Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent

Tallit-man

Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual  who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a  Reform rabbi but - the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.

Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.

As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).

I understand how enormously painful this is to many people:  I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.

First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—

“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”

Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.

As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.

If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.

Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).

The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.

But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.

I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.

I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved.  I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.

I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that  “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.

I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.

To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.

It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.

And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.

*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that  even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.

I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.

Posted on August 14, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Obamacare Cards Up in Smoke

I’m just afraid that history will repeat itself. On October 15th, 1965, the first person to be arrested for burning his draft card was taken in, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison. I just worry about the young, idealistic, political conservatives. What will happen to them?

DraftCardBurningNYC

On October first, just a few weeks away, open enrollment required under the Affordable Care Act, will begin. When the bill passed during President Obama’s first term and again when it was upheld by the Supreme Court, we were reminded that while this was a heathcare bill, it was not a panacea for our country’s health industry woes. We were told that premiums would rise, but that that there were triggers in place to curb that. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, early reports in states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and California suggest savings on premiums.

A cornerstone of the so-called Obamacare is that even young and healthy people, with little need of coverage will be required to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. It is their participation that helps control the cost, averaged out through the expanded pool of covered individuals. As a last ditch effort to have the Affordable Care Act fail, FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, is asking young people to “burn their Obamacare card” as an act of resistance against what they see as a misguided and dangerous law. Why they would oppose healthcare for the uninsured and encourage playing with fire is worth asking, but in any case the stunt won’t work.

One small reason why this gimmick will quickly fizz out is because there is no such thing as an Obamacare card. FreedomWorks knows full well that young people could not possibly burn their Obamacare Card as they might romanticize their parents and grandparents burning their draft cards.  No matter, FreedomWorks will print and send you one.  Such is the existence of being funded in large part by brothers Charles and David Koch, famous for being active as right wing power brokers and parodied in last year’s comedy movie The Campaign with Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis. They can afford making things and quickly burning them.

freedomworks

We should be shocked by the hatred being advocated – a concretized violent act of setting something you don’t agree with literally on fire – this adds to a culture of violence rather than civilized debate.  But, we aren’t shocked, because we’ve habituated to baseless hatred and violent acting out.

So the non-existence of Obamacare cards is not a major impediment for the Koch brothers, but the nature of young people will be. More so than the rest of us the rest, young people hate phonies. What they crave is authenticity. They eschew the pandering nature of politics. As a high school teacher, I have come to admire and respect my students’ craving for the authentic in the world around them, especially from their leaders. In large part, the apathy of young voters comes from their disdain for politicians who they regard as two-faced, not saying what they mean and not meaning what they say. What they saw in President Obama in both his first and second campaigns was not just a younger ‘hipper’ candidate, but one who spoke as a statesman, willing to risk stirring the pot on issues of race, of war, of terror, and of course healthcare. Regardless of any particular disappointments, President Obama is still viewed positively by young people because they connect with his optimism and the candor of his speaking style. When the President spoke about his experience of racism after the Zimmerman trial, they identified with the vulnerability he shared. They credited the perspective as authentic, as valid, and true.

The creation of fake insurance cards to then turn around and burn in a protest as an echo of resistance of the Vietnam war will not hold the same validity and authenticity. On a philosophical level, how can we ask them to take seriously our calls for meaningful discussion about policy when we have raised them in a culture of us vs. them, and violence against ‘the other side’, albeit in this case symbolic? More specific to FreedomWorks, young people hate the contrived, and they hate it all the more when they can tell that it was suggested by their parents’ think tank.

Posted on August 13, 2013

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Do I Need to Plan Ahead?

It is one month until Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. prayer

That sentence strikes fear in to the heart of many pulpit rabbis. There is so much preparation that goes in to creating a Rosh Hashannah service. The pressure on the clergy is immense. Thousands of Jews come to synagogue on the High Holidays who only show up that one time a year. The rabbi must lead a meaningful, interesting, and moving service while at the same time inspiring each person in the congregation with his or her sermon. The bar is set very high.

