“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “ (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro, p.3)
There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”
It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah— repenting for one’s mistakes—is that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.
Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in life—errors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failures—this is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarch—Abraham. His journey from his homeland—the land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.
Let’s take a look at how that story begins:
(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessings—you’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?
What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…
(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”
Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten are—some are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.
We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.
We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.
This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challenges—personnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.
What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?
‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.
Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.
But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadik—one who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.
“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?
Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?
There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak. And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.
When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.
Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.
As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.
Jon Stewart, in his July 21 episode of The Daily Show, viscerally demonstrated what many of us, I am sure, are experiencing on our Facebook feeds and our email inbox when it comes to postings on Israel and Gaza. Take a look at his attempt to talk about Israel.
At the same time as I support Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with Hamas 100%, I do believe there is room for respectful and thoughtful analysis of the broader context as we try to understand why we have arrived at this moment, and what might lie ahead. There are those who are uncomfortable with that conversation, because they don’t think it’s the right time to raise anything that might be critical of Israel’s choices and policies, but it’s not really possible to have the conversation if we’re not willing to look at those choices. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think we need to silence opinion and conversation, but I also don’t believe that this broader conversation about the peace process can be applied to the specific battle at hand today. Whatever both sides may have done or failed to do in the past, today’s battle, if you identify with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, is about Israel defending its citizens from indiscriminate attack, and nothing about the larger context of the peace process will shake my certainty that they must do what must be done to achieve that goal.
Among Jews, there are a wide spectrum of opinions and feelings about what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. But on certain issues I would hope we would substantially find agreement:
1) Hamas is a terrorist organization. It has stated publicly that it seeks to cause harm to its own people as a way of furthering international condemnation of Israel. To that end, it operates from mosques, schools, and in the midst of heavily populated areas. What it is doing from these locations is firing rockets indiscriminately on the civilian population of Israel.
2) No nation state in the world would tolerate for one moment this kind of bombardment. Israel is completely within its rights to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. When the safety of your citizens and the stability of your country is at stake, you do whatever it takes. Those who speak of a larger context or the suffering of the Gazan people are conflating issues that should not be conflated. We can still talk about the larger question of what is or is not happening with the peace process, and where Israel bears responsibility for poor judgment along the way along with poor choices on the part of the Palestinians. But none of that mitigates Israel’s right to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens when they are being indiscriminately fired upon. That is an act of war, and Hamas has chosen to declare war on Israel. And if you were living in Israel right now, you would not expect anything less of your government.
3) Even while defending Israel’s right and need to take the actions it is taking, as human beings we can still have compassion for all who are suffering through this war. When Gazan civilians die in the midst of the battle, we should cry for the loss of lives. When children in southern Israel have PTSD because they have now lived through years of having seconds to run for cover when the sirens sound, we should have compassion. When Israeli extremists murder a Palestinian teenager we should be disgusted and bring them to justice (as Israel is). And when young Israeli adults are serving their country in the IDF and will be called upon to do difficult things that will lead to the loss of lives, we should think about the impact that war has on all who have to fight it. There are no easy choices.
When it comes to thinking about and talking about Israel, I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been listening to the news and reading many online articles about the situation. Some information is helpful, some inaccurate. Some are naïve, some are antagonistic. Some draw lines of connection that are helpful and some are profoundly misleading.
We all have a tendency to read more from those who already think like us. So how do we navigate our way through the quagmire of information? One might try to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is opinion. But this isn’t always useful. We might hear a news report that begins by telling us how many Gazans died today and how many times Israel fired on Gaza. That is descriptive. But if only as an afterthought is it mentioned, in passing, that Israel did so in response to the several hundred rockets fired by Hamas at their civilian populations, then the information is not being communicated accurately. When Israel is criticized because more Gazans were killed or injured today than Israelis, that is simply a preposterous way to judge and evaluate what is happening and what Israel needs to do to protect its citizens in this war. Approximately 7 million Germans died in WWII and 420,000 Americans died. Was America guilty of a disproportionate response to Hitler? Where opinions clash, it is often not about the facts on the ground per se, but about the framing of these facts, where there are enormous differences in perspective.
