Author Archives: Larry Bach

Larry Bach

About Larry Bach

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Temple Mount Sinai, the Reform Jewish congregation in El Paso, Texas. He is a leader in his city's congregation-based community organization, Border Interfaith, and is currently serving as Vice President of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an asylum and legal aid agency. He loves teaching the deep spiritual wisdom of the Hasidic tradition, from a more universal and open perspective. Larry is married, and is the father of three beautiful girls. Away from work, he enjoys road cycling and helping his wife prepare delicious vegan cuisine.

“I Believe” – A Meditation for Yom Hashoah

Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow evening at sundown. Many of us will light a yahrzeit candle and pause to remember. And many memorials will include the singing of Ani Ma’amin — “I believe.”

The text is fairly well-known: “I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is very well-known. It was this text that some Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The well-known Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.

What does it it mean to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise? What does it take to sing it under the most trying of circumstances? Had circumstances been different, were I living there instead of here, then instead of now, would I have been among its singers?

I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is about having faith in the human capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When we do those things, we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of

Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.

And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:

Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.

Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He lives in Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He lives in Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He lives in those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us.

And so…

Ani Ma’amin – I believe.

Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.

B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is called mashiach.

V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…

Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…

Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.

B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.

Posted on April 17, 2012

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Freedom: Ours, God’s, and Everyone’s

At Kiddush time at our seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?

At the most obvious level — the p’shat – the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies not only the collective “we” of the Jewish people, but the presence of  two distinct entities. They turn out to be the Jewish people and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom: ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”

But why stop there? Perhaps the p’shat and the mystical reading together are not enough. I would suggest that another member of the group included within “our” is, quite simply everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story.

The New American Haggadah, so much in the news lately, includes this passage from the children’s author turned Jewish commentator, Lemony Snicket. It is a comment on the phrase, “In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he left Egypt”:

…the story of liberation is one that is still going on, as people all over the world are still in bondage, and we wait and wait, as the Jews in Egypt waited and waited, for the day when freedom will be spread all over the world like frosting on a well-made cake, rather than dabbed on here and there as if the baker were selfishly eating most of the frosting directly from the bowl.

Ultimately, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is from a place of physical security that we can develop the habits of heart that connect us to God within, and everyone else around.

Posted on April 3, 2012

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Boston, Austin, and the Boss

I’m writing this post in Boston, where I’m attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), but its roots are in Austin, Texas.

Though you’d never guess it from our name, the CCAR is the rabbinical arm of the Reform Movement. Our name is a reminder of Isaac Mayer Wise‘s dream to create set of institutions to serve American Judaism that would transcend denominational labels: they would be, simply, “American.”

That’s not how it turned out, of course. American Judaism organized around denominations, and they defined the religious landscape for most of the twentieth century. Jews who belonged to synagogues often chose those synagogues based on their denomination. Reform Jews sought out Reform temples; Orthodox Jews congregated in Orthodox shuls; and Conservative Jews found their way to Conservative synagogues. Reconstructionism was a later addition, founded to transcend the labels but “denominationalized” in due time. Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanism, Open Orthodoxy…. the list goes on.

What follows is a personal observation, and not any grand statement about the need for movements: these denominational lines feel less important to me now than they did when I began my own rabbinate. In recent years, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to cross them, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and of course in my fellowship at Rabbis Without Borders. My rabbinate has been enriched by these experiences, and by the relationships I’ve forged with rabbis who didn’t attend my seminary or who don’t serve in my movement.

Which brings me to Austin, and to Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote address. Last Thursday, the Boss referenced “denominationalism” in the world of popular music, running through a list of dozens of sub-genres of rock music, to comedic effect, and ending with “then just add ‘neo’ or ‘post’ to everything I said.”

Later in the talk, he offered a loving critique of musicians’ tendencies to get hung up on labels:

We live in a post-authentic world. Today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history, and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.

As I hear it, in light of that earlier riff on genre, Springsteen means by “authenticity” the tendency among musicians and their fans to hang only with people in their own “denomination.” He is commenting on the way people sneer at “sell-outs” or “crossover” artists. Forget the labels, he’s saying; just listen to the music. When the lights go down, does it have power and purpose?

Back to Boston, and to this gathering of Reform rabbis. For me, the highlights of the conference so far have involved studying with Nehemiah Polen and Arthur Green. Later today I’ll be forced to make an excruciating choice between learning with Or Rose or Ebn Leader, who are up against each other in the same time slot (as is Harold Kushner!). None of these teachers would be labeled “Reform;” all of them are drawing good crowds of my Reform colleagues.

