I Am No Soldier: Do We Have An Obligation To Serve?

To me, “father” and “soldier” are almost antithetical words. My 89-year-old parent was an English professor. He taught Shakespeare. His world was (and still is to a certain extent) a man of theatre, books, film and intellectual banter. A hammer and a screwdriver were dangerous tools in his hands. His mind was much stronger than his muscles.

But my father was indeed a soldier. He served in the South Pacific for three years as a sailor on a Mine Sweeper. Like many from his generation, he did not speak much about his service during World War II. His stories had more to do with the salamis his mother sent him, escapes to hiding places to read and sea sickness, than they did with battles, blood and death.

Slowly, just because I was tenacious in my curiosity, did he begrudgingly tell of his brave Captain who saved his life through a Monsoon; or the times that his ship morphed into a hospital unit; or his relief in learning of American victory so that he might return home.

“Didn’t it affect your life? Weren’t you scared? Did you ever think you would die”?, I would ask. “I didn’t think about it that way. That is what we all did. There was no other way,” he would answer as a matter of fact.

My teenage brain could not understand. I needed more. Finally, he told me that six months after he returned, while getting ready for Shabbat dinner, he burst out in a deep cry for a half hour. He wiped off his tears and went to have dinner with his family. He didn’t remember processing the reaction with his parents. “I guess I needed to let it all out somehow and that was my reaction. I have never thought much about it since,” he told me.

Needless to say, as we commemorate Veterans Day this week, we are a nation so exhausted from almost fourteen years of war. As much as we try to extricate ourselves from battle, there is no clear end in sight. We no longer send ALL of our children to serve and I wonder if we have lost our connection to the “soldier’s narrative.” My father’s generation didn’t think they were anything special because they were all obliged to serve our country. It didn’t matter if you were made to be a soldier or not.shutterstock_115514704

I am as opposite of a soldier as my father was in his day. But in a strange way, I long for his time when service was not an option. He grew up faster. He understood obligation to others sooner. He learned to navigate a complicated world before he graduated college.

We don’t know the soldier’s story today because we are not asked to serve ourselves. During this week when we honor those who fight on our behalf, I think it is our obligation to know the America whose stories are too often hidden. And, it is time that all of us think about service of all types. Many of us are not cut out to; or inclined to fight as soldiers, but we live in a country crying out for us to serve in a variety of ways which can help us become whole.

Posted on November 12, 2014

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Hopefulness at the General Assembly

As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each yearand today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.Future Compass

At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.

When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.

There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?

Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.

While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”

Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worrywe are a people of hope.

To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.

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Posted on November 10, 2014

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Jewish Identity: Asking the Wrong Question

shutterstock_186371471I have been thinking a lot about Jewish identity recently. How do we define our own connection to Judaism? What unites us and what divides us? In what ways do the modes we use to define ourselves become off putting for someone exploring the Jewish community? These are tough questions and with no easy answer. Yet, there is one thing we could begin doing that would make a big impact.

All too often when we are meeting a new person in the context of a Jewish communal event (e.g. college Shabbat dinner, Jewish young adult group, etc.) our question is: What kind of Jew are you? Are you Reform? Are you Orthodox? Do you affiliate with a particular type of synagogue? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of attempting to determine how a person Jewishly identifies, we should want to know how they do Jewish. This point was made to me recently by a colleague. As a community we have become too focused on how a person is Jewish and not on what they do Jewish.

This focus on the how is strange considering we are traditionally a religious community defined by our actions more than our beliefs. We are commanded to perform mitzvot. In fact, there is a well known midrash, rabbinic homily, that has God declaring that in a choice between rejecting belief in Him and forsaking the Divine commandments, rather the people keep the commandments. What we do becomes more important than what we believe.

Creating more opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement that focus on doing Jewish can become a catalyst for further involvement in the Jewish community. Avoiding the questions of Jewish identity can create safe spaces for people to be who they are while still embracing a full spectrum of Jewish actions. The time has come to stop asking how are you Jewish and begin to invite people to do Jewish.

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Posted on November 7, 2014

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God Likes a Counter-Offer

crucibleWe criticize Abraham for not voicing protest of God’s horrific demand that he sacrifice Isaac. Yet, ultimately, Abraham did counter the command by substituting a ram for the boy.

I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.

I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.

By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.

Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.

The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”

Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.

What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.

And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4

The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5

1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.

Posted on November 6, 2014

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Have We Forgotten Yitzhak Rabin Already?

