Category Archives: Society

Mandela and Messianic Time

133380518_mandela_435954bIn less than a week, so much has been said to eulogize Nelson Mandela. Together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, he was responsible “for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa” (Nobel Foundation).

Mandela was a world icon, showing that nonviolent progress towards justice is possible. 

Reading the eulogies has helped me as I struggle day after day to find hope. Generally, I don’t believe that humanity is evolving morally or spiritually. I find it tragic, in fact, that the wisest people are retired, while young learners lead the world. Human history seems a repetition of terrible mistakes.

Frankly, I cannot wrap my mind around the vision of Messianic time, even though the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides insists that hope is a pillar of Jewish spirituality. On Yom Kippur, I had a quick glimpse of hope. The idealism of my son and his friends, the liturgy’s endless prayers for peace, and the community’s yearning for self-improvement seduced me. But the glimpse soon faded into memory…

Until this week.

Last week, Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard commented on the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his long-lost brothers. What a risk Joseph takes when he reaches out to these men he knew only as bullies! He reveals himself, literally and figuratively. Literally, he cries and cries. Speaking his brothers’ language, he says “I am Joseph.” Figuratively, he opens his heart, showing that he hopes to be received with love.

Where does Joseph get the courage to take the risk? He actually explains it in his own words. He tells his brothers, “Don’t feel bad that you sold me into slavery, because God put me here to save lives. God sent me ahead of you, to keep you alive ” (Genesis 45:5-7). Joseph believes in a grand narrative where everything ultimately turns out for the better.

Rabbi Blanchard says: Often we secretly hope for reconciliation, but fear taking the risk. Could we, he asks, follow Joseph’s lead? Could we allow ourselves to believe that the rift is part of a larger story with a happy ending? If we believed that was where we were headed, would we be more willing to take a risk?

This week, Rabbi Julie Danan says: Nelson Mandela must have believed in a greater good, too, as he became the public face of “Truth and Reconciliation.”

Hillary Kaplan adds: It’s easy to draw parallels between the Biblical character Joseph and the real man Mandela. Both were harmed in their youth; both served long prison terms; both were skilled politicians; both took risks for reconciliation; both were criticized for compromising too easily with the seat of power, and for failing to broaden economic opportunity.

Compromising is a risk, too, when you’re a politician. But you compromise in order to reach a vision of a greater good.

The great midrash collection Genesis Rabbah explains that the world was created for the sake of such a vision. In the mind of the editor, everything that happens leads ultimately to the flourishing of the Jewish people.  And, of course, the flourishing of the Jewish people is necessary for the redemption of the world. History has a plan; the plan is set out symbolically in the Book of Genesis; and it is being realized even now.

Normally, this kind of thinking seems ludicrous to me. It’s irrational, it’s patently false, it’s ethnocentric. Nothing in my mindset resonates with this at all.

But this is not a normal week. It’s the week of Mandela’s passing and the anniversary of Joseph’s reconciliation.

I hold Mandela in high moral esteem. His belief in social evolution seems beautiful, blessed and true. And, like Joseph, I do believe in interpersonal healing, and I do sometimes take risks to achieve it. Sometimes rupture is only a chapter in a story of deepening friendship.

Through these reflections, I receive another glimpse into the reality of Messianic time. Hope is visionary. It does not have to reflect current conditions to be real. When it motivates people to move forward personally and socially, it is real.

I want to grow my hope, to string together glimpses into a clear vision. But I need help. Can you tell me: What makes hope real for you?

Image: the times.co.uk. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on December 9, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Halloween With Jewish Values?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on October 29, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat

Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”

halloween

I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.

There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)

All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.

Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.

We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.

Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.

And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.

For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.

Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share  or wish to.

Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day,  it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.

One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.

I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.

Posted on October 23, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Death and Rebirth: A Holocaust Complex

spy vs spyIf I lived alone on Planet Laura, I would stop writing about the Pew survey, in protest against unproductive, polarized debate.

But here I am, on Planet Earth inhabiting the body of a Jewish communal professional. So I’ll write something in protest, instead. And I’ll argue that, deep down, we are not as polarized as we think.

We’ve seen the first set of Jewish responses to the survey. Some writers prophesied the death of Judaism, and the fulfillment of Hitler’s project of extermination. Others denounced this view as evidence of a “holocaust complex,” and instead celebrated the multicultural reincarnation of Jewry in America.

