The Devil You Know


“Balaam and the Angel,” painting from Gustav Jaeger (1836).

For all of Torah’s miracles large and small, the story of a talking donkey who sees an angel is perhaps Torah’s most magical and childlike narrative. In its words lurks a profound secret that touches (and challenges) the core of our adult sense of good and evil, right and wrong.

Parshat Balak is named for a king who sends his mystic holy man, Bilam, to curse the ancient Israelites en route to the Land of Promise. God doesn’t want Bilam to go, and sends a series of mishaps for Bilam’s journey. Bilam stubbornly insists on fulfilling Balak’s command, so God uses diversions to turn Bilam’s heart – not to curse the Jews but to bless them.

Our story picks up in Num. 22:22, “God’s anger was kindled because [Bilam] went, and God’s angel positioned himself in the way to inhibit him.” First only the donkey Bilam was riding saw the angel, sword in hand. The donkey turned aside: Bilam hit the donkey, so the donkey squeezed himself against a wall and crushed Bilam’s foot. Bilam hit the donkey again, so she dropped and trapped Bilam. After Bilam hit her a third time, the donkey spoke to Bilam (that’ll get his attention!) and lo, Bilam saw the angel in his way. Bilam’s eyes, heart, journey and mission instantly transformed.

Remember Torah’s words: “God’s angel positioned himself in the way to inhibit [Bilam].” In Hebrew, Torah’s word “inhibit” connotes “redirect” or “be adverse.” Torah’s word is לשטן – to Satan.

Yes, that Satan – a word today connoting the devil, evil, God’s foil, Superman’s Lex Luthor – the opposite of angelic.

shutterstock_87086534The original Jewish Satan, however, is no such thing. God’s angel stands against Bilam to redirect him for good according to God’s plan. That’s the original Jewish Satan – an angel of divine redirection. Centuries later, Satan re-appeared as God’s loyal prosecutor, as in the Book of Job – still standing against, but for a holy purpose. This loyal prosecutor, in turn, became in Greek diabolos (“accuser”), whose legend evolved into the Christian understanding of a diabolic devil thwarting God, let loose by the Fall of Man in the sin that sullied humanity’s mythic pristine state in the Garden of Eden. Islam, in turn, narrates in the Qur’an the one angel (Iblis, or Satan) who refused to bow before Adam in the Garden: God expelled Iblis from heaven, and Iblis vowed to oppose God by tempting souls and populating “hell” with them (Qur’an 7:11-18). These Christian and Islamic views of Satan came full-circle into medieval Judaism, which absorbed them in midrashim imagining Samael (Satan) as the snake who tempted Eve (Sforno Gen. 3:1), a bad boy who tempted Noah to drink (Genesis Rabbah 36:3; Midrash Tanchuma, Noach), and a guardian of gehinnom (“hell”). The devil of pitchfork infamy was born.

The Satan of Jewish thought, however, is not the “devil” but God’s angel who blocked Bilam’s way on a journey opposed to God’s will – the holy power of divine redirection, things that don’t work because they shouldn’t, blocks appearing on roads we shouldn’t travel. Rashi, the medieval commentator, called Bilam’s Satan an “angel of mercy,” come to redirect Bilam from sin (Rashi Num. 22:22).

The Jewish idea of Satan invites us to surrender our egoic sense of stubborn control to ask: Does an obstacle suggest a higher purpose for my journey? Does a roadblock mean I shouldn’t travel this road? How might it feel to see the confounding opposition in our life as a malach (angelic messenger) whose message I need – maybe precisely because I don’t want it? How might it feel to have my eyes opened to see this profound cosmic reality hiding in plain sight?

Satan doesn’t ask us to retreat automatically from challenge – but does ask us to open our hearts, minds and eyes to the possibility of divine redirection for good. That’s the kind of “devil” we all ought to know.

Dedicated to students in my ALEPH Ordination Program intensive summer course on Jewish angelology in the textual and mystical traditions.

