Category Archives: Society

The Torah of Vulcan

Leonard NimoyOn Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.

Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.

When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.

Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.

Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.

Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.

Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.

IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data  that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.

We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that  our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.

As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.

Posted on March 1, 2015

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

Will There Be One Jewish People?

A photo from Limmud NY

A photo from Limmud NY | Yossi Hoffman Photography

I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:

“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”

Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.

Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?

Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.

Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)

I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.

The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.

Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.

When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:

In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”

Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.

In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.

Posted on February 27, 2015

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Why Freedom of Expression is So Essential

shutterstock_243316642The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?

The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.

There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.

I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)

Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?

These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.

Posted on February 22, 2015

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Denominational Ins and Outs: The New Mishkan

Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.

Australia_R2-2_(L).svgOne way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).

Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.

This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.

We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.

Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.

To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.

185px-Royal_Arch_Room_Ark_replica_2Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).

In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.

Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.

For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.

Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.

Dedicated to the memory of R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zeide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal, who taught that “the only way to get it together is together.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

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The Context of Hate

cemetaryThey did not know it was a Jewish cemetery. They did not intend it to be an act of Antisemtism.

So explained five teenage boys in France after they turned themselves into the police. They had vandalized the cemetery, upending tombstones and spray-painting swastikas.

Let us suppose it is possible that their naiveté is genuine. If what they say is true, then without specific malice towards Jews, these five, aged 15-16 chose a random symbol, which just turned out to be a sign of Aryan power and hatred towards Jews. Nor were they aware that the tombstones marked the graves of Jews. Sure they knew it was bad, and they are willing to admit they were up to some mischief, but by no means were they out to make national news as Antisemites.

If is it is hard for you to believe, that is understandable. Even if their naiveté were believable (which it is not,) the context in which their actions took place, moves it from being an isolated act of individuals to part of a broader narrative of hatred. Their actions are framed by hundreds of years of desecrating Jewish cemeteries in Europe, the Nazi atrocities in Europe and the current wave of small and large acts of violence towards Jews in France and across Europe.

Whether these boys intended Antisemitism or not, it is impossible to remove this incident from the history and contemporary reality in which acts against Jews are in part of a systematic ongoing hatred against Jews.

When a systematic pattern of hatred and discrimination has been entrenched over the generations, it is impossible to remove a single event from that context. The pervasive denigration of another group contributes to the permissibility of action against that group, the use of particular symbols or tropes in acting out. That these boys painted swastikas instead of smiley faces is no random act.

Recently in sentencing three young white men for beating and then driving over James Craig, an African American, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, provided historical context for this heinous crime. His thoughtful and painful look at the role racial hatred has played in Mississippi made it clear that no amount of general good behavior or church involvement on the part of the perpetrators could lessen the meaning or impact of this crime. As they drove over and killed Mr. Craig, they yelled about White Power. This was no random act.

Similarly, last week when three Muslim American students were shot in cold blood in their home in North Carolina, it was hard to see the act as distinct from the culture of Islamophobia that exists currently in the United States. That Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 had run-ins with Chris Hicks (the alleged murderer) about parking has been established. But we cannot remove that dispute, or Hicks’ turning up to game night with a shotgun in hand, or his eventual shooting of three innocent people in their home, from the general negative vision of Islam that has become commonly acceptable in many quarters.

Persistent communal hatred is frightening on many levels. It is not easily banished. It seeps into our day to day. When we knowingly or even unintentionally contribute to narratives of discrimination, against people with different colored skin, different religions, from different regions, sexual orientations, or abilities, we contribute to creating a broader culture of communal hatred. Our tradition teaches us the need to be vigilant and think about how we act and treat the other, for there is no room for claims of naiveté when it comes to acting in or contributing to a context of hatred.

Posted on February 16, 2015

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If a Chicken and a Half….

 word balloon reduced copyIf a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?

So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.

And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.

So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?

Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.

Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).

I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.

So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.

It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.

Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.

Posted on February 13, 2015

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A Secret Weapon for Peace

We Refuse to be Enemies

photo credit – Bruce Shaffer

I believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until the Palestinians come face to face with the fact that we Jews have seen ourselves as a people, and not just as a religion, for time immemorial. This is a bedrock fact of our identity. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until we Israelis admit that the there is a national component to Palestinian identity. They understand themselves to be a people, and therefore they are. No amount of denying that will change their sense of themselves.

I also believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until a significant number of Palestinians understand and internalize the simple truth that the Jewish People have a long standing and legitimate connection to all of the Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until a significant number of Israelis understand and internalize the fact that the Palestinians have a long standing and legitimate connection to that same land – all of it.

Both sides have a legitimate claim to all of the land. The claims derive from different foundations but in the end, the same land is both Israel and Palestine. When we first wake up to this realization, it tastes like a bitter pill to swallow. It might seem to make this an intractable conflict, but denying that truth will only cause us to pursue solutions that will eventually blow up in our faces, because they ignore the deepest truths dearly treasured in the hearts of the people that must make peace if they are not to make war.

