Author Archives: Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg

About Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City. He has also completed graduate coursework in both Medieval Jewish History and Public Administration. Rabbi Greenberg has worked in the college campus and in synagogues from Boston to Denver. He is the author of two books and has written numerous articles on topics of Jewish thought, philosophy and contemporary issues. Rabbi Greenberg is married to Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg and together they have two sons.

The Other Slippery Slope

Two weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a statement formally distancing themselves from the organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. It was in 2004 that the RCA first suggested in an earlier statement that rabbis might consider referring Jews struggling with homosexuality to that organization.

In the time since 2004 numerous issues have arisen with the therapeutic practices conducted by JONAH and other similar organizations. Serious allegations have arisen about the abusive nature of the treatment and subsequent mental health issues that arise for the patients, including higher risk of suicide. These change therapy clinics are indeed facing tests in court in both New Jersey and California, including JONAH.

The RCA after consultations with experts in psychology and law as well as rabbinic guides publicly decided to distance themselves from JONAH. In so doing the RCA has made a not so subtle move towards recognizing that homosexuality might not be something that can be “repaired” or changed in an individual. While the RCA has just begun this process, two and a half years ago hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, educators and communal leaders declared publicly that homosexual Jews are deserving of dignity and respect.

It follows logically that if homosexuals are deserving of dignity and respect that would translate into equal protection and equal rights under civil law. Thus, a colleague of mine in Portland, Maine, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, recently published an opinion piece in the local paper celebrating the passage of same-sex marriage equality in Maine. Rabbi Herzfeld has received countless calls and emails thanking him for his thoughts and he has also received numerous concerns that what he advocates is a slippery slope. If he supports civil marriage equality for homosexuals then why not for polygamists, practitioners of bestiality, etc.

The slippery slope argument can be very persuasive and it can also be paralyzing. The fear of what might be next can inhibit any action at all. Indeed, one does need to carefully consider future implications of their actions but after careful consideration and the weighing of ethical, moral, legal and social responsibilities one must make a decision.

One also needs to remember that there is another slippery slope out there, one that is equally powerful. The slippery slope of denying privileges and rights to one group very easily leads to the denial of those same privileges and rights to the next group and the next group and so on. After all, it was this same slippery slope argument that played heavily in the polemic of individuals opposed to emancipation, civil rights and desegregation. We may look back at those arguments now and find them foolish but many, many Americans did not during the time.

While we carefully consider the slippery slope of increased rights and privileges to an ever expanding circle of groups and constituencies, let us also consider the slippery slope of decreased rights and privileges to an equally expanding circle of groups and constituencies. Which slippery slope would we fear more? Which possible outcome is more damaging to our national character: a never-ending increasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups or a never-ending decreasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups? This is the question we must carefully and honestly consider.

I do not have an easy answer for you to ponder on this question. My aim is to provide another frame by which to view the question and allow you to come to your own conclusions. The Jewish way is not always in readily packaged quick soundbites of an answer but rather with offering the questions to grapple and to wrestle with.

Posted on December 14, 2012

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Honest Jewish Outreach

Jewish Outreach is a buzz term nowadays. Every organization seeks to do outreach in order to demonstrate relevancy to its board and donors. In addition, outreach is an effective way to increase participation in the organization and financial support in an era of struggling economic times and growing disaffection with organized Jewish life. Indeed, outreach is about taking one’s message public and sharing it with a larger disconnected audience. We should support genuine outreach in our communities.

As someone who has served both in a campus context and in synagogues I have seen numerous Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, during my time as a campus chaplain I developed close friendships with Christian outreach professionals as well. The one thread that united all the genuine outreach organizations was honesty and integrity.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Christian Evangelical outreach professional on campus. Do I need to make sure my students are educated about their own faith and confident in their own beliefs? Absolutely. Yet, I cannot rightfully condemn a open and honest Christian from spreading her or his beliefs. I can only do my best to teach and inspire my constituents.

