipson. Charles grew up in a small Mississippi Delta town of Marks with his two brothers and his parents who ran a business there.  Charles' email included a very interesting column from Rabbi Steven Moskowitz of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville on Long Island's North Shore.  Rabbi Moskowitz writes about the first funeral he ever conducted over 20 years ago, in Clarksdale, MS, which was for Charles' father, Harry M. Lipson, Jr.  The Rabbi, who was a student intern, was extremely self-critical of the service he performed.  He told of going the next day to sit by the grave and ask forgiveness for what he perceived to be an inadequate performance of his duty both in terms of style and substance.  The response to the Rabbi's column, which Charles shared with a group of friends, was that from the family's perspective the Rabbi was totally incorrect and too harsh on himself.  Charles pointed out that what was most important to his family was the chance to talk before the service to the Rabbi about his father--to express their grief through sharing family stories in private.  It was the gift of having a rabbi in a community that could no longer afford to employ one that mattered beyond all else to the family.  That is the insight that led to the creation of the Rabbinic Program at the ISJL over ten years ago...
And the most important gift any rabbi asks for is to know that your presence matters, that your being there made the grief and pain more bearable, that your standing there under the huppah or on the bima made the those simchas slightly more joyous.  Now I know.  And I will continue to remind myself that such days may be just another day in a rabbi's busy schedule, but they are the most important days in those families' lives.  And I will continue to search within in.  How else can I better myself?  Even more importantly I will continue to be humbled and awed by the fact that people, some of whom know me very well and others who know me only by my title, will want me there at the greatest moments in their lives and the most terrible, darkest days.

And I will continue to recall Charles' words.

I will remain grateful that the internet helped to close that circle which had remained open for these past 20 years.   I will as well be pleased that it widened the circle of concern again including yesterday's friends in the Deep South who continue to remain steadfast in their Jewish commitments.

The article that closed, and then widened, the circle.
"Funeral Blues"
Even though I have served as a rabbi for over eighteen years, some of the most important and lasting lessons were learned in my earliest years prior to earning the title of rabbi. Many times our first experiences teach us far more than we can then admit. I still remember my grandfather teaching me how to ride a bike, his loving hand guiding me and his shouts of joy encouraging me.

There in my mind is a tableau of first memories. And so I continue to be drawn to the memory of officiating at my first funeral.

In 1987-88 I served as a student rabbi in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of the Blues. Since the 1870’s Jews had found a niche in this community and there thrived in many businesses. Once a month I flew from Cincinnati where I was attending rabbinical school to Memphis and then rented a car, driving through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi to Clarksdale. There I served Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue built in the 1930’s.

By the 1970’s its membership was declining. The synagogue could no longer afford a full time rabbi and so it became a training ground for young student rabbis, until ultimately closing its doors in 2003. It was there, in Clarksdale, at the age of 23, in the first days of June 1988 that I officiated at my first funeral.

Harry Lipson Jr. died after a long battle with cancer. I carved out a few hours to visit with him and his wife Dottie during the course of my weekend trips. At the funeral I recited the words from the perfect, unused pages of my new Rabbi’s Manual. “Death has taken our beloved Harry. Our friends grieve in their darkened world…” Some of the words felt empty, and some even cruel. “For when we die we carry nothing away; our glory does not accompany us.” Others felt comforting. On some words I stumbled. On others I discovered strength.

I have never before revealed this but the next day I returned to the cemetery and sat by myself at Harry’s grave. The warm, humid Mississippi air was heavy with moisture. I asked Harry to forgive me for being the first funeral at which I officiated. I begged him to ignore my mistakes. I apologized over and over again for all of my weaknesses and flaws. I was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in facing death.

And then I remembered that death is not a failure. I recalled that I became a rabbi rather than a physician because I wanted to have a manual that worked for moments just as these. I did not want to say, “There was nothing more we could do…” but instead, “I am sorry. I promise I will walk this path with you. We will face this death together. This is what our tradition says we must now do.”

The pages of my Rabbi’s Manual are now torn and wrinkled from snow and rain. The pages bear scribbling and notes as well as reminders that I no longer require. There are a few pages wrinkled from my own tears, from funerals still too painful to recount. Many have stood expectantly, looking up at me as I read from this small, holy book. There were days when I did not know how I might summon the strength to greet these expectations. Nearly every time I am drawn to remember Harry.

