Rebecca Sirbu in a blog post a few days ago entitled “Why Rabbis Should Talk About Israel” made a compelling case for the necessity for rabbis to emulate civil, honest and respectful discourse on the topic of Israel. Israel can be such a divisive and explosive topic that it becomes all the more important for rabbis to demonstrate how one can engage in a dialogue about it without resorting to hurtful and destructive language. This idea, of course, makes a lot of sense. However, I have come to believe that talking about Israel, and for that matter, talking about politics in general is counter-productive for most congregational rabbis.
The members of our community who come to synagogue at all do so either only once a week or perhaps just a few times a year during high liturgical moments like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. These are people who for the most part live an existence that is dominated by discussions of current events, domestic and international politics. Many of them attend Federation or AIPAC luncheons, where the topic of conversation is almost always on Israel, more than they attend a Shabbat lunch.
Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. When I use the word “Torah” I mean the age-old wrestling with our tradition, striving for a connection to the Divine and the encounter with holiness. We, as rabbis, have a limited time with our community. We have the opportunity to engage many of them for a few hours a week and the great majority only a few times a year. As we grapple with the limited time we have to impact our community, one needs to truly determine what is the best use of that time. I have come to understand that for my rabbinate talking about Israel, that is to say talking about the political realities of Israel, as important as that is, is not the most productive use of my time with my congregation in the context of synagogue.
What do I talk about instead if I don’t talk about Israel? I speak about the Torah concepts and Jewish values and wisdom that must be the foundation of any conversation on matters of immense importance. Instead of addressing specific current events in Israel I address the underlying values. This is an area that I believe, as a rabbi, I am uniquely suited to address.
Rabbis can use their limited time with their congregants to model how Torah rests at the center of everything we do as Jews and how its lessons can inspire profoundly deep ways of examining our lives and the world around us. This, to me, is what being a rabbi is all about.
A professor friend of mine has been thinking about moments of interruption. How do we cope when they intrude upon our lives? Death is perhaps the most extreme example of this as in many ways our lives come to screeching halt in order to bury and mourn our loved ones. Jewish tradition has a number of rules as to when someone can interrupt their prayers to greet someone or remove their screaming baby in the middle of silent prayer. When can one interrupt performing one mitzvah if another one beckons as well?
But we know that the most interruptions occur when we are in conversation. Sometimes we assume that the person interrupting is simply rude, while the interrupter may feel that it is crucial to the moment. Universities have to make rules about when it is or is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker.
Circulating on the web now is an extraordinary talk by MK Ruth Calderon in her first Knesset speech. It can be viewed here in Hebrew and it is translated here. Aside from the content and the reclaiming of Jewish tradition and text for all Jews, there are two moments that stand out for me. One is her acknowledgement of Rabbi David Hartman who had just passed away. Secondly is when Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) interrupts her presentation:
Rabbi Rechumei – a rabbi, a rav, a whole lot of man [“rav” can mean “rabbi” or “much”]. “Rechumei” in Aramaic means “love”. Rechumei is derived from the word “rechem”, womb, someone who knows how to include, how to completely accept, just as a woman’s womb contains the baby. This choice of word for “love” is quite beautiful. We know that the Greek word for “womb” gives us the word “hysteria”. The Aramaic choice to take the womb and turn it into love is a feminist gesture by the Sages.
He was constantly, he could be found before Rava, the head of the yeshiva at Mechoza…
Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas):
Rechem also [has a numerologically significant value of] 248.(the number of positive commandments out of 613)
Thank you. Yasher koach.
Thank you for participating. I am happy…
I think the idea she is saying is wonderful…
I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.
What is lost in this moment of the English translation is that as Vaknin adds his thought, there are sounds from the Knesset of what appear to be some protesting his interruption of Calderon’s speech. However, she apparently does not see it as a rude interruption, but rather a genuine moment of Torah study. In that short exchange a woman who is self-described as “very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair,” has a brief exchange of Torah with a member of Shas. For those few seconds Ruth has transformed the Knesset into a Beit Midrash, a place while still filled with conflicting voices, but now for the sake of Torah. It was a brief, but real moment of a shared religious passion. Although Torah study is generally not the agenda of the Knesset, may more interruptions for the Sake of Heaven be found.
