Jewish Learning Beyond New York: Jewish Learning Everywhere With @OpenSinai

When I was in my final year of rabbinical school I had a remarkable opportunity to spend a weekend in a very small Jewish community in the deep south. It was a beautiful experience with a warm and engaged community and yet I left understanding that there exists a profound inequality of resources and access to Jewish opportunities depending on geography, ability to travel and other factors. I had spent most of my formative Jewish educational life in New York City, one of the largest hubs for rich Jewish learning and growth. I was fortunate to have access to some of the top educators anywhere in the Jewish world. This is not the case for many Jews throughout the world.

An example of a class

An example of a class

What can we do to address this inequality gap? Thankfully with constantly improving technology and the emergence of an entire e-learning sector there now exists the opportunity to put forth a Jewish digital learning platform that is uniquely a Rabbis Without Borders experience. The learning experience will merge Jewish wisdom in all of its depth with openness and pluralism. The educators will be borderless, coming from all walks of life and life experiences. The technology will enable seamless integration of multimedia and real time conversation not just one-directional from the educator to the students but between the educator and the students and between the students themselves.

It is precisely because Rabbis Without Borders pushes its rabbinic participants to think in new ways and to conceive of new tools for bringing Jewish wisdom public that this project is beginning to bear fruit. I was so fortunate to be in the second cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders program when Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield urged us to consider the blending of technology with tradition and to reflect on the egalitarian access to learning that new media can provide.

It is therefore with great excitement that I am able to share the beginning of a new initiative: OpenSinai.com.

opensinai logo

OpenSinai.com is about offering Jewish learning everywhere. It is not about blog posts or articles but about facilitating real-time classes utilizing the best in digital learning technology that allows for meaningful conversations. No matter whether someone lives in the heart of New York City and is looking for a radically pluralistic borderless Jewish learning space or lives in a small community in the Midwest and is looking for Jewish enrichment, OpenSinai.com aims to provide those classes that fills that need.

We are in the beginning stages of the project and each week brings new developments. Visit the website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and join our e-mail list to get the latest updates and find out when the first classes will be live. If you are an educator thinking about what it would mean to teach in this new space find out more on the website. If you are thinking about this project let us know what you think and get involved and help make it a reality. Let us continue to close the gap between big Jewish centers and Jewish communities throughout the world so that the small southern Jewish community I visited several years ago and all Jews everywhere can grow and deepen their spiritual, religious and intellectual lives.

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Posted on August 15, 2014

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

Can I Pray in the Name of Jesus?

healing hands

Although he has now healed into death, I prayed for the recovery of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, for many weeks this summer, folding into my daily practice a prolonged chant of Moses’s plea on behalf of leprous Miriam: Ana, El, na, refa na la. Please, God, please heal her.

Just a few months ago I was with Reb Zalman as he chanted the morning liturgy accompanied by whirling Sufi Dervishes, this, in itself, an ecumenitical healing. Now, as I mourn and review what my teacher has taught me, I recall my own first experience collaborating in prayer across religious modalities and dogmas.

It was the second week of my residency in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and looking over my shoulder as I scanned my patient census, our department chair noticed a patient had identified as a member of the Church of Christ.  She offhandedly pointed to this patient name and said: “You’ll want to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I probably blanched visibly, most definitely not wanting to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, wondering what I was to do if this was the expectation?
I headed to the neuroskeletal surgery unit with trepidation.

There, I visited with Ruth, recovering from numerous spinal fusions. When I asked about her experience, she explained, smiling: “Jesus is filling in my cracks!” This reminded me of a story the Integrative Medicine doctor Rachel Naomi Remen tells about her final therapeutic session with an oncology patient wherein she returned to the patient a picture he’d drawn at their first meeting, of himself as a broken vessel. She asked if, now, these many months later, he’d like to emend the drawing in any way. The patient picked up a yellow crayon and drew rays of light pouring out of the cracks.

My patient was deeply moved by this story and we spoke of what it is to be filled with supernal light, and how that seems even more possible when one is broken open. Ruth said that when we’re sick we need a healing God and I saw that she was able to visualize God healing her as God filled her with Presence.

Then Ruth told me she’d never met a Jew, and asked if I spoke Hebrew. Could I pray in Hebrew? I said yes, and that we could pray Moses’ biblical words of supplication when his sister Miriam was so very sick. Oh yes, she would like that, and could I hold her hand?

So I chanted Ana El Na in the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s haunting melody… And in the intervals where I was accustomed to hear members of the community intone names of those in need of healing, Ruth began to murmur and then call out: I see you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Baby Jesus!

I smiled to myself. Here we were, collaboratively praying in the name of Jesus Christ and I had not sublimated my identity or compromised my theology. Rather, Ruth’s completion of my prayer to her own satisfaction had deepened my part in the mitzvah of healing the world.

