On Civil Discourse

sisters-fightingOne of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).

Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.

So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havrutaand Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.

After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”

A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first timeperhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.

Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"or "rabbi"  means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]

So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”

Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.

The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”

Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.

The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itselfthrough censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell youespecially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the traditioneven about political problems.

It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinionthere never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so onwe always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.

But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truthbut silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with youit is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.

Truthespecially big truthscannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrongwell, that way lies only death, and madness.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 18, 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 Prayer for the 3 Kidnapped Israeli Teens

Today, among the many other things you do in your busy life, pray for the safe return of three kidnapped Israeli teens:

shutterstock_101048548Naftali Fraenkel 16, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gil-Ad Sha’er, 16

Take a moment any time today to pray for Naftali, Eyal, and Gil-ad. You can add the 250 Nigerian school girls, and all children around the world that have been forcibly taken from their families.

If prayer isn’t your usual thing, it might not come naturally. So, here is a very simple prayer anyone can say today (please cut, paste, or forward it as you see fit):

Holy Blessing One, my heart is heavy with fear and sadness on behalf of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gil-Ad Sha’er. I am overcome by the worry of their parents, family, friends, and community. I pray too for the safe return of all children around the globe who have been taken from the loving embrace of their families. Let them be safe. Let them be reunited with their families—alive. Let me feel safe and appreciative of those in my life. Let us all feel the safety of our connections. Amen.

What does it mean to pray for an outcome you have no direct control over?

  • Prayer changes the person praying. To pray means an expression of empathy. It means to hold these children in your heart and mind. To feel or imagine their fear and their family’s pain.
  • Prayer means a cultivation of hope. To pray means to hold on to hope, to keep alive possibility, even remote possibility of a positive outcome.
  • Prayer changes the Universe. For outcomes that are not certain, we keep open the possibility that our sentiment, does indeed effect the universe. In religious language we speak of a flask of tears—our prayers—that God collects. God, the “Rock” is actually shaped by the drip-drop of our collected tears. We change God in the unspoken but clear language of our sincerity. In more “scientific” terms, we are conscious that every action, every molecule effects its surrounding. In that sense, we are all connected. When we pray, we hope to be part a movement that changes outcomes for the better.

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Posted on June 17, 2014

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3 Cognitive Science Books That Teach Jewish Ideas

Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? Why doesn’t everyone share our same beliefs? And why is it so hard to be happy?

These are questions that are integral to the field of cognitive science—the study of how and why we think, feel and act the way we do. But what’s interesting is that so many of these questions have links to Jewish thought and practice.

As someone whose shelves are overflowing with books about cognitive science, and who often integrates these findings with Jewish teachings, I want to share three books that teach Jewish ideas.

The Honest Truth About DishonestyThe (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

Let’s be honest, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us. We all cheat. You cheat. I cheat. But we don’t do it because we are bad people. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as good people, so we tend to “fudge” things just enough so that we can keep that self-perception. So not only do we cheat, we also lie to ourselves about our own cheating!

But of course, lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism. We are taught: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor,” and “You shall have honest scales and measures.” (Lev. 19:13 and 19:36) Since Judaism tries to teach us how to honest and ethical people, it’s crucial to understand how and why we end up missing the mark. Ariely’s work gives an insight into what encourages—and even more importantly, discourages—cheating, in the hopes of building a more just society.

The Righteous MindThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There’s a reason politics and religion are generally taboo topics for polite conversation—if you feel strongly about your political or religious beliefs, you just can’t seem to understand how people on the other side can be so stupid. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that a large part of the problem is that we think of religion and politics as being about “right” versus “wrong,” and when we phrase the question that way, it actually becomes “us” versus “them.” As he says, “Morality binds and blinds”—morality creates a more cohesive group of “us,” but it also keeps us from seeing other perspectives and the needs of “them.”

That creates a real challenge edge for the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a religion, but a people. There definitely is an “us” when we think about the Jewish people. But a sense of universalism is central to Judaism, as well—when we think about Jewish ethics, we tend to think about at the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Haidt’s book helps us to understand where morality comes from, and how we can grow the sense of who we consider to be “one of us.”

Stumbling on HappinessStumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Which would you rather have happen: win the lottery, or become a quadriplegic? Most of us, without even a thought, would pick the first, because we think that winning the lottery would make us happy, and becoming a quadriplegic would devastate us. But how many wealthy people do you know who are actually miserable? And how many people who have suffered a tragedy are actually fulfilled in their lives? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that we are very, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and that’s because we have a “now-self” and a “future-self”—and they are not always the same self.