I sit in a very interesting space for the High Holidays. I am a rabbi who does not lead services. I sit in the pews with other congregants, and this gives me a unique perspective. I experience both the tension of my fellow clergy in preparing for the services and the expectations of my fellow congregants when I come to synagogue. I listen intently to both what the rabbi has to say from the pulpit and what the Jews in the pews say in response.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me. The rabbi and other service leaders do have an impact on a congregant’s prayer experience. They set a tone and space for spiritual contemplation. However the people who have the most meaningful experiences at services do so because they take responsibility for their own experience.

What does this mean? It means that they take time BEFORE service to think about what they want to do DURING the service. This plays out differently for different people. Some people spend time before Rosh Hashannah reflecting on the year that is ending, and come to services ready to dedicate themselves to new goals. They then use the time during the service to clarify their goals for the year to come. Others decide to spend the service time itself reflecting on the year that has past. Others bring reading material with them to the service, not just to keep them from getting bored, but to help them move down whatever path they are traveling. I have seen people read Jewish texts, spiritual guidebooks, and self help books. Some people use the familiar melodies and prayers to contemplate God, and pray. And some people use the service time to catch up with old friends since this is one of the few times of year they see each other.

All of these are meaningful options. What matters is that these people have put some thought in to how they want to spend the few hours they are in synagogue. The time we have to sit in synagogue is really a gift. Instead of being bored, and let’s be honest, the most common complaint I hear is that services are boring, do some preparation so that you are not going to be bored. The prayers, the music and the rabbi’s words are there to help us get to in to a different spiritual space. But as with anything else in life, if we don’t take responsibility for our own actions, we are not going to achieve anything.

So, if you want to have a more meaningful High Holiday experience this year, you now have a month to prepare. Think about what would be a meaningful use of your time this year. What do you need to reflect on in your life? What might you want to change or improve upon? What do you want to read about? Can others in your life help? What would you like to say to God?

It is one month until the New Year. What do you need to do to prepare?

Posted on August 12, 2013

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World Cat Day: A Jewish Perspective

world cat dayTraditional Jewish thought sees the whole world as a laboratory for learning. On the one hand, everything has value in and of itself. On the other hand, everything points beyond itself to teach about something else.

Including cats.

Thursday August 8 was World Cat Day. Sources say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare inaugurated the holiday in 2002, but I can’t find anything about it on the IFAW website. However the holiday came about, it’s badly needed to raise world awareness of cats.

World Cat Day is especially needed to raise Jewish awareness of cats. If I asked you to tell me, off the top of your head, where cats appear in Jewish tradition, you would probably giggle and say, “Nowhere!” But if you were to search MyJewishLearning.com for information about cats, you might revise your answer.

Ordinary house and barn cats are revered as hunters, seers and teachers. Big wild cats evoke the King of King of Kings.

Every year, during the Passover Seder, we celebrate the cat whose bold hunt set history in motion. Yes, the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, chad gadya. The cat who teaches about the persecution of Jews, the folly of revenge, or the omnipotence of God – depending on how you interpret the Chad Gadya poem.

The Talmud honors cats as teachers of virtue. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat” (Eruvin 100b). Rashi says R. Yochanan praises the cat for its delicate habits of eliminating waste, but I myself learn modesty from the cat’s thoughtfulness. From its hiding place, a cat can observe a situation in careful detail, before finally leaping out to make a bold, intelligent and successful move.

In Perek Shira, the “Song of Nature,” cats teach the world humility by embodying a prophetic verse. “The cat says, ‘If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down,’” (Obadiah 1:14). No one, no matter how high or powerful, can escape the claws of a determined cat. Often, the vulture is a metaphor for imperial power. Through the cat, God teaches that even the most militarized empire is vulnerable to rebellion and decay.

In Hebrew Bible, big wild cats express divine power. Lions appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David. Members of the royal courts describe their kings as lions. Honoring a lion honors a king; honoring a king honors God.

Lions have been in the news recently. This month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a story about the life of African Serengeti lions. The writing is realistic and balanced; lions are fierce predators, competing with one another for territory and family leadership. (No wonder they symbolize royalty!) When people fence off lands for farming or livestock grazing, they come into conflict with local lions, who attack livestock and their human ranchers. Sharing land responsibly requires balancing many factors. In Africa, many government agencies and private conservations groups are pursuing that balance.