Personally, I think we’ve all got a bit of a holocaust complex.

Keep in mind that the Pew survey offers a snapshot of the Jewish people. If you look closely, you see it is not a new image. Actually, it dates back to Torah times.

In Torah, quantitative census data only appears in stories about taxes and armies. But qualitative data, in the form of narrative, pops up everywhere. Jews do not believe in God. They marry non-Jews in great numbers. They practice religious syncretism – blending Jewish rituals with those from other religions. Moses brings them back into national religious particularism, and then they fall away again.

This WAS the Jewish people. This still IS the Jewish people. Here we are, 3,000 years later, still living out our pattern.

For Israeli Depth Psychologist Erel Shalit, the lives of all human beings express archetypal patterns. Human psychological growth revolves around a number of key motifs. One, he says, is the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”

Anyone acquainted at all with Jewish practice knows how important this archetypal theme is to Jewish self-understanding. Over and over again, we move from slavery to freedom; we move from exile to return. We often describe our history as a repetition of this pattern.

Clearly, this is a Jewish national version of the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”

Does the holocaust fit this theme?

Some postwar Jewish theologians argued that it does not: the holocaust is an absolutely unique event, too terrible to be held by any existing categories or concepts. But the writing of some holocaust era activists argues otherwise.

Zivia Lubetkin, a secular Zionist leader in the Warsaw Ghetto underground, sometimes felt herself shaped by the Exodus from slavery to freedom. On the first night of the ghetto uprising, she wrote, she visited a Passover Seder, and received a blessing from a rabbi.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a Hasidic spiritual teacher in the Warsaw ghetto, framed his experience in similar terms. During the war, he told his followers: We finally understand the Israelites’ despair under Egyptian slavery. We literally see Isaiah’s vision of Babylonia’s cruelty, and we can share his hope for restoration. Perhaps our oppression will turn out to be birth-contractions of the Messiah.

The “birth-death-rebirth” theme of transformation.

So many of us are caught up in it. As we should be: our last national near-death experience was less than 60 years ago. That’s not even a whole lifetime ago.

For some of us, life events have directed our psychic energy towards the slavery/exile side of the process. When significant events trigger our emotions, we describe what we see.

Some of us were shaped differently; we focuse on freedom/return. When we are triggered, we, too, describe what we see.

We are all engaged in the business of transformation.

We have no choice. In our former European population centres, we were one thing; in our contemporary Israeli and North American centres, we will be different.

Yes, our old identity is dying. Yes, our new identity is being born. Yes.

Slavery and redemption. Exile and return. Death and Rebirth.

It’s an archetypal Jewish framework for understanding our history; let’s use it well.

***

Image: http://maditsmadfunny.wikia.co. Cross-Posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on October 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A New Spiritual Comfort Zone: Reflecting on the Pew Study

diversityAs Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz says, statistics in the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs are wide open to interpretation. And different interpretations will lead to different responses.

94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Some interpreters will say that programs building Jewish identity have been successful; it is time to improve other facets of Jewish life. Others will insist we keep doing what works.

44% of married U.S. Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Some interpreters will suggest we try to reverse the trend, and focus on teaching a more exclusive sense of Jewish identity. Others will celebrate America’s multiculturalism and urge us to work in creative ways with diverse and unique families.

Really, the statistics are a kind of Rorshach test. Our responses to the statistics may tell us as much as the statistics themselves do.

Personally, I am fascinated by statistics about theism and religion. I came to these numbers with the belief that Jewish leaders need to develop more sophisticated approaches to spirituality. And I come away from them thinking that now is the time to act.

According to the Pew study, 72% of Jews say they believe in God.

What do the remaining 28% not believe in?

In a thoughtful, upbeat reflection on the study, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes:

Countless people tell me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Does that mean that they can’t relate to the old-man-in-the-sky image of God, especially after the Holocaust? No big surprise there. Most Jews can’t, myself included.

People tell me this, too; so many times it has become a platitude. Is this image really a deal-breaker in Jewish theism? I don’t think so. I do think that the phrase “I don’t believe in an old man in the sky” is a short, ready-to-hand, socially appropriate way to skirt a conversation about God, spirituality, or faith.

Unfortunately, we rabbis and teachers often accept these words at face value. We easily assume that many adult Jews have not moved beyond the first adolescent questions they asked about religion. So we tell them that mature Jews don’t believe in the “old man.” With kindness and warmth, we invite them to try adult Judaism as we know it.