Posted on July 2, 2015

Why We Should Separate Civil and Religious Marriage. And Why We Shouldn’t.


Same sex marriage is now the law of the land. The Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Obergefell v. Hodges  was a landmark decision, bringing to a climax decades of activism and organizing. The movement for marriage equality slowly spread over the nation as court decisions and ballot initiatives gradually legalized same sex marriage throughout the states. And while there is much more work to be done to fully realize LGBT equality in this country, this decision will surely be looked upon as a major milestone.

I personally celebrate this decision. Rooted both in my commitment to civil rights and my approach to Jewish text, tradition and interpretation, I have long been a supporter of same sex marriage. When the battle was being fought in the statehouse and on the ballot in my home state of Washington several years ago, I was active on the issue, testifying in front of the State Legislature and serving on the referendum campaign’s “Faith Cabinet.”

As we see in response to the decision, same sex marriage garnered both support and opposition from religious communities. And that points to a larger issue: with no other communal institution in our country are church and state so tightly bound. When rabbis or other clergy perform weddings, we are more often than not also serving as agents of the state. State governments empower clergy to serve as civil servants for this one act, and our signatures on marriage licenses carry civil legal authority. (Performing baby namings and funerals do not empower us to sign birth and death certificates, on the other hand.)

But is this right? It is this dual authority—religious and civil—that allowed clergy to have an important voice in the arguments around same sex marriage.

Yet at the same time, we see civil servants who are religiously opposed to same sex marriage seeking protections from not participating. This is taken to a greater degree when it is intimated, and often codified in law, that religious leaders would not be coerced into officiating at same sex marriage. On the one hand, these protections are unnecessary, clergy could always refuse to officiate at a union—an intermarriage, for example—if it violated their religious principles. On the other, these attitudes point to the deep interconnectedness and conflation of civil and religious marriage.

Posted on July 1, 2015

Transforming our Curses into Blessings


In (and out of) synagogues, campuses, JCCs, summer camps and religious schools, people are developing opinions about hot-button issues. As a rabbi, I am painfully aware of how fraught discussions of Jewish identity, inclusion of interfaith couples, same-sex religious ceremonies, and Israel/Palestine can be. All too often, our communities erect a tense wall of silence around these issues. On many sides of the debate, people advocate for themselves on either side of this wall without the ability to truly see whomever is on the “other side.”

Too often, when people advocate around these issues, being empathic is regarded as compromise. Jewish communities must work against this reality to engage with everyone, regardless of their stance on these issues, in order to help people become resilient listeners to the Other, expand our narrow national discourse around these issues (most notably around Israel/Palestine) while thoughtfully dismantling ideological echo-chambers on both the right and the left, and to cultivate empathy in the Jewish communities in which we participate.

This week we read about Balaam — a strange sorcerer known for his powerful spells — who is promised power and wealth in return for cursing the Israelites when they are encamped in the desert. King Balak instructs Balaam to go to three different locations, hoping the view from each spot will inspire Balaam to be able to carry out his task. Each time, Balaam blesses the Israelites, despite Balak’s mounting fury. The third time he declares what the sages agree is his most potent blessing, the famous words that we recite each morning as we gather as a community for prayer: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael — How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).

Part of what makes these words so powerful is that they arise from a moment of true empathy with the Other. According to Dr. Aviva Zornberg, “[F]or the first time…[Balaam] becomes an I addressing a you [the Israelites], in direct speech.” This is a moment in which Balaam chooses empathy in the face of challenging circumstances. In this moment, he sees the Israelites, exhausted from their wandering in the desert, gathered in their tents. From his hilltop view, they look weak, insignificant. It would be so easy for him to utter a curse and finish them off. But his heart bravely drops into the valley to beat with them and their struggle. Their tattered tents are transformed, in that moment, into a mishkan (God’s dwelling place).