I recall that there is no perfect path through the valley of the shadow of death. I remember Dottie’s observation that the very words from our tradition that I found harsh and cruel she found soothing and comforting. She explained to me that it was the comfort of a familiar voice reciting what generations of Jews have spoken for thousands of years. I worried too much about the meaning of each word. She listened instead to the voice. I learned then that there is our tradition’s manual and its guidance. There is the strength we draw from our community, from each other.

I still find it remarkable that people ask me to stand by their side at countless occasions such as these. I am thankful that there have been far more simchas than tragedies in these eighteen years. In these years I have studied Torah with over 200 b’nai mitzvah students and watched as their parents welcomed them into the age of Jewish responsibility. I relish the smiles of parents and their tears of joy. I find it to be an unparalleled privilege that my congregants want me standing there at the absolute best of times and the worst. I am grateful that they see fit to call me rabbi.

I cannot promise that I will always say every word perfectly. I can promise that I will continue to call it a privilege and blessing to serve as a rabbi.

And as I learned as well in the birthplace of the Blues, from the master B.B. King: “You better not look down if you want to keep on flyin’. Put the hammer down. Keep it full speed ahead.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Newsday Faith Column

I was recently interviewed for Newsday's "Asking the Clergy" column. The question was "It is said that God created us in the his own image. If so, was his image male because he created Adam first? Or, female, because he saved the best for last, Eve? Both images are mentioned in Scriptures. He is God, the Father in passages like Isaiah 64:8 and Jeremiah 3:4. But God also is described as mother or acting as would a mother. These are examples in Genesis 1:27 and Hosea 13:8." The column appeared on Saturday, March 10th. What follows is my response.

I think the Jewish perspective is that God is neither man nor woman. Trying to define God in human terms leads to problems because God is only subject to divine definitions.

Maimonides said that we can only talk about what God is not, not what God is. The scriptural references to God as a man are poetic license. People can imagine God however they choose to imagine God. To really, truly understand God, you must realize that God is neither man nor woman. God is not human.

The beauty of the Hebrew language is that there are many different names for God. Some are feminine. Some are masculine. But all are just scratching at the surface. The beauty of the English language, on the other hand, is that you can refer to God using gender neutral terms.

The Hebrew approach is "Let's get every name under the sun in there." The lesson I take from that is choose the name that speaks to you at that moment. My favorite name for God is HaMakom, which literally means "the place." I think it is beautiful because God is where you find God, and what your needs are directing you to call God.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ki Tisa

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa.  It begins with the following command: “This is what everyone who is entered into the records shall pay…a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.” (Exodus 30:13)  Soon after the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the building of the tabernacle is this commandment that everyone must pay taxes to the Jewish people.  Unlike the gifts that are collected for the tabernacle’s construction this half-shekel is an obligatory offering.  During Temple times this tax was collected during the current Hebrew month of Adar, hence the first Sabbath before the start of this month is still called Shabbat Shekalim.

This tax immediately follows the taking of a census.  In fact the intention of this tax was to avert the dangers associated with counting the people.  The term census is related to the Latin meaning a penalty.  To the ancient mind, counting, and counting people in particular, was fraught with danger.   This tax therefore functioned as a ransom, saying in effect, “Take my money rather than my life.”

During King David’s realm it is reported that the Jewish people were afflicted by a terrible plague because of David’s insistence on taking a census.  Perhaps this danger was because a census was often conducted in preparation for war.  Thus it is a needed reminder.  “Beware of numbering the people as you prepare for war.  If you go to war soon you will be counting the dead as well as the living.”  The march towards war must always be a cautious undertaking.

We live in a time of heightened individualism.  We do not feel that the community rises and falls based on our individual actions.  It is only our own successes, or failures, that turn on our actions.  We rebel against obligations insisting that we are tied to the community.  We see ourselves as autonomous individuals.  Laws demanding taxes for the community are scorned.  Then again perhaps the ancient Israelites felt similarly.  In this week’s portion, soon after this commandment follows the sin of the Golden Calf when the people rebel against God and build an idol.  Perhaps their sin was a result of the excessive demands the community now placed upon them.

