Author Archives: Joshua Ratner

About Joshua Ratner

Rabbi Joshua Ratner is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Cheshire, CT. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2012, Rabbi Ratner was a Joseph Neubauer Fellow and also earned a Master's Degree in Midrash and a Certificate in Pastoral Care. He also worked as an attorney for five years prior to entering rabbinical school. Rabbi Ratner is passionate about the interplay between Judaism, public policy, and American culture. He has received training in congregation-based community organizing and was part of the original rabbinical student cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. He and his wife, Dr. Elena Ratner, are the proud parents of Dimitri, Eli, and Gabriella.

When Did Preemptive War Become a Jewish Value?

512px-Peace_dove.svgHow many emails have you gotten recently urging you to “take action” to get new, tougher sanctions imposed on Iran? They sound pretty convincing, right? “Keep the pressure on Iran,” as one email I received urges, resonates with our understanding that Iran, like much of the Middle East, only responds positively to pressure and cannot otherwise be trusted. We in the Jewish community see Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb as the most likely—and therefore most exigent—trigger of this threat. So getting “tougher” on Iran seems like a no-brainer. In fact, several national Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have come out in support of a recently proposed Senate Iran sanctions bill called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881).

But I am writing this blog today to argue why, from a Jewish perspective, I think this approach is wrong. I want to begin by saying that I care deeply about Israel’s security. I also blame Iran for playing a highly destabilizing role in Middle Eastern geo-politics through its direct (Republican Guard) and indirect (Hezbollah) support for violent pro-Shiite regimes. Nevertheless, I think the current effort to impose new sanctions on Iran is not only strategically flawed but, more importantly, incompatible with a traditional Jewish understanding of war and peace.

First, the strategic case (I’ll keep this brief since it gets technical very quickly; for a far more comprehensive analysis, click here):

Fact 1: the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany), which  began to be implemented on January 12, 2014, is the first positive negotiated agreement with Iran since the Iranian Revolution took place.

Fact 2: the interim agreement explicitly states that the US “will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”

Fact 3: the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881) effectively calls for increased sanctions against Iran.  Though technically the sanctions called for are conditional, the conditions are both vague enough and broad enough that it is virtually certain they will be triggered.

Fact 4: Iran has made clear that any additional sanctions imposed during the period of the interim agreement will terminate the agreement.

As a result, most analysts see the Senate bill as tantamount to torpedoing a nuclear deal with Iran and setting the groundwork for what will be an ugly, devastating war. In fact, the bill itself explicitly provides that the US will support Israel diplomatically, militarily, and economically, if Israel goes to war against Iran.

As Jon Stewart, my favorite foreign policy expert, points out in this clip, if the purpose of imposing sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table in order to avoid armed conflict, and if Iran has now come to the table and agreed to take some positive steps towards curtailing its nuclear program, why on earth would we think the response should be more sanctions?  Even self-proclaimed “Iran  hawks” are opposed to the new bill.

Thus, the current Senate bill, from a strategic standpoint, is anathema to the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb without having to resort to war.

But there is a religious undercurrent to this analysis that I have found lacking in Jewish communal discussions about Iran.  Judaism is not a religion that propounds warfare.  Rabbinic Judaism, in particular, “sought to limit the validity and practicality of violent conflict.” Our daily prayers are filled with messages about seeking peace. Perhaps even more telling,when faced with a conflict between truth and peace, the Talmud routinely opts for peace (such as Ketubot 17a or Yevamot 65b).  Why, then, are Jewish organizations and political commentators so eager to embrace a path to war?  I can understand AIPAC’s perspective on this issue, since it represents Israel’s view, but why are so many other “centrist” organizations pushing the sanctions bill as well? Why are J-Street and Americans For Peace Now the only national Jewish organizations opposing additional sanctions? Why are we allowing ourselves to be led by the same Jewish neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer who agitated for our involvement in the disastrous Iraq War?

As a rabbi, I firmly believe that the public policy positions we advocate must be grounded in Jewish values. Advocating affirmative steps towards a preemptive war with Iran, when other options remain on the table, is inconsistent with these Jewish values. In the words of Deuteronomy 20:10, “When you  draw near to a city to fight against it, first proclaim peace unto it.” We have drawn near to Iran; it is my hope and prayer that we will have the moral courage and clarity to proclaim peace before rushing off to war.

Posted on February 4, 2014

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Seeking Shelter From The Cold

WinterMuch of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.

70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs.  Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.

Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym.  Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading

Posted on January 7, 2014

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Does The Jewish Community Need A Nelson Mandela Today?

Nelson_MandelaWorld leaders today have assembled to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela. As tributes are paid to Mandela’s towering legacy and monumental impact in ending apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but feel the absence of any Mandela-like leader today within the Jewish community.

This is not to say that we lack impressive Jewish leaders today. To the contrary, there are a number of individuals, rabbis and non-rabbis alike, who do extraordinary work at the local level—at synagogues, JCCs, and local NGOs. But we don’t seem to have a leader, or series of leaders, who can rally apathetic masses to support moral causes at a systemic level. We lack the towering leadership of a Heschel, a Soloveitchik, a Wise, a Kaplan. And my question today is: do we need one?