Judaism, too, lives with this tension of the present and the future. We both envision a time when the world will be at peace, but we have to do the actions here and now that will make that happen. Or at the High Holy Days, we dream about the kind of person we will become, but recognize that it’s our day-to-day actions that will make us that person. Gilbert reminds us that our “future-self” soon becomes our “now-self,” so we have act in ways that help us bridge that divide.

Ultimately, the reason I love cognitive science is that is helps us better understand who we are and why we act the way we do. And so I believe that if we use the best of science and the best of religion, we can make our own individual lives more fulfilled, and our world a little better.

These three books have been instrumental for me—what books have had a surprising influence on your Judaism?

Posted on June 12, 2014

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Guns Are Out of Control

gunsI recently spent some time at a gun range in a class that provided an introduction to guns. During my class I was shown how to safely hold and fire a pistol, a revolver, a rifle, and an AK47. I’ve always been quite good at fairground rifle ranges, picking up a few prizes in my teens. I have to say that I enjoyed the target practice, and it was quite exciting to have the opportunity to learn how to fire these guns. I’d go back and do it again. My instructor was professional, and at the end asked if any of us was interested in taking further classes to obtain a gun license, but there was no propaganda and no hard sell.

While I was there I observed many people coming and going, the majority of them middle-aged husbands and wives, stopping in for some target practice. I asked my instructor how many people who belonged to this school bought their own guns vs how many simply used the considerable selection available in the school. He estimated that about 70% probably had their own. This in a state with very strict carry restrictions. These guns are meant to remain unloaded, in a locked cabinet at home. They are brought in a locked case to the gun range. They are opened up on the range, then loaded and fired. Yet 70% of the people coming back and forth felt the desire to buy one or more guns of their own. I was struck by how much potential risk was being introduced into so many lives by that one statistic. Guns that might be accessed in a marital dispute. Guns that might be played with by a child who accidentally injures themselves or a friend. Guns that might be picked up in a moment of suicidal despair. Guns that might be stolen in a burglary and sold on the black market to other criminals.

There are an estimated 270-310 millions guns owned by citizens in the U.S. A quick glance at The Gun Report indicates how many of the thousands of incidents of gun violence a year fall into one of the above categories. Guns are clearly a sensitive topic of conversation in the USA. There’s plenty of room for debate about precisely what kinds of actions or laws could be effective or should be enacted. But 74 school-based shootings after Newtown, one thing seems clear – gun violence in the U.S. is out of control. When, instead of figuring out how to reduce the amount of gun violence in our society we appear to be resigned to a new reality, instead creating bullet-proof blankets for children to hide under in their schools, it’s well past time to stop the insanity and take another look at our assumptions.

While there are some contributing factors to this that are more complex to define and solve, there is little question in my mind that some universally accepted and enforced gun control and registration process would be at least a step in the right direction. It’s not only a pragmatic thing to do; it’s also the Jewish thing to do. Centuries before guns had even entered the imaginations of those who sought to exert power and control over others through violence, Jewish thinkers had already applied the wisdom and ethics of our faith tradition to consider what kinds of obligations we had to mitigate the potential harm that the existence and ownership of dangerous things could cause to others.

We see this concern first expressed in the Torah itself, with regard to building a house:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]” (Deut. 22:8).

Rabbinic commentary on this verse extrapolates from this that we need “fences” to provide some additional protection from anything that could cause harm to another, to ensure that we don’t accidentally come to cause blood to be spilled. The text doesn’t ban flat roofs, but it does emphasize our obligation to take necessary precautions. Applied to the context of guns, this certainly provides a solid basis for thinking about all the things we could be doing to minimize the danger that guns bring into our homes, our schools, and our communities.

From the Talmud, we find another teaching that, when extrapolated, seems to go further:

R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text (Deut. 24:8), “You shall bring not blood upon your house.” Talmud, Bava Kama 46a

If we think more broadly about the application of the proof-text quoted from Deut. 24:8, we might conclude that we should not knowingly bring into our homes things where there is a high risk that they will eventually cause harm to someone. Certainly there would be some who would make the case that by keeping a gun at home they could prevent the bloodshed of their family were an armed attacker to enter that home. But for that to even be a likely scenario, that gun would have to be kept, unsecured, immediately accessible, and loaded to do someone any good. And in the meantime, that is a deadly weapon that is sitting around each and every day that is far more likely to end up causing harm to those same loved ones. Other commentaries on this talmudic teaching suggest that it is ok to own a dangerous dog if it is kept chained up at all times. This would bring us back to the need for incredibly secure gun safes, with ammunition kept equally safe and separate from the gun, being a requirement of gun ownership.