Likewise we live in a time when we feel that the fate of our people is not tied to our individual actions.  We do not however believe that numbering the people will lead to plagues.  Then again our sense of commitment to the Jewish people grows stronger when we feel that we are threatened or in danger.  The overwhelming participation in the recent AIPAC Conference in Washington DC is indicative of this.  The fear that Iran might soon acquire nuclear weapons and that might then threaten the Jewish state is palpable.   Our sense of obligation grows.

But why must fear be the primary source of obligation to the community?  Why can’t joy also be demanding?  Why can’t our sense of obligation to the Jewish people be a constant in our lives?  Why must it always be fear that motivates?  Let it instead be joy.  Let our commitment to the Jewish people be a constant hum throughout our lives.  Let it be akin to the wordless melodies and niggunim of the Hasidic masters.

Taxes might indeed contain moral lessons.  A half-shekel does not appear a steep price.  That might very well be the lesson.   It is the smallest of amounts, it is the tiniest of obligations, that begins our commitment to the Jewish people.  Let this obligation begin with joy!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim

Many things mark the unique holiday of Purim.  It is a day given to drinking, feasting, costume wearing and humor.  This is remarkable given some of the story’s more serious themes.  Haman is of course considered history’s first antisemite, a man who wanted to kill all Jews because he was angry with one Jew.  It is also a story about women’s rights.

Let me explain.  It all starts at a wild party in which King Ahasuerus demands that his beautiful wife Vashti dance for him and his friends.  He instructs his servants to bring her into the party wearing (only) her crown.  “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command…”  (Esther 1:12)  She refuses to dance naked before the king and his friends.  Vashti is then banished from the palace and stripped of her crown. (Sorry I could not resist the double entendre.)

The king’s advisors fear a feminist revolt.  “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against your majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples…  For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…”  (Esther 1:16-17)  Vashti’s sin is that she refuses the king’s command.  She has a mind of her own.  Vashti represents an independent woman.  She has thoughts different than her husbands, ideas that are hers alone.  She is a woman who refuses to be viewed only as an object of beauty, paraded around for others to admire.

On the other hand, the Jewish heroine of the story, Esther, lives by a different rule.   And herein lies the irony of our story.  The woman who saves the Jewish people from catastrophe and the genocidal designs of Haman gains this position of power and the title of queen by winning a beauty pageant.  The Book of Esther records no words about world peace or platforms about disadvantaged children from our heroine.  She is paraded before the king after twelve months of beauty treatments.  No words are even spoken between this future queen and her king.  She wins his favor by her beauty alone.  “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins.  So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:17)

It is a bitter irony that Esther does what Vashti refuses to do.  She parades before the king.  Our great heroine is treated as the object that Vashti refuses to become. In fact Esther never acts of her own accord.  Even when she comes to the rescue of the Jewish people it is at her uncle Mordecai’s behest.  He pleads with her before she agrees to defend her people.  He implores her by saying: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace…  And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”  (Esther 4:13-14)  In the end it is the woman who is the object of beauty who saves the Jewish people and the independent, thinking woman who is sidelined.  No one of course asks the question of them, at what cost to each of their souls. 

As I reflect on these past week’s events and Rush Limbaugh’s hateful comments I am reminded of this story.  I recall that although we might live thousands of years past the Purim story, and decades since the feminist revolution, we continue to struggle with these very same issues. 

And so on this joyous holiday I am reminded again about the hidden meanings in this ancient parody, a story of two beautiful women who live their lives by very different rules.  Although my tradition suggests otherwise I turn this year not to Esther for strength.  This year I have resolved to choose differently. 

I choose instead Vashti.  May her courage and independence always be an inspiration. 

Tetzaveh and the Iranian Crisis Sermon

As we prepare for Purim and its story of a Persian tyrant with genocidal designs against the Jewish people, my thoughts to turn to the present crisis about modern day Iran.  There has been a great deal written about Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the recent sanctions and an expected attack by Israel—perhaps as soon as this summer.  One might think that given these sentiments Israelis are stocking gas masks, preparing their safe rooms and spending evenings in bomb shelters.  This is far from the case.  There appears far more worry here than in Israel.