However, as many times as I have encountered genuine outreach organizations I have encountered illegitimate ones as well. What makes an outreach organization not really genuine? These are some of the indicators that I have observed over the years:

  • Where do the outreach professionals or rabbis spend most of their time? Do they linger in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues or the local Hillel where they will only encounter already affiliated people?
  • Where does the outreach organization set up shop? In the heart of the affiliated Jewish neighborhood or in a place where many Jews live but few who are connected to Jewish life?
  • Do the programs the organization run exist in consonance with the values of the people who lead the organization? For example, if the Jewish outreach organization is a black hat yeshiva do they do programming that violates their principles or core beliefs, like a non-gender segregated religious service?
  • Who is a successful “graduate” of their outreach? Where do they end up in their Jewish journeys? Be careful to pay attention to the diversity in lifestyles among the graduates and not the newcomers.

It is very important to identify genuine Jewish outreach organizations from the others. Genuine Jewish outreach organizations spend their time not in the Jewish neighborhood and work with people who have no existing Jewish connection. Their programming reflects the values they hold important and they do not compromise their core values in order to attract new participants.

Oftentimes, groups or individuals seek to co-opt the term Jewish Outreach when what they really mean is Jewish Redirection. In other words, their aim is to disaffiliate people currently connected to Jewish life and re-affiliate them to other organizations they deem more “kosher.” They do not exist in a holistic relationship with the rest of communal Jewish life but rather are in a constant state of competition with it.

The more informed we are about the various Jewish organizations within our communities the better choices we can make about what to attend and participate in and who to support. Jewish outreach deserves our support, Jewish redirection does not.

Posted on November 30, 2012

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The Shame of Israel

It was after sustaining over 1,000 rockets fired into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the beginning of 2012, more than 130 rockets fired just in the past 3 days alone that Israel finally responded militarily. The barrage of rockets landing in indiscriminate locations — preschools, shopping malls, bus stations and homes — was just becoming too unbearable for the one million Israelis in the range of the rocket fire. It is astounding that even one day of such an assault could be bearable let alone months and months of the same continuous fear of imminent death.

What country would tolerate approximately 1/6th of its population being assaulted by rockets on a daily basis? What country would sit back and do nothing while a sizable portion of its citizens left home everyday and kissed their children goodbye like it was the last time they would ever see them because it very well might? Would the United States find that an acceptable way of life? Did our President not order the intrusion into a sovereign state — Pakistan — and the elimination of Osama bin Laden? Did not most of the free world celebrate that action?

Yet, I could not help but notice the disparities in my Facebook feed these past few days. As a former campus rabbi I am connected to many people in their late teens and early twenties on Facebook. It was shocking to me to see words like “genocide” thrown around by people in this demographic in reference to Israel’s act of self defense. Why would Israel’s right to self-defense provoke exclamations by young American Jews about how horrible it is to be connected to the Jewish people during this moment; how embarrassed they were for the actions of fellow Jews and how they cry for the loss of Palestinian life?

Let me be clear. All people of good conscience cry for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. All life is infinitely sacred and of immeasurable worth regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation. All people are created in the image of God. But where is the condemnation of Hamas? Where are the tears for the Israelis killed? Where is the heartbreak for children not knowing if they will live another day because they took the brave act of going to school?

I strongly believe that one can love Israel and be critical of Israel at the same time. I strongly believe that indeed to be a lover of Israel means to want to help Israel achieve a more just and more perfect country living in peace with its neighbors. Yet, this is not being critical of Israel. This is being ashamed of being associated with Israel.

Why the shame? Why the shame that a sovereign and free state chooses to exercise its absolute right to self-defense? The United States State Department, a government body that has often taken very critical positions of Israel, was unequivocal in its support for Israel to defend itself:

We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.

The phenomenon we are facing on college campuses is not objective and rational criticism of Israel. The phenomenon we are facing goes way beyond that. We are facing the results of a sub-culture on the college campus that glorifies the demonization of Israel. I do not mean to exaggerate the bias against Israel on college campuses. Each college is different and in most university environments the mainstream campus culture does not vilify Israel. Yet, there is a clear and undeniable sub-culture that seeks to depict Israel as a genocidal, maniacal regime bent on the utter and total destruction of all Palestinian life. It sees every action Israel takes that expresses its self-determination as a state as evil.