So many of us on both sides stick our heads in the sand and ignore one half or the other of this truth. Most Israelis dream that we will wake up the next day and find the Palestinians gone. And most Palestinians very likely harbor the vision of a land without Jews. But it is not going to happen. Both sides are here to stay and both sides deserve to stay and to flourish.

I am not afraid of a complex reality. My study of Jewish sources taught me long ago that “these and those are the words of the living God.” Two truths, even conflicting truths, can both be true at the same time. Our rabbis taught us that “you should make you ear like a funnel to hear the words of those who permit and those who forbid,” that is, those who say yes and those who say no. Not only can two contradictory truths be true at the same time, but more than that: we have an obligation to struggle to absorb both and accept both. Only then does the soul expand towards the fullest truth, “the union of opposites” that Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook wrote of so eloquently.

Had do you begin getting to that place? By knowing that all truth is truth from somewhere and never from nowhere. It is from our vantage point, from our perspective – whether individual or national –and is therefore partial. At that is so even for religious truth, revealed truth. God created us such that we rarely see more than a sliver of the whole. Even the revelation at Sinai, according to Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, was only an approximation of the infinite divine truth. God granted us the gift of not knowing it all, in order to provide for us the opportunity to embark upon the journey towards ever-growing truth. Expanding our consciousness to see the truth on the other side, the Palestinian side, is part of the divinely mandated journey.

So how do we Israelis – and the Palestinians – begin the process of seeing and identifying with the other’s truth? By crossing the borders that divide us and getting to know the other. Not by debating but by listening, active listening. By taking off the blinders and opening our eyes to their reality, that is, reality as they see it. By putting ourselves in their shoes. This is not easy. It is challenging and painful and really hard. You have to exert yourself in the search for the fuller truth. You have to hold yourself back from fighting, from arguing, from defending your version of things. At later stages there is room for the give and take of a respectful disagreement, but first you have to listen! You have to listen while you feel offended and attacked and then keep listening. You have to absorb and even identify with it until you feel unmoored and then you still have to listen more. And then you have to put it all together and find room in your soul for two competing, powerful, partial truths.

Naive you say. I would have thought so myself. Except that what I have described is a process of personal transformation that I and scores of other Israelis and Palestinians have experienced over the course of the past year. And thousands of other have been shown a window into this process, all in the framework of an amazing initiative that we have built together in the Gush Etzion area.

Yitzchak Rabin was not quite correct. You don’t make peace with enemies. Here in the Holy Land where our lives are so intertwined, such a peace will not hold. Rather, first each side must learn to see at least some truth on the other side. Then we can be transformed from enemies into human beings, and then into neighbors, and when we are neighbors – each genuinely concerned with the good of the other – political solutions become plausible. As we embark upon the process of making the other into our brother, we can make peace.

This is another way of saying that this is going to require good will. If we come to the negotiating table as if we are at war, doing battle with words, then we will stay at war. If it is about trying to extract concessions from the other side, the efforts to come to an agreement will be doomed to failure. Rather, only when we – and they – truly realize that the more the other side, both sides, can get of its dream, the better off we all will be.

And yes, there are potential ways to fulfill much of the dreams of both sides at the same time. When both sides have made room in their souls for the humanity and the truth and the needs of the other side, we will find the way. There are such plans out there but that is for another article.

To me it appears that this – deep, long term, empathy-creating dialogue – is the secret weapon for the Palestinians to get from us what they want. And it will also achieve for us what we want. It is their tool to attain their dignity – and their rights and their justice and their national aspirations. And it is our means toward recognition and peace. All other weapons harm and kill; this one creates life. If only each side would realize the amazing power of this secret weapon.

Posted on February 6, 2015

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Let Rabbis Lead!

Last month Rabbi Yamin Levy (note: I studied with Rabbi Levy when I was a rabbinical student at YCT Rabbinical School) wrote a thoughtful article, The Rabbi and His Board. In the article he details the challenges and opportunities for rabbis and the board of directors of congregations. The relationship between a rabbi and the board can be a delicate and highly orchestrated dance of vision, power and politics. A peculiar aspect of how American Jewish congregational life is organized is that the rabbi is simultaneously a “spiritual leader” of the congregation and an employee of the board of directors. How should congregations organize their leadership? Who sets the vision? Who articulates the synagogue’s goals and direction?

leaderIn many synagogues throughout the country it is the board of directors who set the vision. it is the board of directors who lead and articulate the goals and directions of the congregation. The rabbi is sometimes a minor partner in that process but more often simply an executor of the desires of the board. I submit that this system is entirely ineffective. It needs to be turned on its head.

It is the rabbi who studied for years Jewish law, ethics, history and philosophy. It is the pulpit rabbi who has dedicated his or her life to the professional leadership of synagogues. Synagogues term their rabbis “spiritual leaders” but the meaning behind that title is often empty and void. It is time to fill that title with purpose, leadership and direction.

This is not to say that rabbis should act autocratically. It is not in the best interest of the rabbi to be a dictator. All the best research in leadership teaches that the vision and direction of a leader is best implemented when it is done collaboratively and through consensus building. However, the person seeking consensus should be the rabbi for their vision from the board and not the reverse. It is the rabbi who envisions, who sets the goals and who leads. It is the board who empowers the leader they hired to actually lead.