And then, when we try to expand the conversation to understand this recent flare up in war with Hamas in the larger context of the long-term lack of a peaceful two-state solution, what we have are many pieces of a puzzle, and they don’t all fit neatly together. So we can talk about the need for a settlement freeze and other choices that Israel could make to better lay the groundwork for a different kind of way of thinking about the Palestinian question. And we can talk about it, as many Israelis already do, independent of an all-inclusive final peace settlement. But if we’re going to talk about those things, we also have to talk about the choices that Hamas has made to take 10 years of potential economic development in Gaza and pour those resources into weapons and tunnels designed to kill Israelis. When we talk about Israel’s policies and choices, we cannot do so in a vacuum that excludes the context of Palestinian policies and choices.
Part of what makes this so complex are the narratives that each side tell about the other; narratives that are often deeply flawed. I’ve often argued for the need to listen carefully to the Palestinian narrative; not because we are required to agree with their framing of their plight, but because we cannot understand what they are doing or why when Israel seems to make a step in the right direction (like withdrawing from Gaza) they are rewarded with terror attacks. It’s not so easy to change someone else’s narrative. So, for example, Hamas will often make reference to the success that the Algerians had in making the French leave. They hold that story up as a model for themselves; make life so intolerable for an invading colonial power that eventually they will leave. But the problem is that, as much as Palestinians define Israel as a Western colonial insertion in their land, that is not what Israel is, and is most certainly not how Israel understands itself. The people of Israel don’t have a “France” to go back to.
And so, when Hamas ramps up the terrorism, Israelis who will not be terrorized out of their homes will fight back with all they’ve got. On the other hand, if we listen to Bibi Netanyahu and observe his policy of continually increasing the breadth of settlement activity, it would appear that he and many others operate with a narrative that thinks that if Israel just continues to establish itself and build itself up, the Palestinians will eventually just give up and move to one of the surrounding Arab countries, or accept a minority status in a Jewish state. Given the Palestinian narrative in which they see the creation of the State of Israel as having denied them their sovereign rights in their own homes and villages, that is a naïve and foolish policy to pursue.
But it gets more complicated. As Jews, we often focus on Israel’s choices and policies. Those on the right support the Netanyahu narrative. Those on the left want to change the narrative to one that could open the pathway to peace. But… that pathway doesn’t exist if only one side changes their narrative. While Hamas continues to operate out of its narrative, then peace simply cannot be—they will not let it be. I’m not sure, but I think Mahmoud Abbas might wish to change the Palestinian narrative, but it is challenging for him to do so without great danger from fundamentalists on his right. Perhaps that is why he is being quiet during this Gaza war. Perhaps he understands that nothing will ultimately change until Hamas is taken out of the equation. Israel understands this too.
In the meantime, let us pray that this war can come to an end soon. Let us pray for the safety of civilians everywhere. Let us pray for Israel’s soldiers, and let us pray for safety of Jews around the world—Jews in Turkey, Jews in France, and elsewhere where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks have already taken place. And let’s talk with one another; reach out to those with family in Israel, respectfully share thoughts and opinions about the larger issues, stand up for human rights when they are violated, and stand up for Israel when she acts to defend herself.
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A version of this article was delivered as my Shabbat sermon on Friday, July 18th. The original sermon can be viewed on the archive of our livestream (sermon begins at approx. the 40 min mark).
On Thursday, I landed in San Francisco on the first day of a family vacation. As I turned my phone back on as we pulled into the gate, the first news I saw was the announcement of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s passing. On Monday, my colleague Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan wrote eloquently about Reb Zalman’s overall approach to Jewish life—an approach to renewing the spiritual heart of Jewish practice. That approach to renewal, while leading to the creation of an organized group of students, communities, a rabbinic program, and much more under the umbrella of ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal), reached far beyond any particular denomination. And that was of Reb Zalman’s design. His gift did not fit in just one vessel, and he was eager to see the wisdom and innovation shared widely. I’m not sure that I can identify another rabbinic figure whose teachings and wisdom have, in our time, shaped and inspired so many others in so many different parts of Jewish life.