Posted on June 29, 2015

Robert E. Lee is not Moses

Confederate flag

What does the rebellion of Korach against Moses have to do with the Confederate flag? Korach is a close relative of Moses who refuses to acknowledge his leadership. Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Moses challenges Korach to a sacrificial duel: whichever incense offering is accepted by God will indicate who is to lead Israel. In his anger Moses announces that Korach and his followers will be swallowed up by the earth, never to be seen again.

That is exactly what happens. The only artifacts left of Korach’s rebellion are the incense pans. God declares them to be holy and the Israelites are ordered to melt them together to form ornaments for the Tabernacle – as a permanent reminder and symbol of Korach’s rebellion.

As someone raised in the South that does have a hauntingly familiar ring to it. I attended high school in Central Virginia (not Northern Virginia thank you!), where the textbook pictures of the Civil War portrayed men in gray, where we went to school on Lincoln’s birthday (it was that long ago) but were given a holiday on (Robert E.) Lee (Stonewall) Jackson day. The Confederate flag flew as a symbolic remembrance of the War of Northern Aggression.

The question being asked by many today can be reframed in a Jewish way: If Korach’s rebellion was to be remembered for centuries by the incense pans of his aborted attempt at dominance – why can’t the Confederate flag be flown for similar reasons?

There is a major difference. Korach’s pans were placed in the holiest place of the victors as a reminder of the rebellion. It was a sobering symbol that people thirst for power in inappropriate ways. The Confederate flag remains a symbol of the vanquished – and is used as a symbol to keep alive the values and practices of slavery and hatred. The flag is divisive and culturally toxic.

It didn’t need to be that way. The flag could have been used as a sobering reminder of what happens when siblings cannot resolve their differences through democratic process. Too many people died for the hatred to be fanned by racist descendants who lack understanding of the issues and use their anger to destroy. If need be let there be one Confederate flag flown in Washington D. C. – at the Lincoln Memorial. All others must come down and with them all other symbols that enable this dynamic to continue.

Posted on June 28, 2015

Painful Hope

Ali Abu Awwad and Hanan Schlesinger

I had no idea that the day I met Ali Abu Awwad would signal a radical turning point in my life. Until that faithful juncture I had never ever met a Palestinian as an equal. As a soldier at a checkpoint – yes, I had had brief encounters with them. As a homeowner inviting laborers to come to paint or to fix the plumbing – yes, I had welcomed them into my home. But never had we met simply as human being to human being.

Hearing Ali speak – followed by many conversations with him – and meeting so many other Palestinians as well as Israelis who had ongoing friendships with them, cracked open the hard shell that had surrounded my soul. The human contact helped to melt away misconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes. Through a process of reading and thinking, I begin to re-examine so much I thought I knew about Palestinians, about the Israeli Arab conflict, and about my own Zionist self-understanding. Today, although very much still a work in progress, I am a transformed human being. The partial truth of the Palestinian narrative has carved a little niche in my heart and my mind, sharing space with its older brother, the partial truth of my Jewish Zionist narrative and identity.

Ali, my mentor and “rabbi,” always says that when he was younger he used to carry the burden of his nation on his shoulders. Today, however, he carries the burden of both nations on his shoulders. And they are very heavy. Now I carry those two burdens as well.

Ali has given my hope, hope for reconciliation and peace. But it is a painful hope. Painful, because the process of reconciliation means learning that you and your side are not completely right. There is truth on the other side as well. And painful, because peace requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of some of your truth and some of your ideals and cherished dreams.

But there is yet another reason that hope for peace on the tiny sliver of land that both nations call home is painful.

We say at the Passover seder “in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us.” It is as if built in to the fabric of Jewish existence as it plays itself out in this universe. That is the way it is meant to be. It always was like that and always will be, until the era of final redemption. Our conflict with the Palestinian is just one more layer in the age-old Jewish fate. And so we accept it. We grit our teeth, and plod on with a certain satisfaction that we are an authentic link in the chain of tradition. We are one with our forefathers, suffering what we are supposed to be suffering.