This sub-culture has deeply affected many young American Jewish students. If one wants to be progressive, peace loving and liberal there is a tremendous pressure to disaffiliate with Israel and to condemn its very existence, because when one denies the right of a free state to protect itself one is doing nothing less than denying it a right to exist.

There is no easy answer on how to counter this dangerous and subversive sub-culture. How does one work against something so popular and so cool to many of our young people? At the very least it is imperative that we are aware of this sub-culture because perhaps the most effective way to combat this blind hatred is by cultivating one-to-one personal relationships with the next generation of American Jews who are being impacted by this phenomenon.

We must work towards developing a sustainable culture of Israel engagement where one can be a lover and defender of Israel and through that love offer critique and constructive criticism. The answer to this sub-culture is surely not to deny the right of people to express dissent with the policies of Israel but it is to direct those criticisms in a productive way and one that seeks to embrace the narrative of the Jewish people in its ancient-modern homeland. It is to be proud of Israel, with eyes wide open of its flaws and not to live in shame of being Jewish and being in the generation privileged to live in a world with a free, democratic State of Israel.

 

Posted on November 16, 2012

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Let’s Dance at The Kotel

The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.

David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.

Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.

This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.

Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.

Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.

Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.

So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.

Posted on November 2, 2012

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Community Is Not Cherry Pie

Many of us love a good delicious piece of pie. It does not matter whether that pie is cherry, blueberry, chocolate chip or strawberry because there are very few taste sensations like a scrumptious piece of pie. Yet, our love of pie should not carry over to our community building and organizational framework. Because the thing with pie is that for every piece you consume there is one less piece left. This way of looking at community – if you have a piece then that is one less piece for me – is not only wrong but damaging.

All too often community leaders can see their city demographics as slices of a pie. The slice could be called “senior citizens” or the slice could be called “left-handed dark-haired Democrats with three children and two pets,” regardless of the term, that grouping is seen as a limited quantity item that one either gets or does not get. The reality of the matter is that community members are more like human beings than they are like slices of a pie.

A person appreciates engagement. People respond when organizations and the individuals who run them are attentive to their needs and their desires. A community member desires to feel that they matter and what they bring to the table is critical. If one organization can provide that or if two organizations can provide that, the result is the same: engagement with the community and strengthening the bonds of affiliation and cohesion. There are times where a shopper will exclusively only rely on one company or one product to meet their needs. There are people out there who will only drink one type of soda and no other. However, for every one person that will never deviate from their brand loyalty, there are many more who will go where they find meaning, connection and where they are appreciated regardless if that means shopping at one store, two stores or even three.

When the various community organizations come to realize that they ought not to be expending so much energy, time and resources on aggressively competing but rather on making sure they are offering the best service they can possibly offer and that the needs of each person that comes through their door is being met to the fullest extent then we will have moved in a very positive direction away from seeing every individual as another slice of pie to be fought over. The added dimension to moving away from the pie model is that, from the perspective of the community member, a Jewish community that is collaborative, that is cooperative and that is friendly with each other, is one that makes all the various organizations more attractive and more desirable.

Let us leave pie to the dining room and out of the board room.

Posted on August 17, 2012

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The Jewish Way In Saying Goodbye

It is that time of year again in the life of the academic environment. During the course of several years relationships are cultivated and built and friendships deepened. You know in the back of your mind that at some point people will part ways and move in different directions. The university is utterly unique in its development of serious, passionate and meaningful temporary community. It is so meaningful that the reality of its transience escapes from the mind during the course of the several years you are all together. Yet, the finality of late May and early June start slowly creeping up on you and finally they arrive and you need to embrace the end and begin the process of saying goodbye.

How do Jews say goodbye? The Oxford English Dictionary places the origins of the word goodbye as a contraction of “God be with you,” with its usage dating to the 1600s. One can imagine a person turning to their fellow unsure if they would ever see them again as they departed for an uncertain voyage and summoning up their courage and their faith utter “God be with you.” This conveys a sense of closure and of finality.