While I am ordained by Hebrew Union College, and work under the auspices of the Reform movement for a Reform congregation, my soul has been and continues to be rooted in Renewal, the teachings of Reb Zalman and the many other teachers that he inspired and empowered to spread their light in the world. In much of my work in Jewish communal settings, my reputation is for bringing spiritual awareness and practice into mainstream settings in ways that are accessible and experiential. When I stop and think about what, specifically, people are drawn to and respond to, so much comes from all I learned from Jewish Renewal.
Once a month, I offer a creative service which borrows Hayyim Herring’s label (from his book Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today)—”Ritual Lab.” In fact, this forum, which allows us to deepen our experience of our worship together and the inner meanings of our prayers, is my own iteration of “Interpretive Davening”—a gift from Reb Zalman and his students. Sometimes these services include chanting—a gift shared by Rabbi Shefa Gold, whose chanting wisdom was blessed, appreciated and encouraged by Reb Zalman. In one service, my cantorial soloist and I modeled before the congregation how to take a psalm and, one line at a time ,taking turns, read and drash on that line to more deeply experience and connect to the verses. A gift from Reb Zalman. Sometimes, at a Torah service, I’ve invited people to see if they feel ‘called’ to the Torah for an Aliyah because there is a teaching from the week’s parsha that connects to the fabric of their lives. And every week that I bless a bar or bat mitzvah student with a Mi Shebeirach blessing, I trust that the spirit will inspire an appropriate, spontaneous blessing in the moment that recognizes that student’s spiritual link to the Torah they have just shared with us. All this, and so much more I learned from Reb Zalman or from one of the many students who were inspired by him.
There is so much more Jewish creativity and spiritual inspiration, today found in settings across all denominations and none, that owes, either consciously or unconsciously, a debt to the gifts that Reb Zalman either taught directly or encouraged and blessed in others. Take the success of Storahtelling and the wonderful work of Amichai Lau Levi. Inspired by the earlier work of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash—a part of the Jewish Renewal world. Ever sat in a Jewish meditation service? Many of the early teachers who brought forth a practice that, for centuries, was primarily only to be found in mystical or Hasidic contexts, did so first to a receptive community in Jewish Renewal. Ever been transformed by a niggun—a wordless melody—at a Shabbat gathering? These tunes, lying at the heart of Hasidic musical spirituality, were brought into the heart of communal gatherings in the context of Jewish Renewal. Not only there, but so many of those who learned melodies and shared them first learned them in a Jewish Renewal setting. I know that I did, and all of my early work in Jewish communities, focusing on spirituality through music, prior to entering rabbinic school, was inspired by those experiences.
And there’s more. A couple of years ago a young woman, now a Youth Advisor, and I got talking at Kutz Camp, the leadership camp for the Reform movement. It turned out that I had been her religious school teacher in the UK 20 years ago! She told me that there were two things that she specifically remembered about those classes (I was amazed; I don’t think I can recall anything from Religious school at the age of 10). She remembered being shown how all the festivals fit to the seasons and had a different emotional feel, presented in a big pie chart diagram on the wall. And she remembered our classes on Eco-Kashrut. I taught these things because I had been inspired by my teacher, Reb Arthur Waskow, one of Reb Zalman’s earliest students. How incredible – Reb Arthur and Reb Zalman were talking and writing about Eco-Kashrut decades before these topics entered the mainstream awareness in other branches of Jewish life.
As I approach every festival, consider how to invite a community into an experience that will translate ancient words and rituals into the hills and valleys of an inner landscape that we are called upon to explore and come to understand, Reb Zalman’s teachings and the teachings of those he inspired are my guides time and time again.
Reb Zalman cared passionately about a Judaism that would be deeply meaningful and spirituality inspiring. He is the source and the inspiration for so much; truly a gift to us all.