On the one hand, from the perspective of community organizing or democracy building, the answer ought to be no. Real change, from this paradigm, starts from the ground up, at the local level. Leaders are effective when they know what the local issues are and can engage relationally with those in their communities. I, for one, think this model has an incredible amount to offer, and indeed carries the best prospects for the future of an engaged and committed American Jewry.

But, on the other hand, I feel a sense of absence by the lack of national moral leadership.  I can only begin to imagine how it might have felt to stand with Heschel and King during the Civil Rights Movement. I recall fondly–though I was only a few years out of diapers–the successful efforts of the Jewish community to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s.  And, more recently, Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the Save Darfur effort.  But who and where are the Jewish leaders rallying national support for social or economic justice today?  From raising the minimum wage to enacting a cap and trade program to stem climate change, I can’t think of a single figure or group of figures who are at the forefront of these efforts, who are working to catalyze the public at a national level and have the moral resonance and strategic savvy to make such change plausible.

So my question to you today, as we fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of Mandela, is whether we still need Jewish national moral leadership to bring about the change our tradition calls us to pursue. What do you think?

Posted on December 10, 2013

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Why Thanksgivukkah Is Important For Jews And Non-Jews Alike

turkey menorahBy now it seems that the entire Jewish world is abuzz about Thanksgivukkah, the once in a lifetime convergence of Hanukkah (choose your spelling) and Thanksgiving. There are stories on NPR  and The New York Times, sweet potato latke recipes everywhere you look, and even a kickstarter campaign by a fourth grader to design a “menurky” that raised $48,000. Perhaps the height of absurdity is that Thanksgivukkah even has its own Twitter account.

Why all the fuss?

Let’s be clear: the convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a big deal for Jews, but not so much for American society. Frankly, most non-Jewish Americans I have spoken with are mildly amused and politely supportive, but hardly excited about the overlap of the two holidays. For Jews, though, it is as if this year is Hanukkah’s debutante ball—a coming out party for the holiday to symbolize it finally warranting conversation within—if not wholesale merger with—American culture. I can’t help but wonder whether, for fairly secular Jews, the excitement stems from the fact that Hanukkah, for the first time in as long as I can remember, will not culturally serve as the ugly step-sister of the melodious, ornately decorated, and wholly secularized Christmas.  It is being viewed as an equal, as the name Thanksgivukkah itself suggests.

But I would like to suggest a more constructive role for Thanksgivukkah. While some are bemoaning the merger of these two holidays, I think there are at least two reasons why both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike benefit from the convergence of the two. First, as my colleague Laura Duhan Kaplan eloquently wrote, Thanksgivukkah provides a wonderful opportunity for re-telling, and therefore revitalizing, the Hanukkah story.  This is entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition, where Hanukkah has been retold, and reinterpreted, many times throughout our history (after all, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days doesn’t even appear in the two Books of the Maccabbees, but only “surfaces” centuries later in the Talmud).

Second, I think Thanksgivukkah has potential to be instructive and wisdom-creating for Jews and non-Jews. Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday for gratitude. It is, as its name connotes, a day for giving thanks for the bounty we enjoy in our lives. Gratitude, of course, is an important part of Judaism, as it is in all religions. It is the ethical posture with which we begin each day when reciting the prayer Modeh Ani. A famous Jewish saying, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1 posits:

Who is rich? One who appreciates what one has.” We are encouraged in the Talmud to recite 100 blessings each day (BT Menachot 42b) as a means of reflecting upon our good fortune and expressing gratitude.

But Hanukkah is not primarily about gratitude. It is about (re-)dedication. Gratitude is (at least within Judaism) inherently passive, a mental process of reflection and appreciation, of self-cultivation. Dedication is about taking action, about embodying values, about doing what is necessary to enable a life of sacred meaning. The original purpose of celebrating Hanukkah (outside of the sordid political machinations of the Hasmoneans that, frankly, would make the Borgias dynasty blush) was to enable the Judeans to celebrate the fall harvest of Sukkot which they hadn’t previously been able to due to the profane state of the Temple under Seleucid rule. That is what the “dedication” was all about, and also why Hanukkah and Sukkot are both 8 days long.  This lesson of dedication, of action in pursuit of the holy and the good, is one which all of American society would do well to receive. Especially in Washington, we do a great job of talking ad nauseum, but we seem incapable of even the most common-sense action.

Of course, action in pursuit of the holy, unmediated by gratitude, can lead to the zealotry that ultimately destroyed Judea and is currently causing unspeakable tragedy throughout the Middle East. But gratitude unmediated by dedicated action equals mere platitude; it is a Hallmark card that is politely read and then thrown away. The duality of gratitude and dedication is what makes Thanksgivukkah a truly special holiday. So let’s take advantage of Thanksgivukkah this year and spread the message of why we, as Americans, need both gratitude and dedication if we want to prosper as a society. After all, it is going to be another 70,000 years before we have another opportunity to do so!