Some factors, however, are out of balance themselves. For example, Friday’s New York Times showcased an article about lion poachers in Africa. Not surprisingly, illegal terrorist organizations raise money through illegal activities. Activities include illegally hunting lions and selling their body parts.

Happy World Cat Day – not.

Of course you can argue that “terrorist” is a pejorative term for organizations that might be fighting a just cause. But still, something is wrong here. Human beings are taking animals and dragging them into our quarrels. We use them as as tools when we should revere them as teachers.

Cats can teach us never to attack without fully assessing the potential damage and to temper our political goals with humility. They can remind us that every creature has value in and for itself; that using any animal as a tool is intrinsically wrong; and that honoring animals honors God.

This year, World Cat Day coincided with day two of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the month of self-reflection. How perfect.

Have we used others without their consent? Have we spoken badly of someone in order to gain advantage? Fired someone without due process? Profited financially by offering lies or partial truths?

Where could we have benefited from modesty and humility, or from ethically assessing a situation before acting?

Learn from our teachers.

Happy World Cat Day.

Image: facebook: black cats

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on August 11, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A-Rod May Be Guilty, But We All Are Responsible

I’ve been a die-hard Yankees fan ever since I was 8 years old, when my dad took me to my first game right after Hebrew school one Sunday morning. I grew up in the mid-80′s and early 90′s, back when the Yankees had luminaries such as Mike Pagliarulo, Wayne Tolleson and Eric Plunk, and when they were closer to last place than to first.

As I grew older and they started winning, I naturally loved the Yankees who had come up through the farm system, like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. But I also was excited about the players the Yankees brought in — people like Paul O’Neill, Mike Mussina, and even Roger Clemens. After all, they were great players who were coming to play on my favorite team.

So in 2004, when Alex Rodriguez signed with the Yankees, I was ecstatic. Yes, I had known about his tiff with Derek Jeter, and yes, I had heard he was difficult in the clubhouse, but he was the best player of his generation, and I wanted to root for him. Unfortunately, he made it difficult to do so.

A-Rod has always created a media circus wherever he went, and these latest allegations (and potential suspension) for using PEDs and obstructing Major League Baseball’s investigation are, unfortunately, not all that surprising to me (or anyone else who follows baseball). But so much of what has been written about this Biogenesis scandal has been oversimplified to “A-Rod is a rich, selfish bum who cheated and so he should be kicked out.”

I think the situation is more complicated than that because we have to remember that A-Rod’s actions didn’t occur in a vacuum.

Baseball SteroidsJim Caple of ESPN recently wrote an insightful piece entitled “Understanding A-Rod’s Infractions,” and he reminds us that steroid use — and indeed, cheating in general — is rarely done out of malicious intent:

Athletes don’t dope because they are bad, evil people. They dope because there is a very strong incentive to do so.

Consider this…scenario: You can take a substance that might carry a slight risk to your health…but that could also make you a better player. If you take it, you might help earn yourself millions upon millions of dollars and the acclaim of fans. Your friends and teammates also will benefit from your improved performance. And you know many others in your profession are already doing so. In fact, there is a decent chance you’ll need to take it to offset the advantage opponents have gained over you by taking the same thing.

Do you take it? If you are even tempted to say yes, you shouldn’t be so venomous in your judgments of Alex Rodriguez.

Yes, A-Rod deserves to be punished. And yes, we should try to rid the game of PED use. But while we’re casting judgments on A-Rod and Braun and the others implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and past steroid stories, we might want to consider casting that same harsh judgment on previous generations of players.

And on ourselves.

Obviously, A-Rod has issues, and there is no excuse for his behavior. But the larger issue for us to reflect on is our own views on cheating, morality and ethics.

One of the great moral voices of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminds us that “in a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” In other words, while Rodriguez is the person who has to own up to his actions, we are all complicit in creating a system that encouraged it.