And that’s comforting. Even empowering in a certain sense.

But now I see things differently. I see our blunders – and those of the Palestinians – that have brought us to where we are today. I see the mutual blindness, insensitivity, and insularity that are part and parcel of this conflict. I see the fear, the competition of suffering and the culture of victimhood that are preventing us from leaving the past behind and working towards a better future.

I see that things don’t have to be as they are. They could be different. But while hope has been born in my heart, it is a painful hope, because now I know that all this suffering did not have to be and need not continue. It can be different. We can change it. And that is such a heavy responsibility.


Note – Ali Abu Awwad’s book, Painful Hope, will be published in Arabic in 2016. Shortly thereafter, the English and Hebrew editions are scheduled to be published.

Posted on June 26, 2015

Why Are Joy’s Eyes Blue?

blue eye

My wife makes fun of me when we watch Pixar movies, because whenever I see Up or the Toy Story trilogy or Monsters, Inc., I need tissues handy at the end — even if it’s the 12th time I’ve seen it. So when I went to see Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, I brought my tissues, and I definitely needed them. Yet what made this movie unique is that it also helped me understand why I laugh and cry…and why I often do it at the same time.

The story of Inside Out mostly takes place inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she navigates a difficult move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The main characters are Riley’s emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear — which guide her decisions and often compete with one another for control of her brain.

One of the biggest challenges that faced Pete Docter, the director, was how to portray abstract emotions in a concrete, visual way. And there’s something rather interesting about how the five emotions appear.

Fear is tall, thin, looks like a frayed nerve and is purple. Not only that, his eyes are purple, too. Anger, which looks like a brick and is red (and sometimes flaming), has red eyes. Disgust, who is green, has green eyes. Sadness, not surprisingly, is completely blue, and even looks like a teardrop.

But Joy, who is mainly yellow, has more than one color in her. She has blue eyes and blue hair. Why?

Well, if blue represents sadness, then the message is clear: there is no such thing as “pure joy.” Instead, even in our most joyous times, there is often sadness mixed in.

In fact, that’s a very Jewish idea. After all, one of the most joyous moments we can experience is a wedding, but it ends with the breaking of a glass to remind us of the destruction of the Temple and that our world is still broken. In other words, even at our highest moments, there is always a little sadness in there.

But the comfort is that reverse is often true, as well — sadness can sometimes lead us to joy. Think about how you feel after a good cry. When you cry, your body is releasing endorphins, chemicals that often make you feel good. And that’s why a funeral and a shiva minyan — some of the saddest moments we can experience — are often filled laughter and love. Friends and family members are sharing stories of their loved one, and so are bringing a little bit of joy into these moments that seem so low.

Posted on June 25, 2015

I Desperately Want to Know…I am Not Just Asking


I was a 16-year old. My father (56), my younger sister (12) and I were walking home from the movies on a Saturday night along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. As we were discussing the film we had just seen, we were “jumped” by two young men.

Out of pure instinct, my father wrestled the much younger man who attacked him. The attacker couldn’t fathom the resistance he received, so he emphatically yelled to his partner, “Cut her!”

I looked to my right and sure enough, the young man’s partner held a 10-inch blade to my baby sister’s neck.

My sister pleaded, “Please don’t kill me.”

I desperately yelled, “Pop, he has a knife to Rachel’s neck. Stop!”

My father got a hold of his emotion and pulled back. The man kept the blade at my sister’s neck for another minute. It felt like an eternity. They withdrew, with my father’s whole pants pocket ripped away; his wallet; and our breath. We survived. To this day, I can recall that memory as easily as I can any in the cycle of my being.

The entire episode lasted minutes, but the flashbacks have lasted throughout my years. I review the images and can’t help but to see how things could have been tragically different.

If I had a gun, I would have used it in an instant.