RabinLast night I sat among 850 supporters of Israel and its Israel Defense Forces at the annual Friends of the IDF dinner here in Metro Detroit, Michigan. I attend this event each year and last night was not much different than past events. I was moved to tears watching the video screens and hearing about young Israelis who had to overcome difficult personal challenges while serving in the Israeli Army to defend the Jewish state. I listened as one young man, now an attorney in Israel, thanked a local Detroit family that sponsored him so he could attend law school after the army despite both of his parents being unemployed due to serious medical problems. He, like so many Israeli professionals, had to leave his job over the summer when he was called up from reserves to serve in Gaza.

There wasn’t a single person in the large synagogue social hall last night who wouldn’t identify as a strong supporter of Israel. There were hundreds of Israelis in that room last night who had served in the IDF and emigrated to Detroit. There were also many Americans who had volunteered to serve in the IDF or who are related to Israelis who had served. There were families who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Friends of the IDF to build army bases and classrooms and fitness centers throughout Israel. Like me, I’m sure, all 850 of the men and women in that room remember precisely what had happened in Tel Aviv nineteen years earlier. It was on November 4, 1995 that the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist. And yet there was no mention of that day.

Rabin’s assassination was my generation’s JFK assassination. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. It was a beautiful, sunny Shabbat afternoon. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were standing outside my AEPi fraternity house when someone told us that there was a rumor that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot dead. CNN was already showing video footage of the peace rally in Tel Aviv where Rabin’s life was taken. As my fraternity brothers began returning from the afternoon’s football game (I hadn’t attended), I told them the news. We were all shocked. As a leader at my university’s Hillel, I was asked to speak at several community vigils the next day. I was called by newspaper reporters asking for my opinion on the assassination and whether it would end any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was my first experience being interviewed at a TV news studio. I had always been a Zionist, but November 4, 1995 made me, and so many of my peers, feel closer to Israel than ever before. I began researching ways to return to Israel that summer.

So much has happened in the 19 years since that horrible day. Israel has endured more terrorism, fought more wars and has yet to mend its internal fractures. As Americans went to the polls yesterday in our midterm elections, so many of us refused to check our concerns about Israel at the door. We take them with us into the voting booth. We discuss the candidates’ positions on Israel and the Middle East.

I’d like to think that last night’s omission of the anniversary of the Rabin assassination was just an oversight. We memorialized all of the victims of terrorism and all of those men and women who lost their lives while serving for the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin was an IDF general long before he was a politician or a statesman. For me, I will never forget November 4, 1995. I pray that we continue to honor the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. To forget his contributions to the State of Israel would be an assassination to his legacy.

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Posted on November 5, 2014

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What Can Zionism Teach Us On Election Day?

GI_voting_in_GuantanamoToday likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.

This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.

So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.

I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland.  The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable.  But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up.  Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations.  Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully.  After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!

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Posted on November 4, 2014

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The World’s Most Contested Religious Site

temple mount

photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan

“The world’s most contested religious site.”

So says the New York Times about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, claimed as a sacred portal between heaven and earth by both Jews and Muslims. Jews say it is the site of the Temple where the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to meet the Divine presence. Muslims say that here the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to speak with God.

Currently the site is controlled by an Islamic charitable trust. Jews may visit, though few do. Rabbinic authorities worry visitors might accidentally trespass on the Holy of Holies. Non-Muslim visitors to the Mount are forbidden to pray there. Several activist Jewish groups contest the law. When tensions rise, as they did last week, violence and tragedy rise too.

About a year ago, amid earlier stories of tension, my husband Charles and I wondered: is the Temple Mount a place of historic resonance, strengthened by cultural stories? Or is it also a mystical place that calls people to deep connection?

We were Israel-bound, so we planned to visit.

Early on our chosen morning, we set out on foot for Jerusalem’s Old City, entering at Jaffa Gate. We paused by the information booth. The booth was not yet open but a map was posted. Unfortunately, the section that says, “You are here” was rubbed out.

We approached a police officer. “How do we get to the Kotel (Western Wall)?” we asked, knowing that the Temple Mount entrance was there. “It’s closed now,” he said. We knew he was jokingthe wall is open 24/7but we did not laugh.

At the Kotel Plaza, the normally overcrowded women’s section was empty. So, I asked Charles for five minutes. As I ran in, my right hand ripped a corner off a notebook page. My left hand fumbled for a pen. I scrawled a very short prayer to press between the stones: “?”