I’ve never, I have to admit, been a big fan of mikvah. Nearly every month for many years now, I trudge down to our local mikvah for a ritual immersion at the end of my menstrual cycle, not because I find it “spiritually fulfilling” – I don’t. I immerse because I am obligated to, and so I do. In perfect frankness, I find it to be a big pain in the neck and a complete inconvenience. I know that there has recently been a big vogue for turning mikvah into some kind of healing center or spa-like experience, and I’m glad for people who immerse themselves in the waters and find that it is uplifting or spiritual, but I am afraid that I am basically a mitnaged (on one foot, that’s the opposite of a chasid, favoring study over feeling) by temperament, and am suspicious of spirituality not deeply embedded in either discipline or study. Yes, that’s right, I am a cranky grump.
Which is why it didn’t particularly bother me that even though I needed to go to the mikvah today, I was in a pretty foul mood. I was very angry for most of the day – and not without cause. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that while I occasionally get annoyed, I rarely get really angry – it takes a lot. But even the most cantankerous of mitnagdim know that you can’t immerse yourself and say a blessing with thoughts of strangulation (not literally, don’t worry) running through one’s mind, and so by the time i got done with my pre-mikvah shower, and was halfway down the steps into the mikvah, I was trying to figure out how to get rid of the thoughts in my head – at least long enough to complete what I was doing.
It was not easy. Usually, immersion is pretty quick for me – I dip myself, say the blessing, try to focus for a few minutes on my prayers for my family – when my kid grows up, if I’m not around, someone can tell him: I pray for him to be worthy of torah, chuppah and maasim tovim: Jewish study, Jewish marriage and good deeds. I add to that health, that he should be smart enough to do good and wise enough to do well, attractive enough to find a partner, and loving enough to be worthy of him or her, a job to sustain him and his family, that also does some good for the world – and I pray that I’ll be around to see it and his children grow up to those things- I can get through that in half an hour, even with a shower after.
But today was possibly the longest time I ever spent in the mikvah, because I couldn’t get to the part where I could even think about the immersion and the blessing. All I had to offer was rage. (In retrospect, I rather wonder what it was like to be around me the rest of the day. I hope I didn’t run anyone over). I’m glad no one else was scheduled for the mikvah late this afternoon, because it took me an hour and a half to immerse.
I’m not claiming that mikvah fixed me. Nor am I claiming that I’m not angry any more. And least of all am I claiming that I had a profound spiritual experience that left me changed forever. At least not if by spiritual you mean something divorced from religion, or from discipline. But the effort of finding a way to get that out of my head while I had to do this other thing which was obligatory, was a “spiritual” moment, in the sense that it forced me to think of something other than the rage that I was experiencing.
I had to clear my head to be there, then, and not think about what I was going to do later, somewhere else. And perhaps if nothing else, that does help explain the value of the obligatory. Because even if I am still angry, several hours later, having cleared my head for long enough to think of those other things and to finish by closing my eyes and saying to God, “Let Thy will be my will,” I have at least cleared up enough space in my head for a few minutes to ask whether I can’t just get through the rest of the day before deciding to do something irrevocable, but also to consider whether not doing the irrevocable thing is a sort of cowardice. Maybe I don’t have to decide right now; maybe I can just tread water a little longer.
Pope Benedict says that he’ll be stepping down at the end of February. It’s been 600 years since a sitting pontiff has taken such an action, usually you die in service. There were days on the bima, in front of the congregation, when I thought the same might happen to me. Alas, a story for another day.
I remember when this pope was elected, the plume of smoke that rose from a Vatican chimney signified that the Cardinals had made their secret selection. Such ceremony!
The opportunity to elect a new pope reminds of a recent article written by my dear colleague, Brad Hirschfield, on the ordination this past November of the Coptic Pope, of Egyptian christians, Pope Tawadros II (Washington Post):
“The 60-year-old, English-trained pharmacist born as Wagih Sobi Baqi Suleiman, became the head of the Coptic Church when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a bowl…Following three days of fasting and chanting, a child is selected to reach into the bowl and draw out the name of the person who will serve as the new leader.”
We Jews do not have such an elaborate process in choosing our rabbis. Instead, we are taught lessons such as “Make for yourself a rabbi (teacher), and earn for yourself a friend.” (Avot 1:6).
What a crazy teaching? You mean, unlike the Coptic church or the Vatican, the religious leaders we get are not chosen by God, however understood by the Cardinals in the case of the Rome or by the young boy in the case of the Copts? Instead, we choose? We, fallible, imperfects choose our own leaders. So we’ll choose a rabbi who already agrees with us, who won’t push us where we don’t want to be pushed. And this is indeed the case. Where given a choice of synagogues, the number one reason for choosing a synagogue is “like the rabbi.” This is a problem and blessing.