While on the surface, the last two posts on this blog from my colleagues, Laura Duhan Kaplan and Joshua Ratner, are about two very different things, they are, I believe, both reflections on the shifting culture in which our Jewish lives and worlds are embedded. Sometimes, in our analysis of our field of focus, we can lose sight of a broader set of dynamics that may have as much, if not more, to tell us about a situation we are examining than some of the specifics of the situation itself.
Let’s start with Joshua’s concern that, at a recent rally for the three kidnapped boys in Israel, there was a stark lack of young people present. Likewise, he notes, at communal Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, the presence of a younger generation is often lacking. Is it that they don’t care? Are we dealing with a more self-centered generation than in the past? These are some of Joshua’s questions.
While there may be some partial truths there, I think a step back to look at the worlds that many of our teens and young adults are living in may be more instructive. And not just our teens and young adults, but many other segments of our communities too. One of the things that I’ve observed is that often, regardless of the topic or the issue, any Jewish gathering that aims to or claims to bring all sections of the community together often reaches none, or very few. Perhaps only those who are comfortably self-identified as the Jewish establishment will appear (those are the 50+ folk that Joshua saw in his crowd). They know that we are addressing them. Others may not be so sure unless we break things down and are more explicit about who we mean.
This is why there are many independent communities and minyanim that have popped up in recent years. Not necessarily identified along established denominational lines, they are, in part, a result of young Jews who are less interested in simply “belonging” to an established Jewish entity because it is already there, and are more interested in creating something that fits who they are, where they can be with like-minded folk. It is why, within a more established kind of Jewish congregation—one like my own where we are the most significant gathering place for Jews who come to us from 20 different towns—our ability to engage and connect with our members requires us to correctly identify many of the different groups and interests within our larger membership and provide a range of doorways in for those specific needs (creating many small gatherings and opportunities within the large). Its why many congregations realized that when you simply advertise “adult education” you always seem to get the same group of, primarily, empty-nesters and retirees in attendance. Its not that others aren’t interested in learning; it’s just that its only when the kids have left home that you finally have some time to do study for its own sake. Or perhaps you now begin to seek new realms of meaning now that not so much of that meaning-making is invested in raising children. That doesn’t mean we can never get other groups to come and learn with us. It just means we have to be really smart about what it is they need at other junctures of their lives.
So I’ve found teens and young adults to be very engaged with Israel, and deeply able to connect with the impact of the Shoah on Jewish peoplehood, but in places where they come to be with each other. Joshua and I shared the same community for a while. The year that we brought our annual Yom HaShoah observance into our community High School Tuesday evening gathering, it was very powerful to see a couple of hundred teens watch Holocaust survivors light candles, and hear the testimony of one of them. Several teens every year did the “Adopt a Survivor” program and personally got to know one survivor and commit to tell their story. It was clear that they had a connection in our debrief the following week. But do they come on a Sunday afternoon for a “communal” event? Not so much.
Laura’s very honest reflections on how, at an event that was meant to bring community together, she felt somewhat uncomfortable and disconnected from narratives being offered by Jewish leadership from another denomination is, I believe, another dimension of some of the same cultural phenomenon. On almost no topic are we a “one community” mindset. It is almost impossible for anyone to speak anymore and be accepted as “the voice” of the people, or even of a particular moment. Perhaps there was a time, in a more modernist era, where we were willing to let voices of authority speak on behalf of all of us—a Chief Rabbi (in the UK, for example; something that was far more accepted a few decades ago than it is now), a communal leader at a rally, an Op-Ed in a newspaper. But today, some of the most successful Jewish communal events are ones that focus on and celebrate plurality and diversity of voice—take the enormous world-wide success of Limmud, for example. Even on something where you might have assumed that, at least publicly, we’d all stand with one voice, it is the right to have even the minority voice heard that overrides any sense that doing so might undermine a perceived communal unity. Take the position of Jewish Voice for Peace on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), for example, and their recent role in a Presbyterian Church vote to partially divest from three companies doing business in Israel. Some are outraged by their presence in the public square of debate on Israel. But, if we take a step back from the issue and better understand our cultural context, in which we have celebrated and empowered those who are drawn to define and act upon their own sense of justice in a plurality of ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the result.