Just past the plaza, a long line of people stood by a weathered wooden bridge leading upwards and into a wall. “Announcement and warning! Entering the Temple Mount is a violation of Torah law,” proclaimed one sign. “No religious artifacts or symbols allowed,” proclaimed another. Conveniently, a locker with no lock stood waiting to hold anything deemed inappropriate by the guards.

At the metal detector, the security guard checked our American passports. “Yoush?” he asked. Perhaps he was making conversation; perhaps he was asking, “Are you Jewish?”

We had read about the site’s hours in advance: the Temple Mount is open to visitors four hours a day, ending at 10:00 am. At exactly 10:00 am, guards outside let the last visitors in. And exactly at 10:00 am, guards inside ask all visitors to leave.

That day, Charles and I were the last two people allowed to enter.

We crossed the wooden bridge, walked through a narrow indoor gate and WOW!

Everything opened onto a hidden expanse: a huge open-air park with two mosques, an olive grove, paved walkways, and broad steps. We glimpsed the splendor of the original Temple. We felt the holiness vibe; a funnel of light flowed down from heaven. We merged into the sky.

The magic lasted about 90 seconds.

A man waved his walkie-talkie at us. In heavily accented English, he said, “You have to leave.” He said it again and again, as if it were the only English phrase he knew. No one could argue with him; his only response was, “You have to leave.”

People paused by the gate. A few left, but most lingered. A feral cat hopped out of the wall.

We joined a Spanish-speaking tour group that seemed to have permission to stay. With them, we meandered respectfully along the courtyard’s back wall to another gate. No one wanted to leave. Everyone lingered.

“Exit!” said the guide, in Spanish. “It’s time!”

Through and just outside the gate’s narrow tunnel, the guide paused his group, describing Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount. We walked through the circle of people; out to Via Dolorosa; then we took a right, a left, a right.

And found ourselves completely lost in the Old City streets. Sunlight did not reach these cobblestone alleys, but local shoppers didseeking socks, phones, toasters, and conservative Muslim-style dresses, in bright colors with fashionable details. Deep in this maze, we were the only tourists.

Suddenly, we grasped the magic of the Temple Mount from below. Out of a crowded, dark web of city life, eleven hidden gates open onto the mountain’s light. The Temple Mount is a numinous place. One ascends through the fabric of every day life to a different consciousness, to the spacious possibility of divine-human encounter.

Back home, we prayed:

May Jerusalem’s factions find a way of multicultural co-existence. It could be one shared answer for all, or a compromise that makes space in different ways, and at different times, for different claims.

May this holy space not be seen as a symbol for all political tension. Rather, may it be known as a place charged with spiritual energy; one that calls out to seekers, and is big enough to welcome all who come in good faith.

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Posted on November 3, 2014

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A Bat Mitzvah Hand-Me-Down

BatM_1I wore a white eyelet dress for my 1971 bat mitzvah. My mom bought it at a discount shop on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side while visiting my grandparents there. First, it was my mom’s dress, purchased for my brother’s bar mitzvah two years earlier. I made it mine by changing the color of the bow.

I was not embarrassed to wear a hand-me-down; I didn’t expect more.

When my kids became bar/bat mitzvah, expectations were different. For some girls there would be a new dress for the service and another for the celebration, and more dresses for each celebration they attended, many of which were similar to lavish weddings.

Our family consciously chose a different path. We worked to honor bar/bat mitzvah’s celebration of Jewish learning and values. It was not easy, but it was right for us, and we were not at all embarrassed.

But recently I did feel a tinge of embarrassment when my husband told me about a conversation with a colleague who asked his advice for her middle school-aged daughter. Her immigrant family was encountering bar/bat mitzvah for the first time. She didn’t know what it was about or what she should do. What kind of gift was customary? Did she really need to buy a new dress for her daughter each time, as she’d heard?

My husband advised her to give modest gifts unless they were close friends, and not feel pressured into buying multiple dresses. It pained me that this sacred event, celebrating a universal life passage, boiled down to this: money, clothes and fancy parties.

What does this mean to us as Jews? With so much of Jewish religious life focused on bar/bat mitzvah, what happens to the transformative power of Jewish living for all ages?

I wish that my husband’s colleague had been exposed to different questions: How does being Jewish enhance our humanity? How does Jewish belonging root our lives in compassionate community? How do Jewish values give purpose to our lives and meaning to our existence?