One the one hand, congregants in most synagogues have an unusual power over their religious leader. So how cutting edge can your rabbi be, if the threat of disapproval and the threat of an unrenewed contract looms over his or her head?
On the other hand, there is a lesson here as well. Judaism seems to prize a relationship with a teacher who can also be your friend over one who hold religious, moral, perhaps Godly authority over you. In this complicated relationship, that of rabbi-friend, is a religious secret:
You already know everything you need to know about God and how to be a good and happy person in the world. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you this. What you need is a friend to support you as you take what you know into your heart and out to the world.
Is your rabbi also your friend? If not why not? Is it him or her? Or, is your expectations that keep your rabbi at arms length?
Well, that was an unexpected weekend! For those of you who do not live in the Northeast, we just got walloped by a monster snowstorm. At my own home in Connecticut, we have 38 inches of snow and we are only beginning to dig our way out.
But I think there was something special about Nemo (the name given for this storm), aside from the stupendous amount of snow it delivered: Nemo became a dramatic metaphor for Shabbat. According to tradition, there are two primary components of the Sabbath: shamor and zakhor. This dual structure emerges from the rabbinic attempt to reconcile the fact that the verb shamor (keep, observe) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:11 whereas zakhor (remember, internalize) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:8. Shamor is the more active of the two, corresponding to the rituals and practices we do (or, often more importantly, cessation from doing) on Shabbat itself that mark Shabbat as different from the rest of the week. Nemo gave all of us in the Northeast a sense of what being Shomer Shabbat entails. For more than 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, we were deluged with snow so thick and relentless that everyone had to stay at home. No one could leave to go to work, shop, or do anything else. The fascinating paradox of shamor is that restriction can actually lead to liberation. Being prohibited from engaging in our daily affairs during Nemo’s fury freed us up to spend new-found time with family and friends, to take time to communicate and interact with one another in ways that our frenetic lives often make difficult.
The shamor aspect of Shabbat usually gets the majority of attention. But the zakhor component is equally important within Judaism. Zakhor corresponds to the obligation to internalize Shabbat’s meaning, to locate Shabbat as the center of our temporal consciousness. From preparing for Shabbat ahead of time to reciting the kiddush during our meals, we take time to be mindful of Shabbat’s inherent sanctity. A major rabbinic contribution to this feature was insisting that “oneg,” or delight, be a part of our Shabbat experience. Rejecting the option of an ascetic Shabbat (which the anti-rabbinic Karaites would later endorse), rabbinic Judaism embraced a Shabbat of majesty and exuberance through food, attire, song, and all the other ways in which we celebrate Shabbat. Standing outside, watching my children flop around in the thick snow while attempting to throw snowballs at my wife, I found myself re-capturing that sense of pure, unfiltered joy. The smiles and squeals of delight, like a Hasidic Friday night meal, lasted for hours. We were left with the sense of exuberant exhaustion you might feel after laughing for a really, really long time.
I won’t be sad when the temperature rises above freezing, my children finally get back to school, and life once more returns to normal. But I hope that the lesson I took from Nemo—that Shabbat should be about the liberation of obligation and a sense of infinite joy—will continue to reverberate within my Shabbat experience long after the snow melts away.
Should rabbis talk about Israel? In years past, Israel was a subject which united people. You could always count on one of the rabbis High Holiday sermons to be about Israel, why she is important to us, what we should do to protect her, and why we should go visit. Israel captured our imagination of what could be – a more perfect country by and for Jews. No longer would we be the down trodden and persecuted people. We would rule ourselves and be a light unto the nations. Her existence was our hope and our miracle.
This is no longer the case. Many rabbis I know are afraid to talk about Israel with their congregations. The topic is simply too divisive. If the rabbi comments on the success of Israel’s technology and innovation sector, perhaps mentions the company Soda Stream as an example, then congregants will quickly respond with a torrent of criticism about Soda Stream building its factory in the West Bank.
Even words will get you in trouble since they signal your political leanings. Do you call the land east of Jerusalem “The West Bank,” “The Settlements,” “Judah and Samaria?” Are the Israeli settlers reclaiming their own land or occupiers stealing the land? Any single word could lead to trouble.
Given these realities, what is a rabbi to do? Many have simply stopped speaking about Israel altogether. I understand why. No one likes being attacked. However, I don’t think this is the answer.
As Jews we are connected to Israel whether we like it or not. Our sacred texts, liturgy, and history all speak of Israel. Instead of trying to disassociate ourselves, we should strive to better understand each others complex relationship and feelings about Israel.