Indeed, social norms can easily trump even the strongest internal moral compass. Dan Ariely, author of the book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has done research that shows that people tend to cheat when society views their actions as “normal” and “acceptable.” As he says, “In many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behavior are not very clear, and the behavior of others…can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.” (Ariely, 201)

This is a particularly powerful message for us as we prepare for the High Holy Days, and think about how we have acted in this past year. While we do reflect on the particular actions that we want to atone for, most of the prayers that we say are in the plural — “We have sinned, we have transgressed.”

In other words, we atone not only for our individual mistakes, but for the ways we have allowed (or even encouraged) immoral behavior to flourish. And so whether or not we ourselves have lied, cheated or used PED’s, we all have played a part in shaping the social norms that will define “ethical behavior,” which then provides the model for how others will behave.

So yes, A-Rod will have to answer for his own actions. But we all helped create the system that incentivized steroids.

We will soon find out if A-Rod is guilty. But regardless of outcome, we all are responsible for creating the society we live in. And it’s the task of all of us to ensure it’s a moral one.

Posted on August 8, 2013

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Welcome to Elul: Relationship is the key

The hebrew letters that spell out the name of the Jewish month that we have just entered – Elul – are described in the Talmud as an acronym for the phrase from Song of Songs: ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li‘ – I am my beloved and my beloved in mine. Traditionally this has often been a time that rabbis have expounded on the invitation for us to use this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to rediscover or recommit to a relationship with God. Like two lovers who may have become distanced, we yearn to be in stronger relationship with each other. Thinking about our relationship with God is no easy matter. In previous years as we’ve entered this month, I’ve contemplated the challenges that many of us have with accessing a sense of relationship with God, and suggested ways to begin a conversation.

But this year, my focus for myself, and for my congregation, are the relationships and connections that we make with other people. These may be more concrete that contemplating a relationship with God, but they are certainly no less challenging. And yet, as the scholar Brene Brown articulates so beautifully, “Connection is why we’re here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

Think about the kinds of experiences that make you feel good. A good meal out with friends consists of both the food and the company, but the food alone would be unlikely to satisfy us to the extent that the time spent in good company (without the food) could. When you invite people to your home, and the time flies by in conversation and you suddenly realize it is midnight… and you find yourself wondering why it took so long to get together. Relationship-making and connecting with others is at the heart of so much of what sustains us, both for pleasure and in the context of our professional lives.

It can also be a source of pain to us. And part of this is because it requires us to be vulnerable to truly open ourselves up to the possibilities of connecting more deeply with others. Once we’ve created a few ‘safe’ connections, we form cliques and groups, and might insulate ourselves from the vulnerability inherent in continuing to expand our connections.

I believe that the work of a spiritual community is to challenge ourselves to do more. Why? Because the benefits we will reap individually and communally can be enormous. When you can think of 20 people who will be there for you rather than 2, that is a wonderful experience. When you respond to the need of another ‘just because’ they are a part of your community, that comes with its own feel-good. We can feel less selfish, more expansive, more aware, more supported, more energized, and more inspired.  We can feel more alive.

And, perhaps, it is in fact in the spiritual practice of connection and relationship-building with each other that we actually experience a spiritual connection too. We discover, in fact, that God was there all along.

This month I will be posting thought-pieces on connecting on my personal blog and our congregation’s Facebook page. We are preparing to make this the focus of our community work over the High Holidays and beyond.  We will also be creating opportunities for meaningful connecting within the context of our worship services during the holiday period. My focus is on my congregation, because I believe that we have the opportunity to create a ‘community of practice‘ within the context of a congregation. But opportunities for connection exist in every place and every moment. Think of the connections you’ve made, however fleeting, talking with the woman on the bus, or the family playing on the beach next to you, or while waiting at the photocopier. Not every connection leads to more, but its a great way to start.

Posted on August 7, 2013

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Give Peace A Chance?

Peace_Sign_drawn_on_the_pavementWhen news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?

I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair.  As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting.  The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.

ShofarSo it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year.  We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.

It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo.  It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.

Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.

Posted on August 5, 2013

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When Goodness Transcends Boundaries

The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.

070314_irena_sendler_vlrg_8a.grid-4x2Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.

When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.

Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.

More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”

Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs.  Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.

Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice.  Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.

The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.

In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.

This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.

Posted on August 2, 2013

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