These are my teachers, and I’m not so concerned with how they label themselves, which seminary bestowed the title “Rabbi” upon them, or where they currently teach. When the lights go down, they’re bringing some pretty great Torah…and that’s what matters.

Posted on March 20, 2012

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A Texas-sized Purimspiel

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Last week’s Texas-sized dust-up over the Beren Academy basketball team’s participation in the state championship of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools was a real-life Purimspiel. How so? Let us count the ways…

We begin with our modern-day Mordecai: the Beren Stars. How much more expedient it would have been to simply “bow down” before the wider culture. But they would not, for they were Jews (Esther 3:4). In standing by their principles and beliefs, even when it meant forfeiting a state semi-final game, these young men performed an act of kiddush hashem barabim (“sanctifying God’s name in the public square”) for the ages. Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax. The Beren Stars. No kidding.

Next, there was the classic element of topsy-turvy, or nahafoch hu. One day the kids are out, the next they are in. There was a surreal quality about the whole affair, entirely befitting the Purim season (the original “March Madness”). Thursday morning’s acceptance that the season would end with a forfeit rather was suddenly transformed into joy when TAPPS reversed itself (9:22) and moved the game time. Beren Star Zach Yoshor says it best: “It’s very, very strange. This has been the most emotional week of my life. The whole thing has just been crazy. To go from being in a state of disappointment to this state of elation, it’s amazing.”

King Ahashuerus made an appearance, of course, in the forced and slavish fealty to “the bylaws.” Throughout the week, that was the justification for sticking to the schedule. Once a rule is made, it cannot be changed! “An edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8). This stubbornness prompted former Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy to offer perhaps the best line of the week: “I feel like they made a mistake and they don’t have a vice president of common sense who will tell them that this is silly and it’s O.K. to change your mind.”

When salvation finally came, it was “from another place” (4:14): the law offices of Nathan and Aliza Lewin. The Beren Academy chose not to pursue legal action, having accepted the right of the private association to make its own rules. Some parents and students explored a different path, and it led to TAPPS’s abrupt about-face. Good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews, this high-powered legal threat? An interesting question, for another time.

Did Haman make an appearance in this Spiel? A bit part, perhaps. A few comments by one of the professionals at TAPPS seemed angry rather than just silly (“unlike many people, TAPPS does follow the law,” and “I don’t recall ‘inclusive’ being in our constitution” were among his zingers), but by game time, even he was singing a different tune, focused on the “very good game.” Indeed, what’s most interesting about “Haman” is just how absent he was from the story. There was so much good will toward the Beren Stars. From Jeff Van Gundy to Senator John Cornyn, from Houston Mayor Annise Parker to the other teams in the finals (including the team that would have gone to the tourney in place of Beren), support for a time-change was strong and vocal.

Alas, the storybook ending was not to be. After a convincing win in the semi-final game, the Beren community observed Shabbat in a nearby hotel. Post-Shabbat, they stepped onto the court against a very good team from Abilene Christian. Beren came out a bit flat in the first quarter of the finals and were never able to completely close the deficit. They kept it close, and made it very exciting in the last few minutes, but wound up as runners-up.

Thus the ultimate nahafoch hu eluded them. But the players have every reason to be proud. Watching the post-game ceremony and the bestowing of the medals on the kids from both teams, I was immensely proud too. I will take that feeling with me into tomorrow night’s Purim festivities, and raise a l’chaim to the Beren Stars!

Chag Purim Sameach :-)

Posted on March 6, 2012

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Stewardship or Service?

Rick Santorum’s recent theological musings will likely prove to be an irresistible teaching moment for clergy of all sorts. Here’s my take on his take on President Obama’s take on the Bible’s take on nature.

First, let’s go to the tape…

On Saturday, at an event in Ohio, Santorum contrasted his own views with Obama’s “phony” theology, which is “not a theology based on the Bible, [but] a different theology.” A day later, on CBS with Bob Schieffer, he clarifed that he was not questioning whether or not Obama was Christian, but was speaking specifically about the President’s environmental policy:

Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists…That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.

In contrasting “stewardship” with “service,” Santorum is alluding to the divergent creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Yes, “stories.” Biblical scholars have long noted that there appear to be two stories about the creation of the world in opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and earth majestically, with divine speech; in the second, God is more of an artist, fashioning people out of clay. Many people (including many people of faith) accept a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis which posits that several different written sources existed independently of each other, in some cases for hundreds of years, before they were finally edited together sometime after the Babylonian Exile. People who see the Bible through this lens would see the two different creation stories as reflecting the understanding of two different authors or schools, and would be interested in what the differences between them can teach us about their respective writers.