There are additional references in rabbinic discussions in the Talmud that prohibit the sale of weapons to those who are believed to want to cause us harm (Avodah Zarah 15b; YD 151:5-6). The application of these teachings would certainly support the idea of universal background checks and the kind of licensing and tracking of gun purchases that might truly have an impact on the ease with which criminals can obtain guns.

Like many, I am heart-sickened by the daily reports of more deaths by gun violence. I believe that we have the ability and the obligation to enact some changes to our laws and our culture that would make a real difference. I see no responsible, ethical basis for the recent stories we have heard of some States and localities moving in the opposite direction. When will we say “enough”?!

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 11, 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

Requiem for a Suburban Shul

How do you close a synagogue? This is the question I have been confronting for the past few months as the shul I have served these past two years edged closer and closer to our final Shabbat this past weekend. I offer the following reflections of what I fear will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.req2

Once we concluded that it was no longer financially feasible to remain an ongoing synagogue, we—our board of directors, led by our President, our staff, and myself—made sure that we would move forward with transparency and dignity.  We sent a letter to all our congregants informing them of our situation and that we wanted to hear from them.  We gave them three options: 1) merge with another existing synagogue; 2) downsize to a small space and eliminate our overhead, including our religious school staff, and try to keep on going as a Havurah; or 3) close down and help members transition to new synagogues. After numerous conversations, it became clear that the vast majority of our congregants preferred option 3.

We spoke with a local Reform synagogue and a nearby Conservative one to apprise them of our situation and coordinated open houses so that our members could see what Shabbat services were like at each. We did not push affiliation at either venue but encouraged our members to make their own decisions, based on their individual needs, and to let us know once they did so we could keep the community in the loop. Once people began to make some decisions, we held a synagogue-wide meeting so that we could acknowledge the emotional trauma of closing down; let people know what others were thinking; and answer additional questions people had about the process going forward.

I also felt that it was important that we finish off our synagogue year with integrity. Though morale was low, our indefatigable religious school director and I made sure that we carried forward with our curriculum, including various innovative end-of-year events, and didn’t let talk about who was going where seep into our students’ in-class conversations. When the media got wind of rumors about our troubles—before any final decisions had been made about our future—we reiterated again and again that we were open and active through June and would get back to them if and when any final decisions were made. We also spent a good deal of attention planning for a Bat Mitzvah that was set to take place a week before we closed; focusing on the joy of this life-cycle event was a bulwark against the pessimism of our impending closure. We arranged for our three Torah scrolls to go to happy new homes, arranged for our Yahrzeit plaques to go to another synagogue where Kaddish could be said annually, and invited our congregants to come reclaim items they had donated or items that held personal resonance for them.

As we drew closer to our closing, we thought it best to have a farewell Shabbat service. We invited current and past members to attend, catered a Kiddush, and held a lovely tribute service.  We honored various groups with aliyot, from our founders to our teachers to those who cooked and cleaned for our events. We had our Bnai Mitzvah alumni help lead the Torah service and had our current religious school students end our service with a rousing Adon Olam. I also gave time during my sermon for people to share their memories and say their farewells. In my final address, I did not shy away from the sadness I, and many others felt, at our inability to live up to our potential. But I also thought it was important to acknowledge all those who had sacrificed so much time and treasure to make this a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, these past fifteen years.  And I ended with a kernel of hope, suggesting the metaphor of a supernova:

“Kol Ami [the name of our synagogue] is like a supernova. A supernova is what happens when a star dies; it is an explosion so bright that it blocks out everything else around it. Similarly, sadness from Kol Ami’s closing is all we can think about right now, overwhelming us from finding anything positive to express. But the remnants of a supernova explosion, the elements that emerge after the explosion cools, form the very particles needed for the creation of new stars and planets.  Just as our world could not have been formed without a previous star exploding, it is my hope and prayer that we will take precious remnants from our history at Kol Ami and use them to form new planets of Jewish existence and engagement in the coming years. Every end is also a new beginning.”

