Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash and Scattered Books

The following commentary was distributed to rabbis and Jewish leaders throughout the country by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Eight years after his brother’s tragic death, the unparalleled medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, wrote a letter to a friend, speaking about his recent struggle with mourning and loss: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness: he has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.” This letter was discovered among the hundreds of thousands of documents uncovered in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue in what is now called the Cairo Genizah. There, hidden away for centuries, were prayerbooks and Bibles, Talmuds and commentaries, holy books scattered among seemingly incidental letters and writings.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the synagogue to discover a box of old books. The caretaker informed me that this happens from time to time. Worn siddurim and chumashim, along with crumpled yarmulkes, were left at the door. I wonder if these were the remnants of a parent’s library. Not long ago the mourners perhaps gathered in the home in which they grew up, now they returned to close up the house, pack away keepsakes and donate useful items. What might they do with these books?

One can imagine the discussion: Can we throw them out? They appeared to answer: leave them at the nearest synagogue. And so in the middle of the night they placed the books by our synagogue’s door. I wandered through the books. Some had to be placed in our genizah, destined to be buried. Some were added to our congregation’s book collection. A few were intriguing: an unfamiliar translation of the psalms, an obscure edition of the Passover haggadah. One book caught my eye. Between the prayerbooks and Bibles I found a hundred year old book: Audels Automobile Guide with Questions, Answers and Illustrations, 1915. This manual offered answers to questions such as “How should the throttle be operated on an open or country road?” Here was a discarded book, detailing forgotten questions, hidden among abandoned holy books.

I wondered how many of our Jewish books are becoming increasingly forgotten. Is it because the questions of prior generations no longer appear relevant? Who drives a car with a handle throttle lever anymore? “From what time may one recite the Shema?” the Talmud asks. Or is it perhaps because our parents’ books cause us pain, discomfort, unease? Do our hearts grow faint when we see the books revered by prior generations?

For millennia our most treasured possessions were books. So revered were these works that even their tattered pages were never discarded. They were instead buried.

Two books in particular have guaranteed our survival: the Siddur, prayerbook and the Torah, Bible. We have carried these books from place to place, from country to country. Wherever we have lived we have grasped these in our hands. We have reinterpreted their verses and rewritten their words. They have defined us. These books have ensured that the Jewish future would be connected to past generations. We might be different than our parents and grandparents, but the books we hold in our hands would always be familiar. The written word remains eternal.

And yet we live in an age when words appear cheapened. They are quantified and measured; they are applauded by likes. How can a generation where words are as a fleeting as a Snapchat ensure that a people will remain devoted to words? In an age of the abbreviated text message how might we continue to clutch the heft of words in our hands? Is it even possible to bequeath gigabytes to our children?

I write notes scattered in the margins of my books.

Jacob, who became known as Israel, is nearing the end of his life. He travels to Egypt to join his son Joseph. There they grasp possessions. (Genesis 47:27) Is it at this moment that Israel takes hold of the books that will forever define us?

Jacob begins his life by taking hold of his brother’s heel. (Genesis 25:26) It is then that he earns his first name. We begin our lives holding on to others; we grow in wisdom by holding on to our most treasured possessions. We leave these books for future generations to pore over and reinterpret. We read the notes left by parents and grandparents. They give us strength—if we but grasp them. It is then that we become Israel.

I worry. Will books continue to be left at synagogue’s doors, abandoned and discarded, or will they be clutched in our hands and carried through these doors, to be read and pored over, chanted and sung? Will it continue to be said of Israel that words animate us? My heart grows faint within me.

My heart is stirred by the scattering of notes and letters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah and Distant Miracles

Hanukkah arrives this evening and with it the thought of miracles. A great miracle happened there, we proclaim. Nes gadol haya sham.

A miracle? “When Mattathias had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modiin, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26) The war was not only against Antiochus Epiphanies but the Jews who supported him. The first battle was in fact Jew against Jew.

How is it that a story of the Maccabees fighting against the Syrian-Greeks, and against the Jews who welcomed their culture, became a story of miracles? It is because the rabbis, living centuries after the Maccabees and the corruption to which their rule gave rise, and following the disastrous revolt against Rome in their own day, reimagined the Hanukkah struggle. It was no longer a story about war, and most especially the civil war that it in fact was, but instead a tale about God’s power and majesty. In the rabbinic imagination Hanukkah becomes not the victorious war story, filled with the battle scarred heroism of Mattathias and his sons, but instead a tale about God’s miracles. Nes gadol haya sham. God’s light brightens a darkened story.