In contrast, when we turn to the traditional statement uttered by Jews upon completion of study of a sacred text, and we ritualize a form of goodbye to that text, we recite Hadran Alach, we will return to you. A goodbye is never final in our lifelong engagement with Torah. We may have completed that chapter or that tractate and we may be moving on to a new chapter or a new tractate far removed from the subject matter we just completed but when that time comes to part ways, we hopefully and prayerfully say, we will return to you, Hadran Alach.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to explore the ways in which this traditional expression can be applied to moments of departure from our friends, colleagues, students and loved ones. If every moment of human interaction and every relationship nurtured is a journey in deepening our own life wisdom and experience then each completion of a time in the trajectory of a relationship is not that far removed from a completion of our interaction and engagement with Torah, which continuously deepens and transforms our lives.

When we say goodbye to a person we are not wholly leaving them and they are not wholly leaving us. The experiences shared and the lessons learned together will remain with both people throughout the days of their lives. We have the opportunity to return to those experiences and lessons at any point we wish to. Furthermore, the blessing of our ever-connected world enables us to quite actually return to the person whenever we wish through the multiple technological methods. The departure does not need to be final.

This year during graduation season my feeling of Hadran Alach is only increased as not only will I watch with joy and pride as the Class of 2012 graduates in just a few short weeks, but I too will be transitioning and moving from my position here at Harvard to a new life and a new community in Denver, Colorado. To all my students, colleagues and friends in this vibrant, intellectually and spiritually rich community: Hadran Alach, my prayer and hope is that I will return to you and you will return to me throughout the years and decades to follow.

Posted on May 11, 2012

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Marching Towards Freedom With The Omer

We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.

Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.

If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.

This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.

The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.

Posted on April 12, 2012

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Ask Not What Your Judaism Can Do For You

This past week in synagogues throughout the world we rolled the Torah scroll forward and began reading from the Book of Leviticus. Each week during Shabbat services congregations all over will be reading the account of the sacrificial system that encompassed the ritual life of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert with the Tabernacle, and later with the construction of both the first and second Temples. These readings can feel foreign and removed from the lives we lead, as people disconnected from a religion that revolves around sacrifices, whether animal or grain based. What can there possibly be to learn from these sections of Torah?

Maimonides in his chief work of philosophy, The Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the sacrificial system instituted in the Torah was a pedagogical tool meant to transform us and to change us in radical ways. What precisely is the educational aim of the sacrifices?

Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the 19th century rabbi of Berlin, in his introduction to the Book of Leviticus, connects the sacrificial system recorded in Leviticus to that near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham in the Book of Genesis. That moment, bracketing the psychological and emotional dilemmas it presents, demonstrated in an extreme fashion the notion of self-sacrifice, of giving up something precious for a more lofty purpose. It involved taking a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Soren Kierkagaard understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to be, that giving of yourself, sacrificing a part of what is important to you for someone or something else, will not only benefit the recipient but will benefit you as well. Thus, we can see the Torah’s sacrificial system as being the institutionalized mechanism by which the Jewish people live that value on a daily basis.

This very much is reminiscent of the famous line by President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was leading the country towards understanding that when we all invest into the project of building America, not only will America as a whole become stronger and greater, but each citizen, each person who puts of themselves into the project, will also reap the reward. Likewise, the impact and meaning we want and need from Judaism in our lives will only be realized and only be possible if we take the time and the energy to give of ourselves into it. We will receive according to what we put in and we will benefit and all those similarly invested will benefit from our efforts as well.

As we progress through Leviticus, let us ask ourselves: What am I ready to give of myself into the Jewish project so that it becomes richer, deeper, more profound and meaningful and will come to enrich, deepen and add meaning to my life as well?

Posted on March 30, 2012

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Raising Your Mask for Passover

Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.

The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]

It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.

To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.

The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.

To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.