Ana El Na, Aryeh Hirschfield, as sung by Hannah Dresner

Posted on August 14, 2014

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The Tragedy of Comedy: What Good May Come of Robin Williams’ Death?

I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”

Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.

Robin Williams - Depression

Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.

As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.

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Posted on August 13, 2014

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The Audacity Of Celebrating Happiness

"Robin Williams Canada". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robin_Williams_Canada.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Robin_Williams_Canada.jpg

We Jews are great at gathering together in times of crisis, but how often do we get together to celebrate joy? This was the illuminating challenge a mohel offered at a bris I recently attended. And it rings true. We are doing a tremendous job of rallying support for Israel solidarity gatherings during Operation Protective Edge. Jews of many religious stripes make a point to show up to services on the High Holy Days, where we sit for hours in solemn reflection, penitence, and apprehension. Perhaps largely due to the recurrence of tragedy and persecution in Jewish history, we have learned to do sad well.

But where are Jewish audiences on Simhat Torah, a day dedicated to rejoicing at arguably the most important feature of Judaism—the ongoing engagement with the Bible?  How often do we get together with friends or relatives to celebrate milestones and accomplishments?  As I plan a birthday party for my daughter, I wonder when it became fashionable to stop having birthday celebrations as an adult. As I begin a new position this summer, I wonder why we only commemorate the end of past jobs and not—Linked In notifications aside—rejoice communally at new ones.

I write this post with Robin Williams’ death weighing heavily on my mind. Though I never met him, I feel like Mr. Williams was a big part of my life. As a Gen Xer, I grew up with Mork and Mindy, Comic Relief, HBO specials, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam (at the risk of dating myself, if you happened to miss the 80s, I highly recommend you download the above). His talent was so breathtaking, his wit so lightning-fast, and yet so heartfelt and genuine, that I often found myself laughing so hard I didn’t realize I was crying as well. His comedic virtuosity was “manic, uninhibited, seemingly barreling along on an arbitrary stream of consciousness but actually arranged carefully around subject categories: drugs, politics, sex, marriage, fatherhood, among the many.” Later, he managed to play off of this exuberant, hurricane-in-a-bottle ability by taking on subdued roles. As the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott put it in this obituary, “Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting.”

WIlliams’ ability to mine comedy from tragedy, to inspire and encourage, was not only his signature talent but also his biography. He was plagued by addiction to cocaine and alcohol, watching his close friend—and fellow comedic giant—John Belushi die of an overdose.  He also was thought to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, which might well explain his apparent suicide.  But Williams somehow refused to let his mental health, marital, and other problems obfuscate his prodigious talent.  He used his personal demons as fuel for his stand-up routines, showing the courage to discuss mental illness and addiction when few comedians did. He helped raise millions of dollars in his charity work.  And he showed that a comic doesn’t have to demean or insult others to bring a smile or a laugh.

So today, despite the tenuous cease-fire in Israel/Gaza, despite the general mayhem that continues to unfold in the Middle East, despite the ebola outbreak in Africa, despite the immigration crisis in America, despite the global crisis that is global warming, and on and on, I am going to take time out to listen to Robin Williams, zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing). I am going to gather my family together tonight and we are going to laugh, heartily and with gusto.  And in his honor, I am going to dedicate myself to seeking opportunities to celebrate happiness and gratitude in the coming year.  I hope you will join me.

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Posted on August 12, 2014

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Holy War: What Would Moses Do?

dove-gloveJoshua, Moses’ trusted assistant, has exactly three spoken lines in the Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Torah.

After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”

When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”

When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)

If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.

The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.

But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.

On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.

In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.”  Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).

Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).

Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.

Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.

What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.

Posted on August 11, 2014

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Removing the Veil of Denial on Anti-Semitism

Morris County NJ Israel Rally, August 7, 2014

Morris County NJ Israel Rally, August 7, 2014

Growing up, my favorite day was the annual Israel day parade in Philadelphia. It was a celebration of belonging and identity. We sang Israeli songs with pride, waving our Israeli flags. The crowd converged on Independence Mall, celebrating at the cradle of American democracy. In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Jewish pride was “in,” and it felt completely American.

I never felt unsafe publicly demonstrating Jewish and Zionist pride. Until I experienced an incident as a young rabbi in the small mid-western town where I served, I had never personally encountered anti-Semitism. I was fortunate to grow up in a region and a time where we could be fully American and Jewish.

Jews in America enjoy unprecedented acceptance and empowerment. Yes, pockets of anti-Semitism still occasionally pop up. In 2002, my New Jersey congregation was directly targeted, a frightening experience for all of us. But still, it felt to me that the outbreaks of irrational hatred could be overcome with the friendship and support of our Christian neighbors who would stand with us against hatred, as they did in both of my personal experiences.