Think of what we could accomplish if bar/bat mitzvah were celebrated, not with gifts, but with tzedakah funds to feed the hungry. What if our resources helped send kids to Jewish camps where fun Jewish experiences create lifetime memories for meaningful Jewish living? What if we invested in innovative Jewish learning for all ages, so that Jewish knowledge can continue to transform lives? What if we structured the “event” on learning and meaning?

This critique is not new or unique. But with the growing number of Jews disconnecting from synagogues, alarm bells should be sounding. It is time for change. If we celebrate and laud families that make values-based choices, we can support each other in shaping Jewish life passages that would make our ancestors proud – along with us. That’s a real hand-me-down!

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Posted on November 1, 2014

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The Jewish Duty to Vote

Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?

shutterstock_180372209This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”

In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective actions that democratically accountable governments make possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.

While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.

Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?

This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?

These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.

These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.

Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.

First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.

Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.

What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).

While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.shutterstock_147175274The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.

Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.

This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.  This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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When the Medium Came for Rosh Hashanah

I’ve never actively sought out or consulted with a medium, or anyone who made claims to be able to communicate with those who have crossed over. But on this week, following up from my colleague Tsafi Lev’s piece yesterday on the possibility of spirits of the dead communicating with us, I’d like to share the story of what happened to me the first year I led a Rosh Hashanah service.

The Witch of Endor

The Witch of Endor

Now, I should preface this story with the knowledge that, traditionally, Judaism has been quite clear that we should not consult with mediumsthere is a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:31). At the same time, we have the dramatic story of King Saul (I Samuel, 28), who had himself banned such people from his Kingdom, consulting in secret with the Witch of Endor, to get one last piece of advice from the prophet Samuel, at that time deceased.  What I find fascinating about both the biblical prohibition and the story in Kings is that, while we may not seek guidance in this way, our tradition clearly recognizes that such a thing is possible and that people who have the ability to communicate with the other side exist. Whatever you believe to be true, there’s certainly a rich history and folklore in our tradition on this subject.

So, back to my story. I was a student rabbi who had just started my first year of rabbinical school. I was contributing to the High Holy Days at a synagogue in northern England. On the second day I had been asked to provide a less formal, creative service that would appeal to families with children, and so I was on the bima taking the lead for that particular morning. About 20 minutes before the end of the service, I noticed a middle-aged blond woman in business attire enter the sanctuary and take a seat. I thought it a little strange to arrive so late in the proceedings, but being a visitor to the community I had no idea if she was known to others or not.

When the service came to an end, a number of people came up to me but most of the congregation quickly moved toward another room for the Kiddush. The blond-haired woman approached me and the first things she said was “I have a message for you.” Her eyes fluttered and the tone of her voice changed, and she proceeded to share a message that had less to do with who might be doing the communicating, and more to do with where I was in that moment in my life and the decisions that I knew lay before me. They were framed in such a way that, as I listened, I was drawn in and fascinated by what was unfolding before me, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism that this might be a con and it was easy enough to make my own connections between the words she shared and the situation that I was applying them to. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but as I was trying to decide, she snapped out of the altered state.

Speaking quite normally, she explained that she was driving by the synagogue on her way back from a business meeting. She didn’t know this was a synagogue, but she received a strong message to enter the building. So she pulled up, sat down, and knew she had to wait until the end of the service to speak with me. She told me she didn’t control when these messages came and that she had learned just to be the messenger and those that she delivered messages to would figure out what they meant to them.  I asked for her business card (which did not list her as a Medium), thanked her, and she promptly left. I went to join the rabbi and the congregation at the Kiddush, and didn’t say a word of any of this to any of them. It felt very surreal.

I’m still not certain what I experienced that Rosh Hashanah of 2001. I wrote and thanked the woman, but never had any further interaction or communication with her. The words she shared with me that day were words that I heard to be of direct relevance to the fork in the road where I felt that I was standing at that moment in my life. I don’t know if I would say that she helped me choose which fork in the road to take, but when I made my choice, her words echoed in my mind, providing reassurance that I had made the right one. A Medium or a Messenger? In Hebrew, the latter is a malachwhich we more typically translate as “Angel.”

I’m no more certain today than I was then of what is true or what is real. But whenever anyone approaches me with,

“Rabbi, I have a story, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me…” I’m ready to listen.

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Posted on October 29, 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