The closure of any synagogue is tragic for its congregants and a loss for the broader community. While we have found new homes for most of our families, I worry about the empty-nesters in our midst who don’t want to start over with a new shul but yearn for the fellowship of the community they have come to enjoy. I also fear that our shul closure is the proverbial canary in a coal mine alert about the prospects for observant Jewish communities in suburban and exurban America.  But by attempting to close our shul with mindfulness and derekh eretz, I hope that we at least were able to mitigate some of the pain and anguish our congregants experienced.

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Posted on June 10, 2014

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The Talmud Says: Embrace the Selfie

MabelNormandWe are the “selfie generation.” Don’t let the epithet unsettle you. According to leading sociologists, we are not the first to be self-obsessed.

American “baby boomers,” born from 1946 to 1964, are the “Me Generation.” Old surveys of eighteen-year-old boomers reveal that their most important goal was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” They created a “culture of narcissism,” said sociologist Christopher Lasch, obsessively consuming self-help books and seminars. Instead of looking out for others, they looked inside. To me, this seems a wee bit over-critical. If you were born right after millions of people killed each other for no good reason, wouldn’t you wonder about life’s meaning?

More recently, American “millennials,” born 1982 to 2004, have been called “Generation Me.” On comparable surveys, eighteen-year-old millennials identify “being very well off financially” as their most important goal. Sociologists criticize them for valuing money, image and fame over concern for others. In their defense, if you grew up at a time of successive world financial crises, wouldn’t you hope for personal financial stability?

We can’t help but be shaped by our time. We are, after all, historical beings, born into cultures. Spiritually, the historical self is our starting point. Our search begins with the concerns of our society. In that sense, we are all part of a “me” generation.

The famous revelation at Mount Sinai, articulated in the Ten Commandments, starts with the word “I,” anochi. At Mt. Sinai, says a famous midrash, the Israelites heard that first word “anochi” – and promptly passed out. No one but Moses heard the rest of the commandments we find in the Torah. What’s that about?

According to philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, God personally connected with each individual consciousness in the fullness of love. That connection was the revelation. All the ethical rules represent Moses’ interpretation of his experience of Divine love, in light of his concerns as a nation-builder. Divine love is available to every generation; they articulate its meaning through their historical concerns.

The surveys I’ve cited, from the American [College] Freshman project, are a snapshot of one demographic: college-bound young adults at age eighteen. Respondents are just beginning to know the historical “me” out of which a responsible life mission might arise.

For seventeen years, I taught philosophy to college students, including baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Yes, in keeping with the temper of the times, I used a “me” approach. What experiences made you say “wow”? Which of your life stories hold your most meaningful moments? How will you earn a living with integrity? Through journals, group discussion, and listening with a fullness of connection, we explored these concerns. We approached timeless ideas through personal perspectives and, in so doing, broadened our perspectives.

This is how it works: we get to know big ideas through our little consciousness. The inner life of the soul is our only gateway to higher perspectives. We start with self to transcend self. So says the Talmud, in a poetic comment on Psalms 103:5:

About whom did King David [author of the Psalm] say five times “Bless the Lord, O my soul” ? He said it about the Holy One of blessing and about the soul. As the Holy One fills the whole world, so also does the soul fill the whole body. As the Holy One sees and is not seen, so also the soul sees and is not seen. As the Holy One sustains the world, so also does the soul sustain the body. As the Holy One is pure, so also is the soul pure. As the Holy One dwells in the innermost chambers, so also does the soul dwell in the innermost chambers. Let the one who has these five things come and praise the ONE who has these five things (B. Berachot 10a).

Go ahead, says the Talmud, embrace the selfie. A snapshot of you is a fine starting point. Knowing your self leads you to know God. So, study your self well. Recognize your generation’s concerns; know that they will shape the religion and spirituality of your time. Explore the way you personally reach for spirit; see your lens, and see through it. Do it all with an attitude of praise, i.e., with humility, gratitude, and wonder.

Posted on June 10, 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

Talking about Rabbis

Yesterday, during preparations for the graduation ceremony for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I caught a glimpse of the glow on the face a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi. It was magical. In my mind’s eye I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks 27 years ago when I received the title “rabbi” after 5 intense years of learning at RRC. Mazal tov to this year’s new “rabbis and teachers in Israel”!

rabbi parking

But yesterday’s rabbinic becoming/ordination also hit me with some worry. The role and significance of rabbis in progressive Judaism is shifting, and the changes are happening more rapidly than many of us can easily absorb.