Posted on November 26, 2013

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Confronting The Incognito Within Each Of Us

Jonathan_Martin_(American_football)_2011Can a 6’5’’, 310 pound man be bullied? Prior to this week, many of us probably thought such a question to be absurd. But the recent allegations surrounding the treatment of Jonathan Martin, a 24 year-old right tackle for the Miami Dolphins, should cause all of us to take a step back and reassess the complexity of power relationships.

The drama surrounding Martin grows more surreal each day. He left his team after a lunchroom hazing incident and checked himself into a treatment facility for emotional distress. Then a voicemail message from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, surfaced in which Incognito berated Martin with racial slurs (including the use of the N-word), death threats, and physical threats against Martin’s mother. Additional allegations surfaced involving physical, verbal, and financial hazing by Incognito and others against Martin. Incognito, who was kicked off two teams in college and was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player in the past, has been suspended by the team.
Incredibly, rather than rallying in support of Martin, many of Martin’s teammates, and other NFL players, have at least partially blamed Martin! As Antrel Rolle, a safety on the New York Giants, put it:

“Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man.”

As a football fan, a parent, and a rabbi, I am appalled by the harassment Martin was forced to endure and even more appalled by those who fault Martin for breaking a code of silence or for not being “man” enough to retaliate physically. Many in the media rightfully have been quick to vilify Incognito and decry the destructive machismo of the football locker room. I am glad that Incognito, and the racist, homophobic, “warrior man” culture he embodies is being addressed. Yet Martin is a multi-millionaire adult with a degree from Stanford. Whether or not he plays football again, I believe he has the resources to come out of this ordeal and go on to lead a healthy, productive life.

But what about all those who are bullied yet lack the support systems or resources to cope with its destructive impact? What about the 15 year-olds like Jordan Lewis of Chicago, who killed himself because he couldn’t tolerate the bullying in his school? Or Rebecca Sedwick, the Florida teen who jumped to her death from a silo because she couldn’t handle the onslaught of online bullying from fellow teenagers, one of whom responded to her death by posting on Facebook: “”Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.”?” I could go on and on, but instead I urge you to just google “teen” “bullied” and “suicide”: the sheer number of hits, of lives lost to bullying, is sickening.

So where do we go from here?

512px-Bully_Free_ZoneThe ugly truth is that we all have some Richie Incognito inside of us. In our various relationships with others, there are times when we have relatively more power than others and a temptation to exploit that power for our personal gain.  We don’t like to admit this.  How often do we look in the mirror and point the finger at ourselves, at how we conduct ourselves in our own “locker rooms?” Even where we are not the actual perpetrators of bullying, how often do we permit a permissive bullying culture to persist around us? ADL and others have developed incredible resources for combating bullying, including resources for families to use with one another. It is incumbent upon us, as rabbis, parents, teachers, and members of a community where our youth are essential to our survival and prosperity, to shine a spotlight on the permissive culture of bullying and demand that we change. We need to insist that our religious schools, youth groups, and other fora where vulnerable and impressionable children and teenagers find themselves are safe spaces.  We need to affirm, not marginalize, their value as unique and special human beings is affirmed. We need to be vigilant against “just letting things slide,” or minimizing the impact of harmful words or actions. The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.”  We all have the potential to shed this blood, but we also have the potential–and the obligation–to ensure that this blood is no longer spilled.

You might also be interested in: Should a Known Bully Be Allowed to Become a Bar Mitzvah?

Posted on November 12, 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 Halloween With Jewish Values?

Chocolate_Candies_in_Pumpkin_Pail_(5076897960)Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.

Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.

I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)

For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.

If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.

So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.

Posted on October 29, 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

It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Pew Study and Talented Tenth Judaism

accusingBy now, if you are reading this, you undoubtedly have been inundated with punditry about the meaning of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Many scholars and institutional players immediately bemoaned the results as confirmation of the decline or degradation of American Jewry. Others have dismissed the data as either flawed (based on its use of comparison with the widely discredited 2000 NJPS survey) as drawing causal conclusions where mere correlations are suggested, or as too macro to represent the specifics of an individual Jewish community. Still others have seen positives in the data, whether due to the opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, the surprisingly large percentage of Jews who express faith in God, or because of the incredible 94% of Jews who express pride in being Jewish.

This latter point truly is revolutionary. Growing up as a Gen-Xer in a largely non-Jewish environment in San Diego, being Jewish was something that my friends and I largely kept to ourselves. My Day School background made me feel knowledgeable in my Jewishness, but I don’t think “pride” would be the way I, or most of my friends, described how we felt about being Jewish.  I think this is why the Adam Sandler Chanukah Song, when it came out, was such a big deal–it gave us permission to be proud of our Jewishness and the accomplishments of our fellow Jews. So we should celebrate how much has changed for the better in the relatively few years since then. Continue reading

Posted on October 15, 2013

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So Now What?

As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.

So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?

nasa-shutdownWell, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”

Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.

There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.

Posted on October 1, 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

Taking It To The Streets

Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?

Synagogue_insideRecently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.

Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!

A_Pleasant_Sukka

I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).

Posted on September 17, 2013

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Do We Go to High Holiday Services for the Comfort of the Boredom?

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”

Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”

The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.

But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.

The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays.  The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.

Shanah Tovah.

Posted on September 3, 2013

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