A few observations are in order.  My observations are more about how we navigate this present conflict.  I am not of course the president, prime minister, or chief of staff.  I have no expertise in military matters.  My knowledge is more about our feelings and how we prioritize them, as well as our commitments as Jews.  Not all of these observations agree with each other.  They are meant to help us unpack what is at stake in this crisis.

1. In Israel there is widespread agreement that Iran represents a grave threat.  There is however disagreement over how to deal with this.  The most recent poll indicated that the country is evenly divided regarding a military attack.

2. We should take antisemites and tyrants at their word.  The notion that they can be swayed by reason is flawed.  The idea that the mullahs of Iran will be influenced by rational arguments is false.  Economic sanctions might very well influence them, but reason will not.

3. That being said the comparisons to 1938 are also flawed.  The notion that today’s diplomatic efforts are the same as Chamberlain’s is erroneous.  Not every antisemite, and dictator, is Hitler, as evil and as menacing as they may be.  As Gershom Gorenberg observed when you paint the current crisis in terms of the prelude to World War II then the only acceptable choice becomes a military attack.  There may come a point when that is the only option but such historical analogies shrink our options rather than expand our choices.

4. I take our president at his word when he says that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.  We might disagree about how to prevent this, but as an American and a Jew I have to hope that he means what he says.  I have to believe that America will do everything necessary to prevent Iran from building a bomb.

5. Israel’s existential anxiety is of course greater than that of the US.  Iran’s rulers have threatened to destroy Israel and death to America.  But Israel is threatened by its proximity, by its size and by its limitation in absorbing an attack.  The threats are felt differently here rather than there and we must recognize this and come to terms with this most basic of facts.

6. We feel a great sense of discomfort when Israel and US interests don’t appear in sync.  We feel anxiety when Israel becomes a battleground in American politics.  This will become even more pronounced at the AIPAC conference.  When candidates argue who would best protect Israel we become uneasy.

7. The US should prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons not to protect Israel but because it is in the US interest.  Each nation should act out of its own interest.  I would rather hear words here why Iran is a threat to the US and in Israel why it is threat to Israel.  The Iran hostage crisis defined my highschool years.  In fact Iran’s current president was then a hostage taker.  I do not understand why that is not being discussed in the US.  I do not understand why the discussion appears more about how Iran is a threat to Israel and not how it is a grave threat to the US.

8. Only Israel, its leaders and people can determine what is in its own interests.  This is not because the US is untrustworthy but because this is the very nature of Zionism.  I continue to believe that the definition of Zionism is that Israel must go it alone. The nature of having a Jewish state is that we must not depend on the world—even our greatest ally. We will write Jewish history ourselves—for better or worse. It will no longer be done to us. We will never again be victims. And this is my biggest problem with the tenor of the debate among American Jews. It is all about Jewish victimhood and not what I believe Zionism is truly about, Jewish strength. It is all about America (under Obama) is victimizing the Jewish people, and selling Israel out.  Or it is about portraying Israel as threatened with destruction and so America (and especially American Jews) should come to its rescue.  Both of these pictures are a betrayal of what I believe Zionism should be.

9. I remember the first Gulf War well.  I recall the Scuds falling on Tel Aviv and I suspect that Bush Senior then asked Israel to restrain itself from attacking Iraq so as to preserve that tenuous coalition.  Israel restrained itself at great cost to the Zionist psyche.  Israel was built on the notion that only it could guarantee its own safety, not Patriot missiles but its own might and ingenuity.  This is again at stake—and is certainly a factor in the minds of Israel’s leaders.

Yossi Klein Halevi writes ("Can Israel Trust the United States When It Comes to Iran," TNR, March 2, 2012)
The Iranian nuclear threat could force Israel to choose between two of its essential national values. On the one hand, there is the commitment to Jewish self-defense. On the other hand, there is the longing to be a respectable member of the international community. Allowing an enemy that constantly threatens Israel’s destruction to acquire the means to do so would negate Zionism’s promise to protect the Jewish people. And launching a preemptive strike without American backing could lead to Israel’s isolation and risk Zionism’s promise of restoring the Jews as a nation among nations. 
In this excruciating dilemma, the question of whether Israel can trust the administration to act militarily against Iran becomes all the more crucial. Israeli leaders believe that their window of opportunity in launching a preemptive strike will be closing in the coming months. America, though, with its vastly superior firepower, could retain a military option even after Israel’s lapses. In other words: An Israeli decision not to strike this year will mean that it effectively ceded its self-defense—against a potentially existential threat—to America. When Obama tells Israel to give sanctions time, what he is really saying is: Trust me to stop Iran militarily when you no longer can. 
Thus the very definition of what it means to be a Zionist and an Israeli is also on the table.