Just to be clear, I’m not mourning the lack of perceived unity and peoplehood. Neither am I celebrating it. I’m simply describing the cultural landscape that I believe we are living in the ways that I see it. Simply better understanding it can, I believe, help us do our work in connecting Jews together, engaging Jews in communities, activities and causes, with more successful outcomes. Trying to get everyone at the same event, on the same page, and caring in the same way is a fruitless exercise. We can, however, be successful in creating or supporting many gateways, many voices, and many opportunities to be and do Jewish with each other.
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I recently spent some time at a gun range in a class that provided an introduction to guns. During my class I was shown how to safely hold and fire a pistol, a revolver, a rifle, and an AK47. I’ve always been quite good at fairground rifle ranges, picking up a few prizes in my teens. I have to say that I enjoyed the target practice, and it was quite exciting to have the opportunity to learn how to fire these guns. I’d go back and do it again. My instructor was professional, and at the end asked if any of us was interested in taking further classes to obtain a gun license, but there was no propaganda and no hard sell.
While I was there I observed many people coming and going, the majority of them middle-aged husbands and wives, stopping in for some target practice. I asked my instructor how many people who belonged to this school bought their own guns vs how many simply used the considerable selection available in the school. He estimated that about 70% probably had their own. This in a state with very strict carry restrictions. These guns are meant to remain unloaded, in a locked cabinet at home. They are brought in a locked case to the gun range. They are opened up on the range, then loaded and fired. Yet 70% of the people coming back and forth felt the desire to buy one or more guns of their own. I was struck by how much potential risk was being introduced into so many lives by that one statistic. Guns that might be accessed in a marital dispute. Guns that might be played with by a child who accidentally injures themselves or a friend. Guns that might be picked up in a moment of suicidal despair. Guns that might be stolen in a burglary and sold on the black market to other criminals.
There are an estimated 270-310 millions guns owned by citizens in the U.S. A quick glance at The Gun Report indicates how many of the thousands of incidents of gun violence a year fall into one of the above categories. Guns are clearly a sensitive topic of conversation in the USA. There’s plenty of room for debate about precisely what kinds of actions or laws could be effective or should be enacted. But 74 school-based shootings after Newtown, one thing seems clear – gun violence in the U.S. is out of control. When, instead of figuring out how to reduce the amount of gun violence in our society we appear to be resigned to a new reality, instead creating bullet-proof blankets for children to hide under in their schools, it’s well past time to stop the insanity and take another look at our assumptions.
While there are some contributing factors to this that are more complex to define and solve, there is little question in my mind that some universally accepted and enforced gun control and registration process would be at least a step in the right direction. It’s not only a pragmatic thing to do; it’s also the Jewish thing to do. Centuries before guns had even entered the imaginations of those who sought to exert power and control over others through violence, Jewish thinkers had already applied the wisdom and ethics of our faith tradition to consider what kinds of obligations we had to mitigate the potential harm that the existence and ownership of dangerous things could cause to others.
We see this concern first expressed in the Torah itself, with regard to building a house:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]” (Deut. 22:8).
Rabbinic commentary on this verse extrapolates from this that we need “fences” to provide some additional protection from anything that could cause harm to another, to ensure that we don’t accidentally come to cause blood to be spilled. The text doesn’t ban flat roofs, but it does emphasize our obligation to take necessary precautions. Applied to the context of guns, this certainly provides a solid basis for thinking about all the things we could be doing to minimize the danger that guns bring into our homes, our schools, and our communities.
From the Talmud, we find another teaching that, when extrapolated, seems to go further:
R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text (Deut. 24:8), “You shall bring not blood upon your house.” Talmud, Bava Kama 46a
If we think more broadly about the application of the proof-text quoted from Deut. 24:8, we might conclude that we should not knowingly bring into our homes things where there is a high risk that they will eventually cause harm to someone. Certainly there would be some who would make the case that by keeping a gun at home they could prevent the bloodshed of their family were an armed attacker to enter that home. But for that to even be a likely scenario, that gun would have to be kept, unsecured, immediately accessible, and loaded to do someone any good. And in the meantime, that is a deadly weapon that is sitting around each and every day that is far more likely to end up causing harm to those same loved ones. Other commentaries on this talmudic teaching suggest that it is ok to own a dangerous dog if it is kept chained up at all times. This would bring us back to the need for incredibly secure gun safes, with ammunition kept equally safe and separate from the gun, being a requirement of gun ownership.