I have invested my life in advancing positive Jewish ideas and experiences, shying away from any narrative that rests on the notion of remaining Jewish to defeat 2000 years of hatred. Joyous Jewish pride has remained my driving force.

This summer, my optimism, or call it denial, has been dented. There are very frightening and distressing stories of resurgent and violent anti-Semitism coming out of Europe. This is a serious crisis.

Still, I felt personally separate from that reality. Then last week, I realized that even in here in northern New Jersey, we are not immune. Sadly, the convergence of anti-Israel sentiment and Judeophobia has tipped the scale.

At a recent local  “support Israel” rally there was huge police presence, including two county “command center” police trailers and horseback police patrol. This spoke volumes; we could not be safe without their protection. Thankfully, there were no problems. Was it because the event was only strategically announced and not advertised, out of concern for security? Anti-Semitism wearing the mask of Anti-Israel has come to threaten us.

I found myself returning to a recent Moment Magazine symposium, “Anti-Semitism: Where Does it Come from and Why Does it Persist?” (March/April 2014.) It’s helpful, but the desire to understand is insufficient. We must pour our energies into building bridges of relationship and understanding with many groups. First, invest in Jewish internal dialogue, so that concerns about Israel do not infect Jewish unity and strength. Second, our ties with Christian and moderate Muslim neighbors and friends are essential for turning back the tides of hate.

This is no time for hysteria (have you too received emails and seen posts of this nature?) But the veil of denial must also be avoided. The moment to address this crisis is here.

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Posted on August 10, 2014

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Beep, Turn the Page.    

When I was growing up, I used to listen to records of GI Joe or Sci Fi stories that came with an accompanying book. The reading was punctuated by a high pitched beep that cued the listener to turn to the next page. It always seemed forced and artificial. Whether or not you have a chance to finish the words yourself, let alone take them in and reflect… It’s time to move on. Not that GI Joe vs. the String Bean Monsters from Outer Space was likely to require much rumination…but still.

These past few days, under much more serious circumstances, I have felt like I have been listening to one of these records. Seven weeks of bloodshed… of anguish over Israeli teens abducted and murdered, heartbreak over the brutal slaying of a boy from East Jerusalem, terror of rockets and fragments showering down on Israeli cities, despair over faces and names of Palestinian men, women, and children getting lost in both the sheer number of victims and the knowledge that the ordinance that took their lives was aimed at a cruel and deadly foe that hides underground and plots the death of as many Jews as possible. And after all these days of violence, a cease fire that lasts longer than 24 hours. Beep. Turn the page.

And yet, even with uncertainty about the significance of the current hiatus and with great certainty that the bigger story is far from over, there is something comforting about the forced and artificial cue to move on.

After all, this very concept is built into the structure that underlies Jewish time. The last three weeks the conflict paralleled the darkest period in the Jewish calendar and the day the cease fire began to take hold was Tisha B’Av, the fast to relive the sorrow of Jerusalem’s fall and the brokenness that endures in the world. However, our tradition teaches that even before this darkest of days is over it is possible that the messiah has come into the world. And the next Shabbat is the occasion of Nachamu, the comforting words of Isaiah promising that the night ends and peace will dawn. Beep. Turn the page.

Three weeks of decreed darkness, capping months of terrifying bloodshed, now gives way to seven weeks of consolation. Seven weeks that lead us to Rosh Hashana and its promise of a brand new year of possibilities. The Shofar sounds. Beep. Turn the page.

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Posted on August 8, 2014

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The Other Cries of War and Peace

About me: I’m a judicial officer. I’ve served on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and as counsel to my state Senate. I earned one academic degree in international relations, a second in public law and a third in public policy, and I’ve taught graduate law and policy courses. Even so, in my current role, judicial ethics bar me from publicly discussing most political issues. As such, this Jewish spiritual leadertrained for and steeped in public affairscan’t publicly discuss the Mideast’s blow by blow. For talk of peace plans, war crimes, two-state solutions, one-state solutions, human shields and human pawns in Mideast politics, please look elsewhere.

Freed from adding my political voice to the Mideast cacophonyand given that most of us don’t readily absorb perspectives challenging what we already believe about the Mideastmy focus here can only be spiritual. So, in good rabbinic tradition, I’ll tell a story.

At bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, clergy typically say nice things about young adults stepping into tradition. When I became bar mitzvah, I received a surprise. As I sat in front of my family and friends assembled for my bar mitzvah, the rabbi told them that, a few weeks earlier, he’d watched me punch another kid in the face. My blow broke the kid’s nose, which flowed with blood. For emphasis, the rabbi repeated the punch line: I broke the kid’s nose and his face flowed with bright red blood. My teenaged face must have turned bright red to hear this story, at my bar mitzvah, from my rabbi.

