The Jewish Duty to Vote

Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?

shutterstock_180372209This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”

In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective action that democratically accountable governments makes possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.

While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.

Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?

This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?

These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.

These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.

Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.

First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.

Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.

What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).

While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.shutterstock_147175274The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.

Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.

This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.  This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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When the Medium Came for Rosh Hashanah

I’ve never actively sought out or consulted with a medium, or anyone who made claims to be able to communicate with those who have crossed over. But on this week, following up from my colleague Tsafi Lev’s piece yesterday on the possibility of spirits of the dead communicating with us, I’d like to share the story of what happened to me the first year I led a Rosh Hashanah service.

The Witch of Endor

The Witch of Endor

Now, I should preface this story with the knowledge that, traditionally, Judaism has been quite clear that we should not consult with mediumsthere is a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:31). At the same time, we have the dramatic story of King Saul (I Samuel, 28), who had himself banned such people from his Kingdom, consulting in secret with the Witch of Endor, to get one last piece of advice from the prophet Samuel, at that time deceased.  What I find fascinating about both the biblical prohibition and the story in Kings is that, while we may not seek guidance in this way, our tradition clearly recognizes that such a thing is possible and that people who have the ability to communicate with the other side exist. Whatever you believe to be true, there’s certainly a rich history and folklore in our tradition on this subject.

So, back to my story. I was a student rabbi who had just started my first year of rabbinical school. I was contributing to the High Holy Days at a synagogue in northern England. On the second day I had been asked to provide a less formal, creative service that would appeal to families with children, and so I was on the bima taking the lead for that particular morning. About 20 minutes before the end of the service, I noticed a middle-aged blond woman in business attire enter the sanctuary and take a seat. I thought it a little strange to arrive so late in the proceedings, but being a visitor to the community I had no idea if she was known to others or not.

When the service came to an end, a number of people came up to me but most of the congregation quickly moved toward another room for the Kiddush. The blond-haired woman approached me and the first things she said was “I have a message for you.” Her eyes fluttered and the tone of her voice changed, and she proceeded to share a message that had less to do with who might be doing the communicating, and more to do with where I was in that moment in my life and the decisions that I knew lay before me. They were framed in such a way that, as I listened, I was drawn in and fascinated by what was unfolding before me, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism that this might be a con and it was easy enough to make my own connections between the words she shared and the situation that I was applying them to. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but as I was trying to decide, she snapped out of the altered state.

Speaking quite normally, she explained that she was driving by the synagogue on her way back from a business meeting. She didn’t know this was a synagogue, but she received a strong message to enter the building. So she pulled up, sat down, and knew she had to wait until the end of the service to speak with me. She told me she didn’t control when these messages came and that she had learned just to be the messenger and those that she delivered messages to would figure out what they meant to them.  I asked for her business card (which did not list her as a Medium), thanked her, and she promptly left. I went to join the rabbi and the congregation at the Kiddush, and didn’t say a word of any of this to any of them. It felt very surreal.

I’m still not certain what I experienced that Rosh Hashanah of 2001. I wrote and thanked the woman, but never had any further interaction or communication with her. The words she shared with me that day were words that I heard to be of direct relevance to the fork in the road where I felt that I was standing at that moment in my life. I don’t know if I would say that she helped me choose which fork in the road to take, but when I made my choice, her words echoed in my mind, providing reassurance that I had made the right one. A Medium or a Messenger? In Hebrew, the latter is a malachwhich we more typically translate as “Angel.”

I’m no more certain today than I was then of what is true or what is real. But whenever anyone approaches me with,

“Rabbi, I have a story, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me…” I’m ready to listen.

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Posted on October 29, 2014

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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”

imgres-1This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?

The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.

What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”

Fruma Sarah - Fiddler on the Roof

Fruma Sarah – Fiddler on the Roof

Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.

In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.

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Posted on October 28, 2014

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Can Anger be a Positive Emotion?

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“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

These two verses by Dylan Thomas came in to my head the other night unbidden and would not leave. I had not read this poem written by Thomas about his dying father since high school. Yet, the verses echoed through my head. In order to quell the refrain, I went to find my battered and much beloved copy of The Norton’s Anthology of Poetry. To my great surprise, the book opened immediately to the page the poem was on, as if it knew just what I was looking for. God works in mysterious ways.

The Power of Anger

The Power of Anger

Reading the poem in its entirety, I burst into tears. Yes, I thought. This is how I feel. All around me the light seems to be dying, and I am angry. I am angry that in 2014, we have an African American president, yet black men are incarcerated and shot on the street by cops in ever increasing numbers. I am angry and scared that an epidemic like Ebola is killing so many in Africa and is making its way to our shores. And on a more personal level, I am angry that cancer can capriciously cut short a vivacious person’s life.

Life is not fair, and I am angry.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I am not good with anger as an emotion. In fact I hate it, I makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to control it or express it in a positive way.

As this refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” echoes in my head I realize that I have to do something, or it will tear me apart.

Meditation and prayer do not calmly disburse it.

Yelling at God through tears does not help either.