This not only makes the most sense from a practical point of view, the rabbi is the trained professional with the expertise and the board are volunteers representing other professions and different training. It is also makes sense from the perspective of Jewish values. Just as one stands for a Torah scroll there is a mitzvah to stand for a Torah scholar. The Talmud (Makkot 22b) expresses bewilderment of people who stand for a Torah scroll but not for a Torah scholar. The honor and respect we invest in the Torah and its scholars and rabbis is due to the wisdom, values and direction the Torah imparts for us in the way we lead our lives. Would it not make sense to give true leadership to the rabbis, the Torah scholars of our communities, who we invest so much in financially, personally and organizationally? Once again, not as autocrats but let them be the vision makers and articulators of goals and let them build the consensus and actualize that vision.

In an era of increasing challenge for synagogues to remain relevant to a new generation of Jews and boards are struggling with decreasing membership and under-utilized buildings, one piece of advice would be: “Let rabbis lead!”

Posted on January 30, 2015

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Are Synagogues Outsourcing Tikkun Olam?

512px-March_on_Washington_editThese are exciting times for Jewish social justice.  This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort.  American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking.  Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community.  I could go on and on.

But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level.  Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?

This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.

But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.

Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls.  But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.

A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns.  She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.

So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?

I think there are at least three reasons for the decline.  First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods.  Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.

Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?

Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics.  Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.

I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.

Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice.  If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.

Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms.  There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings.  This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.”  (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!

Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.

Posted on January 27, 2015

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Real Religious Differences

Burning_Splash_over_Dried_Mud

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every year, I laugh out loud at this week’s Torah reading, the crossing of the Red Sea.

There Moses stands, so close to his goal of guiding the Israelites out of slavery, when suddenly everything goes wrong. A body of water blocks the group’s path forward. An advancing army blocks them from behind. The people begin to melt down, yelling that they prefer slavery to death.

What does Moses do? He says, “Shut up everyone, God is going to save you.”

God, however, has a different idea. “What are you calling on me for?” God asks Moses. “You’re the leader! Speak to the people and tell them to go forward! Lift up your magic staff, point it at the sea, and divide it!”

Moses raises his staff, God whips up an east wind, the sea parts and the Israelites cross. And Moses becomes such an enthusiastic leader that his father-in-law has to teach him to delegate.

Some Hassidic Biblical commentators say the moment transforms everyone. At the Red Sea, the Israelites share a profound mystical experience, uniting them into a nation.

It’s a funny interpretation, however, as the Torah itself suggests they had many different experiences. Multiple descriptions of the crossing of the Red Sea sit side by side in the text. God blows a puff of wind through the Divine nostrils. God fights for the people. Moses redirects the water with his magic wand. Moses reasons with the people, and they move forward, displacing the water. Windy weather, a happy coincidence, works in their favour.

Some Israelites see a miracle; some see human psychology at work; some see basic science. They aren’t having a shared mystical experience at all. In fact, they are all over the place in their faith and their experience of God. And yet somehow, without that spiritual unity, they move forward to save themselves and each other. A delightful message.

This year, however, I am not laughing.

Our whole world, one might say, is standing at the shores of the Red Sea. As anger over economic inequality erupts through dangerous religious conflicts, we cannot see a safe way forwards. The prophet Zechariah might have promised a day when God would harmonize all religious conflicts, but such a day seems far off. Instead of laughing, I am frowning, anxious and metaphorically paralyzed.

Then I remember the Torah’s teaching about the psychological reality of standing at the sea. Moses is unskilled. The Israelites agree on little. Yet, Moses takes leadership and the people move forward. They do not permanently abolish injustice or change Pharaoh’s mind, but they do move forward.

How do we move forward in a world torn by religious differences? Following author Stephen Prothero, we first recognize that the differences are real. Religious traditions ask different questions, and create cultural practices around the answers. Jews ask, “How can we heal broken human communities?” Christians ask, “How can we forgive and be forgiven?” Muslims ask, “How can we be aware of God in every moment?” Hindus ask, “How can we see through illusions of materialism and egotism?” Buddhists as, “How can we learn to minimize suffering?” Indigenous traditions ask, “How can we live in awe of the land that sustains us?”

Of course these are inexact generalizations, based in spiritual teachings that become distorted through political manipulations. Still, they are challenging questions, interrogating our own and each other’s cultural practices. For example, Christian-based cultures may heal rifts through forgiveness, but how do they respect the land? Jewish culture may successfully create a transnational community, but how do we see through illusions of materialism? Muslim cultures may excel at spiritual awareness, but how do they reduce suffering?

These questions, left unanswered, erupt in bursts of violence. We must ask them of ourselves and each other In our more rational, peaceful moments. And by “we,” I mean all of us.

Few of us are presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens, but all of us have spheres of influence. All of us can reach out across difference and allow ourselves to be challenged. If we don’t who will?

Because, as God says, “You’re the leader!”

Adapted from my sermon at Cloverdale United Church, for Vancouver School of Theology‘s “Theology Sunday” January 25, 2014.

Posted on January 26, 2015

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