In today’s unfolding reality, the fastest growing non-Orthodox American Jewish group is unaffiliated Jews. While denominational attachment is diminishing, the mainstream movements and their member congregations are struggling. Rabbis are wrestling with this reality, working to craft new approaches to their leadership to meet shifting needs.

Rabbis devote their lives to Torah and the Jewish people out of love. Just as Moses struggled with the formation of his leadership for a frightened, searching, sometimes confused and frustrated people in the wilderness, so too do rabbis walk through this wilderness.

A friend who has given considerable time, money and leadership to synagogues and his national movement—and a long-time supporter and booster for rabbis, was just telling me about a congregation he enjoys visiting that does not have a rabbi. It has a “spiritual leader.” They are not alone—non-traditional leaders, with various titles and training, are becoming more accepted.

Independent rabbis who help individuals, couples and families are increasingly in demand. Jews still want to do Jewish—but as the Pew report highlighted, many are looking for different types of relationships with spiritual leaders. Filling this void, many “officiants” advertising in the marketplace have not had the depth of learning and professional training that rabbis have attained. Everything’s changing.

We are about to celebrate the holy day of Shavuot, placing us back into the wilderness with our ancestors, when, as one united people, the people of Israel experienced revelation. Their response, “na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen,” shored up their relationship not only with God, but with Moses, their leader.

Moses found the inspiration and support to lead in the changing reality of the wilderness. So can we, if we take a reflective stance as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. This is about the future of American Judaism—a vitally important communal conversation. This Shavuot, let’s hold that inspiration close, climbing the mountain and returning with faces aglow with God’s holiness, alive with new possibilities.

Posted on June 2, 2014

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Like Ruth, I’m an Immigrant

shutterstock_171174860I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).

That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.

You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.

But you’d be wrong.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.

Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.

As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,

“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers:  Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes  out of the heat of the  Israeli summer.  And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have  found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”

Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.”  He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”

I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.  (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).

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Posted on May 28, 2014

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An Israel Parade for All Who Love Israel

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parade2On June 1, tens of thousands of Jews will flock on 5th Avenue to participate in the 50th annual Celebrate Israel Parade. This year, perhaps more than ever, this is a parade not to be missed.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York is the organizer of the parade. In recent years, the parade has been marked by controversy because of the participation of left-wing groups such as B’tselem and the New Israel Fund that some on the right viewed as insufficiently pro-Israel.

In an effort to thwart conflict this year and affirm that everyone who participates in the parade is, in fact, celebrating Israel, the JCRC had all groups who are marching sign a pledge that they “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and will not include “political, divisive or inflammatory” statements on their banners or other marching props. One might think that this pledge would be enough to make everyone feel comfortable that all those participating in the parade are supporters of a Jewish and democratic Israel. From my perspective, this is a valiant effort by the JCRC to adopt a big-tent approach to pro-Israel engagement.

Sadly, though, in this era of internecine squabbling, the pledge is insufficient to some right-wing Israel supporters. Critics of the New Israel Fund and other progressive Zionist organizations are pulling out of the parade and planning to protest these groups’ participation.  For example, Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Upper East Side’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue penned an open letter in which he wrote that his congregation will abstain from marching unless these progressive groups are disqualified from participating. JCC Watch already organized a protest outside the NY Federation.  Another rabbi recently equated the JCRC’s big tent approach with Nazi appeasement.

The problem for these folks is that the progressive Zionist organizations have, in the past, had ties to organizations that support the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) Movement which seeks to inflict diplomatic and economic punishment on Israel. So even though organizations like the New Israel Fund themselves are opposed to BDS, the claim is that they nevertheless should be ostracized from pro-Israel gatherings because of their past associations.

Israel has enough actual enemies without having to imagine new ones. From the threat of a nuclear Iran to the consequences of another failed peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel needs as much positive support as possible. When organizations are willing to sign a pledge saying that they support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I say, dayeinu. Israel is big enough to include those on the left and the right among its supporters. So let’s put aside the sinat hinam (internal discord) and march together this June 1st, signifying through our words and our actions that both the left and the right can and should embrace Israel.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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Does Interfaith Dialogue Work?

1024px-Concert_"Flamenco_et_Soufisme"_(IMA)_(4431396219)I ask this question often, in one form or another. And often, people answer with a cynical “No.”

A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”

A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”

An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”

A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”

A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart:  “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”

Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.

Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.

Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.

In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.

In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.

In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.

In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.

I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.

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Posted on May 26, 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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