10. As American Jews we are destined to live with conflict as well.  We desperately want Israeli and American interests to be synonymous.  But they are not and they never will be.  Each nation has different interests and different agendas.

Yossi Klein Halevi again writes:
In the end the dilemma for both Israel and the U.S. isn’t only strategic but ethical. Israel has a moral responsibility not to surprise its closest friend with an initiative that could drastically affect American well-being. And the U.S. has a moral responsibility not to pressure its closest Middle East ally into forfeiting its right to self-defense against a potentially genocidal enemy. 
In better times, the two allies might have been able to navigate these conflicting needs. But in the absence of mutual trust, what could remain are conflicting perceptions of interest. 
We may soon face the scenario that the two nations we love will not act in harmony and that Israeli, or American, actions will bring criticism, dissension, resentment and perhaps even antisemitism.

We must remain strong.  We must remain resolute.  We must be willing to live with conflict.  We must be willing to fight for Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit.  And as well to defend America’s right to support its own interests—even when they might be contrary to Jewish, and Israeli, interests.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the ner tamid, the light that must be continually tended.  For American Jews it must be a love of both Israel and America, it must be a love for the country that is our home, and the nation that is our Jewish people’s destiny.  Whatever the coming year brings, that flame must remain our eternal light.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tetzaveh

I have been thinking about ritual objects. My thoughts are not only about how we use them. Rather they also pertain to how others abuse them.

This week we read some more details about the construction of the tabernacle, in particular instructions for the priestly vestments and a few brief words about the eternal light. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (ner tamid). Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Exodus 27:20-21)

In remembrance of the ancient tabernacle and in observance of this commandment, every synagogue has a ner tamid, usually translated as eternal light, situated above its Ark. It would be better to translate tamid however not as “eternal” but as “with unfailing regularity.” It was not that the ner tamid remained perpetually burning, as if by miracle, it was instead that this light had to be regularly tended. The medieval sage, Nachmanides, suggests that the ner tamid was also used to light the seven-branch menorah that stood in the Temple.

As I think about this menorah, my mind often wanders not to how these objects adorn so many synagogues, but instead to the Arch of Titus. There on that Roman arch are the reliefs of Jewish slaves being marched to Rome from their destroyed Jerusalem. There as well is the image of the menorah being carted away as a spoil of war. I also recall the many photographs of our recent enemies burning Jewish books, in particular the Talmud and the most sacred of all books, our Torah scrolls. Throughout the centuries pillars of fire consumed our most cherished possessions.

I love our Jewish books. I hold sacred our ritual objects. It causes me great pain and distress to imagine these ancient, and modern, destructions. Thus I am sympathetic to the pain caused to Muslims when they hear of their holy Koran being burned. We should remember the pain caused to our people by such fires.

I take issue however with the protestors, and rioters, in Afghanistan when they venerate these objects over human life. As much as I love our books, and as much as it pains me to ponder the Arch of Titus or the images of Nazis burning our Torah scrolls on Kristallnacht, I am more pained by the picture of a young boy standing in fear before a German soldier’s rifle. It is the murder of so many Jews that causes me the greatest pain. For our recent enemies, as well as our ancient, despoiling the sacred led to the murder of the innocent.

Amidst the reports of Afghanis rioting against the American soldiers’ burning of Korans, was another report about four Afghans who were beheaded by the Taliban. These men were accused of spying for the United States. The evidence against them was that they possessed satellite phones. Possession of such new technology is apparently an act of treason.

Veneration of the ancient to the exclusion of the modern is a belief we still confront. It is this view that sees human beings as but subjects of an ancient book. It is this view that makes human life secondary to ritual objects. It is my view, and the belief of our Jewish tradition, that human life takes precedence over all else, even our most sacred objects, even our most cherished books.