The rabbi’s point, he continued, wasn’t that I punched a kid or even that I acted in self-defense. What most got the rabbi’s attention was that he saw me cry while I delivered the knockout blow.

We’re called to cry when we cause pain. We’re called to cry for the fact that causing pain can be necessary in an imperfect world. We’re called to cry for the pain we inflict. We’re called to cry that we ourselves cause pain. We’re called to cry for the humanity of anyone who receives our blow.

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Modern culture seems conflicted on crying. Once society held that “real men don’t cry,” but now some romantics seek “men who aren’t afraid to cry.” Some tears are bitter, but “laughter through tears” is a Steel Magnolia’s favorite emotion. Tears connote vulnerability; and often the real issuethe risk in cryingis the vulnerability and inner authenticity that tears depict. That’s one reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanahto simulate if not stimulate tears (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33a). On the other hand, often we judge an action wrong if it brings tears: in Hillel’s famous words, what is hateful to oneself, don’t do to another (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

War is different, we’re told: “all’s fair in love and war.” It’s military gospel that waging war requires objectifying and dehumanizing people as “targets”: otherwise, most would find it impossible to fight. To be blunt, if purveyors of war let themselves cry, they might not be able to wage war or send others to battle. Psychologists understand this phenomenon in two ways. The first is social identity theory, by which we unconsciously tend to define ourselves by group affiliation. Even if groups are artificial (the classic experiment concerns color war teams at summer camp), in-groupers learn to dislike and even detest out-groupers, subconsciously deeming them inferior. The second, as Milgram’s classic experiment depicted, is conformity: we tend to defer to authority and view ourselves as conformist instruments of their will. Together group identity and conformity can reduce one’s sense of moral responsibility for behaviors that harm others. Such, in a nutshell, is the psychology of war.

Lest we cast scriptural tradition in more pious terms, even the Bible depicts war as psychological dehumanization. Steeling the Israelites for the military challenge of conquering Canaan’s peoples, Torah records God to instruct, “You will smite them. You will utterly destroy them … and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). No mercy, no tears.

But if Jews must fight, Judaism asks more than merciless steel. To the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), it was the Israelite slaves’ very “cry” under the weight of bondage (Ex. 2:23) that began the road to liberation – so Jews must cry for others, for Jews once were slaves in Egypt. One who steels oneself to another’s tears will “cry and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Even amidst destruction, the gates of tears never close (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a). And one mustn’t glorify another’s demise: at the Egyptians’ defeat at the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked the celebrating angels: “My children are drowning and you sing praises?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b).

Fast forward to 2014. At the moment of this writing, Mideast missiles stopped flying for now, but cries for war and peace continue to resound across social media, newspaper editorial pages and Cairo cease-fire talks. Meanwhile war’s innocent victims cry plenty.

But how about the tears from the rest of us, safely distant from the war zone, who either cry for war or cry for peace? If we defend the current Mideast violence, do we shed tears for its victims, or do we objectify them as out-groupers for whom suffering and death somehow are less tragic? If we condemn war’s spasms, do we shed tears for the grief that preceded it, or do we take moral refuge behind the price of war as if the status quo ante bellum caused no tears of its own? In short, are we crying the right tears of war and peace?

Crying isn’t enough, of coursethe Mideast needs far more than our tearsbut spiritually we each begin where we are. A Jew who throws a punch or advocates throwing one, but doesn’t cry for its resulting pain, misses Judaism’s higher calling. Conversely, a Jew who withholds throwing a necessary punch, or condemns throwing one because it would cause pain, might be no more justified because right action sometimes causes hurt. We dehumanize ourselveswe become less capable of moral choiceswhenever we steel ourselves to pain we cause or decline painful acts that are necessary.

As a judicial officer I can’t take public sides on Mideast politics. But this much I can say: one who sheds no tears for victims of war has no right to advocate war, and one who refuses to cause necessary pain doesn’t know what real peace is. Those are truths for all of life’s battlefields – home, work, school, synagogue, family, everywhere.

And as for war and peace, if more of us cried the right cries of war and peace, then maybe soon there’d be less to cry about.

Posted on August 7, 2014

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 Time to be Silent and a Time to Speak

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?

shutterstock_134525732Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or  have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?

There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak.  And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.

When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.

Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.

As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.

Posted on August 6, 2014

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What Should Your Rabbi Talk About?

Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right.  Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.

imagesWith seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.

“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”

“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy?  Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”

“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”

“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”

“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.

Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.

When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.

Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ”  -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).

As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”

Posted on August 5, 2014

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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