So, I have decided to embrace my anger. I am going to wear it proudly, and try to use it for good. God gave us anger to be a motivating force. The best social movements were started because people were angry about the status quo. Abraham angry at his father, rebelled against his culture and created a new religion. Moses angry at the mistreatment of Hebrew slaves led them out of Egypt. The daughters of Zelophechad, angry that they could not inherit their father’s property because they were women, petitioned Moses to change the law, and won. In modern times, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and African American civil rights would not have been won without righteous anger fueling the causes.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Instead of trying to carefully stomp it out the rage. I will use it to feed the light. Pirkei Avot teaches “You are not obligated to finish a task but neither are you free to neglect it.” I may not solve the problem of police brutality in America, or find the cure or Ebola. I may not be able to save my friend from cancer, but my anger will fuel me to keep trying to make the world a better place.

The absence of this anger would leave me with nothing. No will to move forward in the world. So for now, I am holding on to it in all of its fiery glory.

“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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Posted on October 27, 2014

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Talking About Not Talking About It

signpostFilm lovers will be familiar with the concept of a “macguffin”a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, master of mystery and psychological and emotional manipulation. He defines it as a point of focus that is not central to the story, but which drives the complex and layered plot forward.

If I were to create a film of the ever-unfolding mystery of Jewish life in America, the opening scenes would direct us to a particularly Jewish macguffin: the twin troubling questions of who is a Jew and what is a Jewboth of which, in my opinion, have become increasingly irrelevant. Likewise the question “what is our purpose?” because that question is too easily met with the assured response: “to be a light to the nations”similar to “what is our mission?” which calls for its equally familiar answer: “to heal the world.” Or some similar answers. You can fill in the ones you like best.

I have become increasingly impatient with these questions because I think they misdirect our attention away from far more critical concern. The plot of my cinematic masterpiece would be teased out from the liminal space between these distracting questions, where dwells the somewhat neglected inquiry: how can we best live as Jews? When we put our energy into intellectualizing Judaism, battling over religious or ideological issues in the fragile territory of faith, we run the risk of alienating those who simply want to live their faith as best they can without the shadow of judgment or demographic studies and purveyors of doom over their shoulders.

Rather than elevate us, “Jewish news” too clenches our kishkas. I am saddened by those who draw attention to, and sometimes instigate, differences and difficulties, rather than to the beauty of Jewish life.  I am equally saddened by conversations that add and subtract individuals, pressing them into neat columns called “movements” or “unaffiliated”without spending much time exploring why they made that choice. And then, quite contrary to reason, we divide ourselves worrying about whether we will multiply. And kvetch about it – a lot. The more we engage in boundary-drawing, wall building and hurdle-raising, the less attractive Jewish life can look to both born Jews and those who might want to join this remarkable faith and people.

Considering this, and looking at the last century of Jewish life in America, should we expect different results? It’s a difficult question, because it reminds us that we may have been focusing on the macguffin while the story has been unfolding off-screen. And that means we have to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen these particular points of focus.

I would ask those who pore over demographic studies and declare, with thunder and lightning flashing, that we are at a difficult and critical point in our history, to focus less on quantity and work instead to increase quality, fostering healthy, inclusive Jewish communities.

I would implore those who fight over who is a Jew to welcome all who sincerely professed their allegiance to the faith and the Jewish people. And to those who maintain the mitzvah of being a light to the nations: please continue to light the path for others who are striving to walk in the light.

So, did I just kvetch about kvetching? Yes, I did. So here is another take on it: Let’s stop talking about talking about itand be it. Get out there and be the best Jews we can be. Not the best purveyors of an ideological point of view, or the best spokesperson for a movementbut just to live as Jewswherever we are on the spectrum of faith and spiritualitysupporting the kahal (community) in every way we canwithout judgment, and without fear of being judged. This is the way we chose another way to bring the beauty of Jewish life into full flower. As a mentor once taught me: you can’t jump half-way off a cliff. Let’s jump.
Let’s take a running startand jump!

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Posted on October 24, 2014

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Freundel: Not Just an Orthodox Problem

mikvah2Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.

Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.

Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.

Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.

This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.

Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.

As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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We Should Fear the Ebola Virus

The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.ebola

The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.

This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).

Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:”  While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.

The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.

So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.

Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.

Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.

Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.

So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.

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Posted on October 22, 2014

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Do We Find in the Torah Just What We Want to See?

by Groume

by Groume

Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.

He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”

When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.

At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?

It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)

In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.

So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.

And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.

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Posted on October 21, 2014

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I’m Only Happy When it Rains

Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.

At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).

Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?

According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster.  In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.

A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.

As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.

Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.

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Posted on October 20, 2014

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When Will the Messiah Come?

Is this what the Messianic age will look like?

Is this what the Messianic age will look like?

Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street to prepare for Shabbat.

Friday afternoon on Ben Yehuda Street is an experience not to be missed. In the summer you might meet friends from your hometown, your rabbi or see different groups of Hasidim congregating and preparing for Shabbat.

As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (or “shekel” worth about 25 cents at the time) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed in Hasidic garb, persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”

Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him that I would not give him money but would buy him three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.

When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he has asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.

I replied, “I am a Conservative rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”

He answered, “But you know the laws of Tzedakah.”

I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach is near, when a Bratslaver Hasid asks a Conservative rabbi to teach him Jewish law, can the Mashiach be far away?”

Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are, and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.

The Messianic age will not arrive until we understand this lesson.

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Posted on October 19, 2014

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