It was the birth of Zionism and the State of Israel that upended the rabbis’ retelling and their philosophy....

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Still about Our Values

What follows is my sermon from this past Shabbat in which I discuss the Senate's report on torture.

This week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers grow increasingly jealous of Joseph. They conspire to kill their younger brother. Then they decide to sell him into slavery. They throw him in a pit and sit down to a meal. I have been thinking about that verse: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem, they sit down to eat. (Genesis 37:25) They turn aside from their brother’s pain.

This week I sat at my breakfast table reading the newspaper. I read of the resurgence of antisemitism and the continuation of terror. I read of the tragic death of Eric Garner and the simmering tensions near my home town of St. Louis. I lost my taste for food. We must no longer turn aside from these injustices.

I read as well this week’s Haftarah. The prophet Amos declares:
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And I read of the Senate’s report on torture. I recalled the prophet’s message. I remembered his words: we are to live by the law—always. His words continue to ring in my ears as I read the report’s details in yesterday’s paper.

The report’s revelations are disturbing. Among the more unsettling discoveries are the following. The CIA lied to Congress and the White House, and covered up the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a troubling euphemism.  Let us reflect on this: euphemisms too often mask our moral failures. "Collateral damage" actually means that innocent people have died. The report most significantly unveiled that these interrogation techniques were far more brutal and inhumane than we previously believed.

Senator John McCain, who has always been my hero on this issue, said:
I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm... But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend… we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.
I recognize that some might think that we should do whatever it takes to protect American lives. I believe however that torture does not aid in our protection; it does not benefit our security. There is of course debate whether or not torture produces valuable intelligence so let’s leave that question aside and focus instead on the most important issue. The use of torture undermines our values; it undermines the laws that make this country great. We should always be animated first and foremost by our values rather than our fears. The single greatest danger of terrorism is not the loss of life it inflicts but that it will so terrorize us that we will lose our way and forget our values. So it is time we talk more about our values than our fears. That is the message of the prophets. That is the message that America is supposed to offer the world. In this instance we lost our way. That is what was revealed by this week’s news.

Let me be clear: the use of power to protect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens is a moral imperative. But we must wield this power justly. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made; police and armies make errors. And we must then have the courage to examine our failures. To take an honest accounting of our wrongs, a heshbon hanefesh in our tradition’s language, is also a moral imperative. I reject the argument that the airing of this report makes us weaker, that it somehow endangers lives. I believe the opposite. It makes us stronger. That is the message we recount on the High Holidays. Each and every one of us can change. A community can change; a country can change. Great countries must certainly have the courage to examine their failures so that they can change and be even greater.

Soon we will be celebrating Hanukkah. Everyone is familiar with the story. But there is a dark side to the story of the light of Hanukkah. The Maccabees and their rule quickly became corrupt; they soon abused their power. They so believed they were right that they came to believe they could do no wrong; their righteous indignation in the face of all who disagreed with them, including fellow Jews, made them guilty of wrongs, and some even say atrocities. This is why the tradition argued that all must be subject to the law. Hanukkah is on one level a cautionary tale about power. That’s not how we usually tell it, but maybe we should recall that message at this moment.

In the war against terror, actually in the war against Muslim fanaticism and fundamentalism (that is the ideology we are battling), we must be on guard against losing our values. Even our enemies, when facing us in battle, even our enemies, when captured, are human beings, who are deserving of protection. Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image. We must never lose sight of this

I recognize that we are still afraid, even after all these years after 9-11. We are sometimes afraid for our lives. But we must never allow that fear to make us lose sight of the values that make us great. Even the weakest, even the most despised, and yes even our avowed enemies, are deserving of certain protections.

Amos declares:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Torah of the Lord
And have not observed God’s laws;
They are beguiled by the delusions
After which their fathers walked. (Amos 2:4)
Let us take our cue from the prophets. We dare not turn aside. We must restore justice to its rightful place. Only justice will protect our most cherished dreams.

Again John McCain: “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”

There is no doubt that these terrorists are horrible and despicable people. But the law must still prevail. It is about us. It is about our values. Let us restore justice to its rightful place. Amen!