Sometimes I think this is a self-protective move, because we are unprepared or afraid to step outside the Jewish discourse we know. Sometimes I think it is a patronizing approach, as well. Surely the life experience of these thoughtful adults has pushed them to existential reflection. Surely their challenges and yearnings have pointed them in many directions, not just towards questions about Divine authority.

Perhaps they do not feel held by a great heart of compassion, as Catholics might say.

Perhaps they do not believe that synchronicities in their life are glimpses into a prepared destiny, as depth psychologists might say.

Perhaps they have lost hope that humanity may be evolving towards greater justice and peace, as Quakers might say.

These are all components of faith, all aspects of what people imagine an effective God might provide, and all ideas that have (and have had) a place in Jewish discourse. If we see ourselves as spiritual teachers, it is our job to meet seekers where they are, not just to invite them to join us where we are. But to do so, we need a broader understanding of what faith means, and a web of threads connecting kinds of spirituality with concepts of God.

To gain this understanding, we may have to step temporarily out of our own comfort zone in Jewish religious vocabulary. Different religious and philosophical traditions emphasize different aspects of a soul’s life journey. Exploring those aspects may help us understand the hearts of the seekers who turn to us. Learning new concepts may broaden our ability to welcome diverse Jews into spiritual life.

We may find, in fact, that the question “Do you believe in God or not?” is an inadequate tool to gauge spirituality or even religious belief. Perhaps a broad spectrum of existential reaching, questioning and growing connects all 100% of Jews. And we, the so-called spiritual teachers, need to catch up with this reality.

We should not be afraid that this exploration will lead us –- or those we teach and counsel — away from Judaism. In fact, the Pew study suggests, now is a perfect moment to risk learning something new. For Jewish Americans, both multicultural comfort and Jewish pride are at an all-time high. Flexible spiritual guidance from open-minded, broadly-educated rabbis can only increase that pride.

Image: www.reflectingrunes.com. Cross-posted at www.OnSophiaStreet.com

Posted on October 6, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

So Now What?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on October 1, 2013

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This Yom Kippur Let’s Talk about Syria

I believe that pulpit rabbis have an obligation to frame issues of the day in a moral lens even when truth can be found on either side of an issue. Between a healthy respect for a separation between Church and State, a fear of alienating either the Left or the Right in congregations, and genuine humility (after all, he or she does not have all the answers), a rabbi could be left with little to say about the most important events. Some people like it this way; “rabbi you should stick to issues of spirituality.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Heschel responded to the silence of religion in the face of moral need. He said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by [people who hold this position]. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because, if you read the worlds of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.”
Says the Jew to herself, “On the one hand.” And she replies to herself, “Yes, but on the other hand.” Such equivocation is cultivated by the Jewish debate-style of learning, but it is not always laudable. Sometimes its dangerous.

It once happened that that an aggrieved Jew told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple. The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the Romans.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them, “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
The rabbis then considered killing the person who brought the animal, so that he could not go and tell the Romans that the Jews did not offer the sacrifice.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said, “We can’t kill that one person, even to save the rest of the people. People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” [In this case his piety made it impossible to act at all.](Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a).

In this famous passage, Rabbi Yochanan laments “the humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus.” Why? What’s wrong with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus? He’s pulled a classic, dare I say rabbinic, “on the one hand … on the other hand.” But, as Zekharya sees it, the sages are left with no ability to decide on how to proceed. At some point, as Tevye eventually discovered within himself in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” At some point, a position needs to be taken because real choices need to be made.

syria
Consider today’s topic: What should the US do about Syria?
Rabbi Heschel’s words regarding Vietnam forty years ago are just as relevant when we apply it to Syria today. Of course it’s a religious issue. What does God demand of us primarily? Justice and compassion. What does He condemn above all? Murder, killing of innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people… In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

I believe that there is a moral imperative for rabbis to speak about Syria, despite, no, because there is no clear right action. Who better to respond in a muddled issue than those who are specifically trained in the Talmud, a veritable encyclopedia of arguments from opposing moral positions. Even if the Yom Kippur sanctuary is not the forum for debate, it can be a starting place for thoughtful conversation.