How do we open a conversation that is this divisive? There are no easy answers, and no answers that will work in every situation. But I would begin with the personal. As a rabbi, I would share my own complicated relationship with Israel, and then ask people to share theirs. I would encourage individuals to truly listen to what others are saying particularly if they feel differently. Perhaps if we could all agree to listen to one another, and stop the name calling which happens on all of the different political sides, we could actually have a conversation.
How can we possibly hope to solve the peace process when American Jews can’t even talk to each other if they sit on different sides of the political aisle? We need to start this conversation at home, now.
Tell me, what do you love about Israel? What do you dislike about Israel?
I will start: I love the idea of a Jewish homeland. I love thinking that if my life were threatened here in the US because I was a Jew, there is someplace I can go. I dislike the control the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has over religious life in Israel. As a woman and a liberal Jew, I could not practice Judaism the way I like to in Israel.
I look forward to hearing your answers to these two questions and starting a conversation where all views are heard without judgment.
I have a confession to make: I know very little about the African-American experience.
There. I’ve said it.
Just over fourteen percent of the United States population self-identifies as African-American and the majority of my knowledge comes from Alex Haley’s Roots and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Maybe it is because of my age. Or where I was reared. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. In a suburban community whose racial diversity did not include blacks.
But that is no excuse.
It’s no excuse because as a member of ethnic/religious minority, I should know better. I should know how much minority members yearn for others to know their story. I should know better because our individual oppressions ought to be a point of commonality. I should know better because I am a better American when I know the narratives of my neighbors.
Our Torah, this very week in fact, goes into great detail about the boundaries for owning and releasing slaves. Though the Biblical understanding of slavery varies radically from the subjugation and oppression by the slave owners in the Black South, it can serve as a catalyst to search deeper into the realities of slavery in the United States.
On the advice of a fellow book-lover, I picked up The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Migration, a recent historical study on the migration of blacks from the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast, and West between the years of 1915 and 1970.
Did you know that there was not just one wave of black migration in the United States, but two of them?
I am a highly-educated person. Or so I thought. But my education is clearly lacking as I’m still in the first few chapters and have already exceeded the sum total of my knowledge of atrocities in the post-Civil War South.
I am drawn to the story with both a reluctance and intense curiosity of a reality that stands far outside my own experience. My naiveté and ignorance shame me as I read, from the comfort of my secure societal position, of those who were treated in ways that are in direct conflict with my image of a unified nation. Perhaps because though America was plagued by a violent Civil War, the country seemed to learn very little in the process.
It does not escape my notice that my self-motivated education comes during Black History Month. There are some who would argue that Black History IS American History and, therefore, does not need a designated month. There is some validity to that position. But sometimes it’s in the marketing. And if setting aside time to focus on those stories that are unknown to us is what will bring those stories back into our collective conversation, then so be it. Such attention can serve only to open dialogue and cultivate understanding.
There is a real difference between counseling an individual who has experienced a traumatic moment and experiencing a traumatic moment personally. I dedicate a great deal of my professional time to shepherding people through some of life’s most difficult challenges. As a rabbi I often find myself in the role of comforter, active listener, prayer facilitator and mediator. After years of helping others it can almost become easy to forget that the very real world of fear, trauma and victimization can find me as well – that I too am a part of this grand drama we call life and life can be vicious sometimes.
This week my family and I became another statistic as an unknown person or persons damaged our house and attempted to burglarize us. I am thankful beyond words to God that no one was hurt and that the shrill sound of our alarm and the swift arrival of the uniformed heroes of the Denver Police Department sent them running. Yet, nonetheless, this act of intrusion has made me feel vulnerable in a palpable way.
We build for ourselves walls of protection that are in so many ways illusory. I buy a house in a nice neighborhood because theft will be less likely to occur. I try not to cross streets against the red light because I will be less likely to get hurt. I maintain a conservative retirement portfolio to minimize the risk of losing it all. I do all these things and more but all it takes is one chance occurrence, one unforeseen and unaccounted for incident to turn all of our self-assurance and planning on its head.
Vulnerability. The word itself does not even roll off the tongue easily. It is a state of being that we strive and yearn to avoid at all cost. It is a state of being that I have worked very hard my entire life to never enter. However, this week a random individual or individuals chose to target my house and by so doing exposed me to the bitter, harsh and naked truth of how utterly vulnerable we really truly are. It is not a good and pleasant feeling but it is real.
How to build from the perspective of vulnerability is the challenge. How to embrace the truth of our vulnerability while also embracing the equally powerful truth of the overall goodness of our fellow people is the work that lays ahead. May I and all of us truly meet the challenge.