Below is Senator John McCain's speech on the Senate floor.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vayeshev and the Haftarah's Call

This week we begin the gripping story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest child of Jacob, born to his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob showers love and affection on Joseph. The brothers become jealous of him. One day they conspire to kill him, but instead throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph and then his family, and then ultimately the Jewish people, end up in Egypt.

The tension quickly builds in the opening chapter. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) How could Joseph’s very own brothers be so cruel? “Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:25) After throwing him into a pit, they callously sit down to eat.

And yet how often do we go about our days, eating our meals, as injustices are committed around us?

This was the prophets’ keen observation. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that it was their pathos which forms the foundation of our Bible. He writes: “[The prophets] are some of the most disturbing people who ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”

The rabbis married a Haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, with every Torah portion. Haftarah means to complete and thus the Haftarah completes, and compliments, the Torah portion. Vayeshev is paired with the first of the literary prophets, Amos who lived in the eighth century B.C.E. He castigates the people for their greed. He rails against oppression. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course…” (Amos 2:6-7) The prophet appears to recall the sins of Joseph’s brothers. His warnings could very well have been directed against the brothers.

It is a mystery why the rabbis instituted the reading of the Haftarah. Some suggest it was during a time when the Torah reading was forbidden and so the Haftarah would offer hints of what people were unable to hear. Others suggest it was because people were growing increasingly unfamiliar with the prophets and the importance of their message. The Haftarah reminds us of our obligations to the world at large. Do we hear its message?

Too often we chant the Haftarah’s words but fail to take them into our hearts. This was one of the critiques the early Reform rabbis offered. We had forgotten to speak against society’s ills. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem… Ah you who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) What will make us regain the prophetic spirit that is the heritage of Reform? What injustices will call us to regain our voice?

The world calls for our attention and concern. There is racism and violence, torture and poverty, terror and hunger.

The prophet demands that we not turn aside, that we pay more careful attention to the world’s travails. And yet Heschel rightly notes that the prophet speaks in an octave too high. How can we hear the shrill scream? He writes: “The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave. Perhaps the prophet knew more about the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness, about the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference…”

And we continue with our meals.  Do we hear the prophet’s call?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach, Wins, Losses and Ties

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were not happy with our decision. Our protests that this too is Israeli culture were dismissed as naiveté. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Israeli soccer is not the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the novelist Amos Oz. It is not the thoughtful and passionate debate of the beit midrash, the study hall, where I spent most of my days. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw a smoke bomb.

It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it to the arena.

Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah this disagreement will be resolved. This is the original meaning for Elijah’s cup at the Seder table. Some rabbis said there should be four cups of wine and others said five. Teiku! For now we compromise. No one wins. No one loses.

The beauty, and genius, of the Talmud is that it allows contradictions to stand. Our book is not a law code of answers. It is a record of discussions and debates. The Jewish people are often called the people of the book. Many think this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Talmud that better gives life to our spirit. What we find in the pages of the Talmud best exemplifies the Jewish heart. It is there that Israel, the people of the book, is born.

Rabbis who vociferously disagreed with each other are found on the same page. They might not have lived in the same town and they might not have even known each other, they might as well not have even lived in the same century, but in the verses of the Talmud they sit at the same table, and argue with one another. That is the most important lesson of the Talmud’s volumes. Even though we disagree, every one of us, can be discovered on the same page.

Today, by contrast, we value ideology over debate. This trend began in medieval times when our traditional literature moved from the arguments of the Talmud to the distillation of law in codes such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh and the systemization of thought in the philosophies of Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides. We tend to value loyalty to ideas over devotion to community. We write those with whom we disagree out of our books.

The Talmud is our heart. That is the lesson I learned from my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman.

Teiku! Let it stand.

We can scream and yell for our team. We should argue for our view. We should fight to advance our position. When passions get the better of us we might even curse. Passionate debate is not always as highbrow as our teachers would like it to be.

What makes us Israel? It is struggle. It is argument. It is debate.

This week we read the mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being. He emerges from this struggle with a limp but also a new name. He becomes Yisrael, Israel. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He is injured by the struggle. He gains his identity through the challenge.

Heated debates guarantee the future. Knowing when to let it stand ensures that we have others with which to argue.

Teiku. 0-0!