Scholars assign Genesis 1-2:4a to the source known as “P,” whose major claim to fame is the book of Leviticus. The “P” Creation story has God imposing order upon chaos, a process culminating in the creation of human beings “in God’s image.” Humanity is charged with subduing nature and ruling over it (or “having dominion” over it)…which is to say, humanity is charged with continuing God’s work of majestic mastery.

The version which begins with the second half of Genesis 2:4 is typically assigned to the “document” known as JE. It seems to reflect a more rural worldview. JE’s first human is a farmer, placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to “work” it (or even, without betraying the original Hebrew, to “serve” it) and to “guard” it. Limits are placed on humanity’s dominion over the planet in this creation story.

One need not accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to learn from the contrasts between these two chapters of Genesis. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (also part of this week’s zeitgeist…thank you very much, David Brooks, for acquainting your readers with The Rav) sees in “Adam I” and “Adam II” contrasting, but necessary, expressions of a sound relationship between humanity and nature (and God). The “majestic man” of Genesis 1 and the “covenantal man” of Genesis 2 are both incomplete pictures of a human being. Taken together, they begin to describe us in our complexity. Indeed, for Soloveitchik, one couldn’t exist without the other, and the presence of the two of them is evidence that one very talented Hand wrote both stories.

Are we to master the world, subdue it, have dominion over it? Or are we to guard it, preserve it, perhaps even “serve” it? The Bible doesn’t answer that question; it merely helps us know how to ask it. And while Rick Santorum speaks the helpful language of “stewardship,”  by placing that term in opposition to “service,” he seems to be leaning toward a view that is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by “Adam I” thinking. For his part, President Obama’s environmental policies may lean more “Adam II” than Candidate Santorum’s (or not — ask some environmentalists what they think!), but to brand them as the product of a “phony theology” is to demonstrate a weak understanding of the full breadth and complexity of religious teachings on humanity’s relationship to this vast and bountiful, but by no means infinite, home.

Posted on February 21, 2012

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“The Exodus Issue”

David Brooks’s recent NYT column, “The Wealth Issue,” comes at an opportune time if you’re one of those people who reads the weekly parasha. As we make our way through the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Brooks offers a sort of meditation on what it means to integrate the experience of one’s ancestors.

In the piece, Brooks takes us back to Romney’s ancestors, who were among the early Mormon families who made their way first west to Utah and Arizona, and then later south to Mexico. He attempts to make the case that Romney has none of the negative characteristics that people associate with the rich. He is not “spoiled” or “cosseted,” nor has he been “corrupted by ease and luxury.” To the contrary, he is a hard worker, “tenacious” and “relentless,” having more in common with hardscrabble immigrants than with inheritors of great wealth.

To what does Brooks attribute these traits? To Romney’s family history. As the descendant of a persecuted, driven family, Romney “seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise.” Though he “can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail…he must have been affected by it.”

At which point, the Jews enter the column. Brooks brings his own “family history” by way of conceding the point that Romney himself never lived a life of persecution or privation. Yet, he writes, “Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.” Brooks knows his readership, and it’s not for nothing that he analogizes Romney’s connection to his family history to that of a contemporary Jew connecting to the Exodus.

But the analogy doesn’t ring true in light of the ways that we Jews are supposed to be shaped by our memories of Exile and Exodus. Again and again, Torah reminds us that our experience of Egypt ought to make us compassionate toward others (including Egyptians!). “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; see also Exod 22:21, Deut 23:7). Which is to say, our experience of persecution and the ensuing freedom ought not be only about making sure that we never find ourselves enslaved again (though that is indeed part of it). At their best, “child-of-Exodus-ethics” are about expanding our hearts to make room for today’s persecuted strangers, and not only about continuing to best today’s Pharaohs.

The State of Israel’s current status as refuge of choice for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers makes for an interesting laboratory in which to consider this dynamic. Our ancient memories of persecution and deliverance, and our more recent memories from Europe, provide the backdrop for the current conversation in Israel about what to do with the Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed the very desert that looms so large in our mythic memory. On the one hand are calls to deport them, in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to keep Israelis employed. On the other hand, many Israelis recognize the irony of Israel, of all places, not opening its doors to asylum-seekers. Like most things in the Jewish State, it’s not simple.