There are additional references in rabbinic discussions in the Talmud that prohibit the sale of weapons to those who are believed to want to cause us harm (Avodah Zarah 15b; YD 151:5-6). The application of these teachings would certainly support the idea of universal background checks and the kind of licensing and tracking of gun purchases that might truly have an impact on the ease with which criminals can obtain guns.
Like many, I am heart-sickened by the daily reports of more deaths by gun violence. I believe that we have the ability and the obligation to enact some changes to our laws and our culture that would make a real difference. I see no responsible, ethical basis for the recent stories we have heard of some States and localities moving in the opposite direction. When will we say “enough”?!
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I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).
That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.
You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.
But you’d be wrong.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.
Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.
As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,
“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers: Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes out of the heat of the Israeli summer. And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”
Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.” He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”
I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:
And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).
Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:
I am Ruth.
With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.
I am Naomi.
I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.
I am Boaz.
I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.
We are all Boaz.
On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth. (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).
A week after we celebrated the 66th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel, I’ve been reflecting on how we talk about Israel in our communities. At the beginning of the month the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted against accepting the membership of J-Street into the Conference (see Gary Rosenblatt’s editorial in The Jewish Week for a good summary of this story). With the announcement of a new alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, hope has considerably waned that the recent round of peace talks with Israel will amount to any new breakthroughs. Some have expressed the belief that this is the direct result of Netanyahu’s stance during the talks. The blame game has begun. It is easy to feel somewhat demoralized by all this and frustrated when it comes to talking about Israel.
And yet, at the same time this past week one of our congregants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed our congregation after recently returning from a remarkable trip led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, where they had the opportunity to meet with and speak with leaders in government, the Israel Religious Action Center, observe the growth and development of Reform Judaism in Israel, and meet with Palestinian businessmen in addition to Israeli leaders in the business and innovation world. He returned hopeful and inspired, and he inspired all who heard him speak. Our congregation is planning on a community trip to Israel next year, and people are eager to go.
Last night, in my final class of the semester with our 11th and 12th grade students, we explored a range of Jewish values from Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s “Mitzvah Cards” and I asked students to choose ones that they felt they already ‘carried with them’ and ones that were challenging to them. One of those challenge cards was Israel. A student conveyed something that I remember feeling so strongly myself as I entered my first year of college—a sense of struggle and frustration that sometimes a thoughtful and critical engagement with Israel was silenced within Jewish settings.
I remember attending an event run by the Hillel at my college during the first Gulf War. Scud missiles were being sent Israel’s way. It was a scary time for the population of Israel. Gas masks had been widely distributed. There was no question that we would be praying for the safety of all in Israel. In the midst of an informational session one student stood up to contribute to a discussion about Israel to express his hope that, even in the midst of a time when we needed to stand by Israel and pray for its safety, we wouldn’t lose sight of other issues regarding the peace process or equality within Israel that were also important to talk about in a Jewish setting on campus. He was literally shouted down—how dare he even ask the question at a time like this!
I have a visceral memory of my internal reaction to witnessing that moment. I wanted no part of it. I cared deeply about Israel and its future and its safety. And at the same time I found the culture that squashed thoughtful and caring debate and discussion about all aspects of life in Israel to be enormously unhelpful. That was 25 years ago—no wonder that J-Street has 180,000 supporters and 50 chapters on campus. You may not agree with them, but they exist because there was insufficient room within previously existing organizations for those who wanted to engage more fully with all dimensions of Israel.