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As a rabbi without a pulpit, it is easy to say what my colleague should do. So, let me take it a step further and wade in myself: It is my opinion that America should make a calculated but limited strike against known chemical weapons caches within Syria. I acknowledge that such an American response to Asad’s use of chemical weapons could incite greater instability in the region, and perhaps freeze our already chilly relationship with Russia. Still, in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we find ourselves, I prefer the stance that says, at some point – and chemical weapons are that point – we can no longer ‘stand idly by.’

Sure some will call this naive- “Intervention in Iraq, in Lybia, in Egypt did not work. We should not insert ourselves into another country’s civil war, especially considering that those in Syria prepared to fill the power vacuum may be even worse that Asad.” Some will consider it hypocrisy – “So the US got to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, but now nobody gets to?” Feel free to agree with me or to point out where I’ve got it wrong in your comments below, but with that, a position is staked and our conversation has begun.

When the Temple stood, the rabbinic inability to take a difficult if principled stand caused “the Temple to be destroyed, our sanctuary to be burned, and us to be exiled from our land.” If contemporary rabbis fail to take difficult if principled stands, we risk not the Temple or the land of Israel, but something more: Relevance!

Posted on September 10, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach

This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.

Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past PJewish-Star-and-questionmarkresident of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:

“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.

I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”

Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.

It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.

Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.

The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.

Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?

A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.

In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.

It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.

Posted on August 16, 2013

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When Goodness Transcends Boundaries

The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.

070314_irena_sendler_vlrg_8a.grid-4x2Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.

When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.

Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.

More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”

Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs.  Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.

Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice.  Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.

The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.

In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.

This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.

Posted on August 2, 2013

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Empathy for a Convicted Aryan Brotherhood Killer

Todd Ashker

If we fail to treat others, even the worst among them, humanely, than it is we who ceed the ‘moral high ground’, and the greatest values of our country will be undermined.

California Prison Blues (Johnny Cash is dead and he ain’t comin’ to play at Folsom)

I woke up this morning feeling empathy for an imprisoned, convicted killer, an Aryan Brotherhood member, Todd Ashker of Pelican Bay State Prison in California. What the hell is wrong with me! He’s a killer. He’s an anti-semite. And, he’s joined three other gang leaders in the prison to start a second hunger strike against conditions in the California prison system. 600 inmates have joined them. These are men who have tried in court and found guilty of killing innocent people – they shouldn’t get to dictate terms.

Still, the conditions in solitary confinement have long been under the scrutiny of our legal system. “Conditions in [solitary] may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in 1995.

Recently, Israel approved the transfer of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good-will before renewed peace talks begin. To be sure, these are some of the worst of the worst. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. It must be painful for families to watch the killers of loved ones go free. How can we let them go?

NetanyahuTo this Netanyahu said, “There are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of them.”

Guantanamo Bay opened way back in 2002. It became an international symbol for America’s failure to exercise due process, a bedrock of it’s own legal system. Five years later candidate Obama said we needed to shut it down. Then in January 22, 2009, soon after his first inauguration, he signed an Executive Order that was to begin the shut down of the prison. He said, “We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms.”

By his account, we have not reached the ‘moral high ground.’

Guantanamo

A Guiding Tale: In the worst cities that ever were, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, there was murder, rape, theft – and those were good days. Of the inhabitants of these two cities there was only one, just one righteous man who did not murder, rape or steal.

“Stop what you are doing. Don’t do that,” He would say to his townsmen. They would just laugh. Still, every day, he would go out and plead with them to stop the evil, and end the pain they were causing each other. Every day they would laugh at him.

After years and years of his appeals to their better selves and their laughing at this lonely morally grounded man, one brute asked the man, “Old man, why do you come out here and tell us to stop every day, when you must know by now that we never listen to you?”

“At first,” said the man, “ I kept repeating my message to try and change your ways. I continued to say them so that you would not change me.”

The President said of closing Guantanamo, that we would ‘win it on our terms.’ I understand that to mean that the United States of America would not be cowed by terror, that the hideous acts of terrorists would not change the character of our country. Twelve years after 9/11, we are still a country that is unsure of the balance of security and privacy that we are comfortable with.

The President said that we would “win on our terms,” but without due process, and without humane care – even in prisons for the hardest killers in the system – “We may be human beings, but we cease to be humans.”

In every case, perhaps especially those cases that draw on our anger and desires for revenge, let us not become what we despise.

Posted on July 30, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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