Also complicated is America’s relationship to the large population of immigrants currently residing here. Some certainly came seeking relief from danger and persecution at the hands of their government or criminals in their home countries. Many came simply to seek better wages and a better life. They too, confront us with the question: how do we, a nation of immigrants, relate to the people who are perhaps a few generations behind our own ancestors. Recognizing that complex political and economic considerations don’t make for easy answers, does our basic orientation to the problem have us feeling persecuted ourselves, and responding accordingly…or do we dig into the past and emerge with heightened compassion?

As I read the parshiot that tell the story of my family’s persecution and deliverance, the lessons that speak to me have less to do with our own current-day successes, and more to do with cultivating compassion for those who are currently in need of redemption (and acting accordingly). More than great wealth, more than relentless drive, that sort of compassion is something I seek to develop in myself, and something I admire in others (including presidential candidates).

Posted on January 24, 2012

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An Israel Travelogue

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OK, I’m going to cheat this time out, and make today’s “Rabbis Without Borders” post a simple link. I’ve been blogging extensively during a twelve-day trip to Israel with my congregation, and hope that something of the character of the trip come through. Interested readers can explore the posts here: http://blog.rabbilarrybach.com.

My plan is to return in two weeks with a more analytical post, reflecting with a bit more distance on the trip.

Shalom from Jerusalem!

 

Posted on January 10, 2012

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Bringing the Light

The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?

The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.

And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: “in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.

Tevet, Sixth Night

Tevet over El Paso, December 26, 2011

There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.

Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.

Posted on December 27, 2011

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Who Are Our Brothers?

Early in this week’s parashah, we find Joseph in search of his brothers. He’s already dreamt, and reported on, his notable dreams. His siblings have already developed a contempt for him, unable even to speak a kind word. Now his father, Israel, has sent him on a quest to check on their wellbeing as they pasture the flocks.

So Joseph walks to Shechem. Not finding his brothers or the flocks immediately, he begins wandering about in the fields, hoping to come them. Instead, he happens upon a man (or the man happens upon him), who asks, “What are you looking for?” Joseph answers, “I am looking for my brothers.” To which the unnamed man responds, “nas’u mizeh.”

“Nas’u mizeh,” is usually translated, idiomatically, as “they have travelled from here.” That is, they’ve gone someplace else. But zeh, the demonstrative pronoun, is most literally translated as “this.” “They have gone from ‘this.'” Rashi asks the question, “What’s the ‘this’ from which they’ve travelled?” And he answers: “They have left behind the sense of brotherhood.” Joseph is looking for his brothers; in fact he is without brothers, alien and alone.

“Brotherhood” is a term rooted in family, but family is not the last word on brotherhood and sisterhood. It is possible to lose a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood, even with one’s own siblings. Conversely, we can cultivate a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with people with whom we do not share a parent. Much what’s good about the many religions of the world is the way that they encourage their adherents to expand their notion of which “others” are in fact “brothers.”

In El Paso, we have a tremendous opportunity to practice extending our view of “brotherhood.” The people of Juarez, a terribly violent city these past several years, ought to occupy an important place in our consciousness. We are bound up with them economically and geographically. Many El Pasoans are brothers with Juarenses in the most literal sense, sharing the bond of blood. And yet, the presence of an increasingly militarized international border strains our capacity to act, or even feel, like brothers. For decades, El Paso reaped the benefits of its proximity to our larger and more colorful neighbor on the southern bank of the Rio Grande…and now, there’s talk of undoing the “sister city” relationship El Paso and Juarez have had for decades. Nasanu mizeh. We have departed from the sense of shared responsibility and shared destiny that characterize our relationship with our brother and sister Juarenses.

The geographical proximity of El Paso to Juarez brings this issue into stark relief, but readers anywhere in the world might stop and think about those brothers and sisters for whom they no longer feel a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. Are there people, or groups of people, whom you ought to care for in that way, but don’t? What might you do to reclaim that sense of shared belonging?

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who lives in El Paso and writes music about the border. I’ll let him have the last word this week, singing “Goodnight, Juarez,” and reminding us (wherever we live!) that a piece of our soul is lost when we go to sleep peaceful and secure while our brothers and sisters suffer…

Posted on December 13, 2011

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My New, New Testament

The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”

I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.

The Jewish Annotated New TestamentI’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.

I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.

Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.

Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.

Posted on November 29, 2011

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