Let me be clear—I’m not writing this to express personal support of any one organization or perspective. Rather, I plead for Jewish community to be a place where we can lovingly and respectfully engage with the fullness of Israel. Like my country of origin—the UK—or my country of residence—the USA—there are things that make me feel extraordinarily proud, and there are things that sometimes happen that cause me to feel embarrassment or disappointment. Israel has to be experienced—it is an amazing place. The people are as diverse in background and opinion as any other place. There is so much to learn there. The innovation in science, technology, agriculture, and more is breathtaking. A country that is only 66 years young has developed politically, socially and economically in remarkable ways. And it is still finding its way in some areas—religious pluralism, equality, the place of minority groups in a country that is still fighting for the right to define itself as a Jewish homeland.
What we don’t need is propaganda. We don’t need trips to Israel that pull the blinders over the breadth and complexity of a fully realized, living, breathing modern nation state. We don’t need to silence each other. I do not pretend to offer expertise on the complexities of the political situation and the peace process. It is my job to listen and learn, and to facilitate conversation. It is my job to point out where I observe insightful analysis and information being shared, and where I see ideological lines being drawn in the sand that ultimately help no one. And it is my job to help my student, as she goes off to college, know that there are people and places where she can engage with the fullness of all that Israel is and may still come to be, without feeling shamed or silenced.
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“So it’s finished?” I heard one commentator on local NPR ask sarcastically in a discussion about the NBA decision to issue a life-time ban on Donald Sterling. Of course, we know that the conversation about racism in our society, how it manifests and how it effects the lives of millions of citizens each and every day, is clearly not over. But while most media outlets are moving on to the next story, it is also quite clear that, if Sterling’s private conversation with his girlfriend was being held up as an example of the kind of racism that our society won’t tolerate, the conversation never really even began.
Because it is way too easy to hold up people like Donald Sterling as examples of racists so that the rest of us can congratulate ourselves on not being racists “like them.” Most people don’t want to look in the mirror when these stories highlight only a caricature of racism to delve a little deeper into their own, real life experiences.
It just so happened that, while this story was breaking this week, I attended an extraordinary multi-media one-woman performance called “Crossing the Boulevard” by Judith Sloan. Sloan engaged youth and adults over several years in what is probably the most ethnically diverse borough in the USA: Queens. Through an exhibit which became a book, which became a stage show, Sloan brings to light the hidden stories and experiences of people of so many different faith and ethnic backgrounds who she met through her project. By telling pieces of their diverse and fascinating stories she brings forth the most important facet within each and every one of them—their humanity.
Her presentation was brought to my town by the Friends of “Facing History and Facing Ourselves” program that is taught in our local High School. The performance highlights how each and every one of us knows so little about our neighbors because of the silence that exists, separating people of different backgrounds. Part of this is due to our uncertainties and anxieties about ‘the other’ and part of it is the way in which we seek to understand ourselves partly through defining with whom we belong. Hence we seek others “like us” as part of that search for meaning. This is not inherently wrong. It is human nature. But it means that it takes an active choice of will to simultaneously exert effort to build genuine relationships with others. Inaction too quickly leads to a separatism within which power exerts itself and racism is easily inserted into the equation.
I yearn for intelligent conversations about difference and diversity. I hold a professional position that makes a great deal of my work about helping Jews hold up, engage with and love things that are specifically Jewish, and require Jewish community coming together to share some of the best of those things. And I also recognize the need to do this in ways that are outward looking, that seeks opportunities to share our specificity with others who will have equal opportunity to share theirs with us. His kind of sharing doesn’t usually “just happen.” It takes an act of will. Just last month we hosted a Shabbat service to highlight the learning that took place among a group of 8th-12th graders learning and leading in a program that provides Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus with a meaningful encounter over six weeks of being together. We need programs like this in our schools, in our communities, and for adults as well as children.
If the story of Donald Sterling is to teach us anything, let it not be what racism looks like—that’s too easy and simplistic. Let it remind each of us to take that active step, personally and individually, to have a conversation with someone we see as “other.” Let it remind us not to hide our own sense of “otherness” in a desperate attempt to fit in to something that we perceive might not accept the fullness of who we are, but gently, and with tolerance and patience, we can help teach others when we share that “otherness” with them. We may not complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.
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