Posted on March 16, 2012

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The Pursuit of Happiness

I have always been struck by car commercials. Car commercials to me seem unique in the world of advertising. Whereas other commercials tend to advertise the features of their product, which of course will make your life easier, happier and more fulfilled, a car commercial tends to depict the experience of simply having the car. The experience alone of having this new model of car will lift your life to the heights of ecstasy and elation. You may be driving everyday to work but when you get behind the wheel of this car you will gracefully be floating down the Swiss Alps. While other industries tell you how their product enables you to be happier; the car commercial assures you that the car itself is happiness.

Yet, we know while that new car may be safer, more comfortable and more gas efficient, it alone does not bring us genuine and lasting happiness. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify any single product that has brought us real happiness. Of course, we experience the joy of having something new and revel in discovering all of its features and unique aspects but soon the newness begins to disappear and along with it the temporary boost to our sense of joy.

How do we achieve a true, genuine and lasting happiness in our lifetimes? This is to put it simply perhaps the question of our time. As people who live in an era most defined as the era of the individual, we seek personal fulfillment and personal happiness to a greater extent than those in generations before us. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the definitive answer to this perplexing question (but if I did I would be sure to blog about it on MJL!) and I am inclined to think that there is no definitive answer to this question as so much of it is contextual and specific to each case. However, I would like to propose a perspective, a shift in orientation, that could provide an avenue for a life of genuine and lasting happiness.

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kirschenbaum of Tel Aviv University articulates a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities, between Western law and Jewish law. He writes in his work Equity in Jewish Law (Ktav, 1991):

“Social, political, and legal theory in Western liberal society conceives man as a plenitude of rights; people do as they please unless constrained by the hedges of the law. The state governs the individual; the liberal democratic state governs the individual by enlightened laws. In contrast, the Jewish tradition measures the human being by the duties and responsibilities he bears…

Indeed, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Covenant subsequent to the Exodus – for which the Theophany took place – was not between God and the six hundred thousand Israelites who had come out of Egypt. It was between God and the Community of Israel. The formation of the community was thus a necessary concomitant of the Revelation.”

The Jewish experience is born out of community. When we come into the world our family celebrates our birth in the context of community. When we reach crucial developmental milestones in our lives, those are marked in communal ceremonies and rituals. Our wedding symbolizes this reality most profoundly when we stand under the chuppah, the canopy representing the intimacy of marital bonds, that is open to all sides and surrounded by our family and friends. Lastly, our final passing from this world is also observed within the embrace of community. This is not coincidental, as Rabbi Dr. Kirschenbaum noted, but rather is indicative of the founding narrative of our people. Judaism; its narratives, rituals and legal system is rooted in the communal. The effect of this is a shift towards responsibilities and a perspective that places each individual within the larger story of a people and a destiny, a shared past and an equally shared future.

With this framing in mind we can approach a particular Mishnah in Avot (3:1) with a renewed appreciation:

Who is rich? The one who rejoices in their portion.

This statement from the Sages can mean much more than only a reflection on a life satisfied with one’s worldly affairs. Of course, it does deeply mean that, and that alone is a valuable lesson for a world dominated by sheer materialism, of which the advertising I mentioned earlier is only a small part, but possibly it is also a reading on who we are on an existential level. Do I exist solely as one individual absent a larger picture? Are my needs, wants, desires, passions and concerns the only dominating motive and drive for my life? A life wholly consumed by I, quickly turns to the reality of the finitude of our lives. Deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness arises out of a sense of futility and irrelevancy.

A life interwoven and bound up in the trajectory and narrative arc of a people that transcends generations can instill purpose, dignity and genuine happiness to our existence. My needs and wants are connected to the needs and wants of others. My story is part of the greater Jewish story. I am a link between all the generations that came before me and all those that will come after me. I am a guardian of a sacred trust that I have inherited and tasked with not only its preservation, for it is not an exhibit in a museum to be mummified and put on display, but its cultivation, furtherance and elevation.

This way of thinking and approach to living can foster lasting and true happiness. I offer it as a model to consider. It has proven successful for me and as one of my mentors and teachers Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard would often end his lectures with, I invite you to explore the possibility of this for your life.

Posted on March 2, 2012

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