Jewish law states that we can even sell the community’s Torah scroll in order to ransom a captive. Even the most sacred of our possessions must serve human life. They are never of greater value than the most treasured of God’s gifts, life. I long for Afghans to protest against the murder of their countrymen by their co-religionists. I long for Afghans to rise up against those who would take life. I long for Muslims to stand up and say the Koran that they revere demands that they place human life first and foremost.

I remain sympathetic to the pain that burning a Koran engenders. I share this commitment to the holy. I would most certainly cry if I were to see a Torah scroll burned. Yet I long to hear something greater than these cries. Instead all I hear is silence. There is only deafening silence in the face of murder.

It is far too easy to clamor against what others do to us, to speak of victimization and defamation. It is far too easy to speak of how others trample on what we hold most dear, what we revere as sacred. But the most holy of tasks, the greatest of challenges, is always to speak of how we might change, what we might be doing wrong, to criticize our closest friends, our family and ourselves. This remains the most difficult of tasks.

In the end these are the fires that must be continually tended. We must not expect that they will burn eternally, as if by miracle. From evening until morning we must tend to these fires.

Talking about Iran

This is a 30 minute video with my teachers from the Shalom Hartman Institute: Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehuda Kurtzer.  Their topic is: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Iran."  Their discussion is not about the specifics of the Iranian nuclear threat.  Instead they debate the perceptions of this threat.  Yehuda represents the American Jewish perspective and Yossi the Israeli.  Their insights are worth noting.



What follows are my thoughts.

Here in the United States the debate seems to follow two lines of thinking.  Either Obama is not doing enough (because he really does not care about Israel) or Israel is being overly hysterical about the threats it faces (again).  Regarding the first point, I can't say what might be Obama's true inner motivations, although many people speak and write as if they know exactly what he thinks and believes.  I do however find him to be naive about the Middle East. Obama acts as if he can sway by reason everyone and anyone, even tyrants.  I take dictators, and antisemites, at their word.  Jewish history teaches me that reason will not convince them of their erroneous, and evil, ways.

In addition, I continue to believe that the definition of Zionism is that Israel must go it alone. The nature of having a Jewish state is that we must not depend on the world--even our greatest ally. We will write Jewish history ourselves--for better or worse. It will no longer be done to us. We will never again be victims. This is my biggest problem with the tenor of the debate among American Jews. It is all about Jewish victimhood and not what I believe Zionism is truly about, Jewish strength. It is all about America (under Obama) is victimizing the Jewish people, and selling Israel out. 

The only reason the US should help attack, or sanction, Iran is because it serves our American interests. Iran almost hates America just as much as it hates Israel. Why no one is talking about the Iranian hostage crisis that defined my high school years is curious and troubling. Imagine what the people who took Americans hostage would do with a bomb. The president of Iran was then a hostage taker!  Iran having nuclear weapons is a threat to the world. Still sanctions are at present the better approach for American interests, especially as these sanctions have been most recently configured.

The problem that we have is that American and Israeli interests don't appear in sync. Our sense of threat is different. American Jews get palpitations when this happens. We want them to be synonymous. They are not. Israel has a shorter timetable, and faces a far greater existential threat, and therein lies the conflict. Each nation must do what is best for itself and in its own interests.  American Jews will have to live with this conflict.  Make no mistake, however.  While I may not clamor for Obama to do what is in Israel's best interest, I will support Israel in every way possible.  When Israel's leaders decide to take action to protect our nation I will stand with my people.  I might cry if the president offers little support, but I won't scream.  Recall that Reagan furiously criticized Begin when that Israeli prime minister ordered the bombing of Iraq's nuclear facility.  The US then supported a UN resolution condemning Israel.  Those two leaders had a similar distaste for each other, akin to our current two leaders.  Today's tension is all too familiar.  Conflict is part of any relationship and is part of the Israeli-American dynamic.  And we must learn to live with this present conflict.

I remain bound to the Jewish people, as I am to my family.  I am confident that Israel will do what is necessary, and required, to protect itself.

Some later additional notes:
For a prior post about these issues read my thoughts about Gershom Gorenberg's article here.
For a somewhat different view of American-Israeli relations as it relates to this Iranian crisis, read Donniel Hartman's piece here.
Watch next week's webinar from the Shalom Hartman Institute here and be sure to follow the institute's new website and materials about engaging Israel.