There is a famous Talmudic text, which teaches that we can’t understand the Truth we reject until we actually internalize and teach that Truth like it is our own. Looking back at that night in Brooklyn, I am able to put myself in the shoes of someone who believes the opposite of what I believe. I don’t believe in owning a gun, but I understand why people would want to exercise that right.

I believe in the depth of dichotomy. I have learned volumes from the wisdom of the dialectic. I know the diverse contours of our Nation call for different needs from different types of people. We are all entitled to our point of view. But, given the sleepless nights our country has experienced this past week, I beg from others only what I am asking from myself: that is, simply to engage in a complicated, civil conversation, without running for cover from “dug-in” positions. There is simply too much as stake.

Posted on June 24, 2015

Founding Father

Photo credit: Scott Newirth

Correction: The report of Rabbi Lerner’s retirement was greatly exaggerated.* T&V was celebrating his contributions to the Jewish People that will–I am grateful to say–continue into the future. Everything else I wrote in tribute to my mentor remains true.

* * * * * * *

The announcement of Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner’s retirement does not merely evoke nostalgia as I recall the months I spent with my mentor in my final year of rabbinical school. I absorb the news reluctantly –reflecting on the impact Rabbi Lerner made on my life and the lives of countless Jews by Choice — because I’m forced to admit his retirement marks the end of an era.

Before Rabbis Without Borders existed, Rabbi Lerner exemplified our mission of meeting people where they are, sharing Jewish wisdom with them and helping them find their place among the Jewish people. Rabbi Lerner is a natural teacher; he motivates his students to ask any question and explore every answer. He honors the individuality of each person he meets and engages each student personally. Decades after the end of my internship with Rabbi Lerner, he remains a role-model and mentor to me. Thanks to his guidance and good humor, I discovered my strengths and challenges as a teacher. Only now can I appreciate his influence: my passion for teaching Torah by connecting with each student and my desire to accompany my students on their Jewish journeys was ignited so many years ago at the Center for Conversion to Judaism.

On Sunday evening, Town & Village Synagogue honored Rabbi Lerner for his pioneering work as the founder and director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism, which will now be permanently housed at the NYC synagogue. I’m confident his legacy will continue; Rabbi Larry Sebert is a dedicated supporter of the Center and his synagogue is a long-time host of Rabbi Lerner’s classes. Still, I wonder what happens to an institution when its founding father retires, what becomes of a teacher with no students.

I take a moment to acknowledge the anxiety kindled by my thoughts. Almost immediately, I remember meeting Rabbi Lerner for lunch just a few years ago, discussing our work as rabbis and teachers and sharing news and photographs of our kids and his grandkids. This is the start of new era in his life. I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunity to continue to learn from him throughout my rabbinate.

Already several weeks into the camp season in the southeast and teaching ceramics at Ramah Darom, I’m unable to celebrate Rabbi Lerner’s accomplishments with him at the T&V Gala. Instead, I resolve to honor his life’s work with a renewed devotion to my students.

* Thanks to Rabbi Sebert for the correction.

Posted on June 23, 2015

A Bat Mitzvah Gives Voice to a Woman in Science


While the model is generally that students learn from teachers, yesterday I was reminded that teachers learn from students as well. I had the opportunity this Shabbat to attend a bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, where until recently I served as one of the rabbis.

The bat mitzvah student presented a research topic on the subject of Rosalind Franklin, a name I didn’t recognize. It turns out that Franklin’s important work has been under-recognized by many.

A Jewish scientist who lived from 1920-1958, Franklin did groundbreaking research on DNA that led to the understanding of DNA as a double helix.  She worked on the x-ray diffraction of images of DNA, and one of her students took what became known as “Photo 51.”  That image played a significant role in leading to the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Without her knowledge, Franklin’s colleague Wilkins shared Photo 51 with Watson and Crick, and then the three men went on to publish a series of articles in 1953 about DNA.  Franklin also published in that series of articles, but hers appeared after theirs.

Sadly, Franklin died in 1958, and it was four years later that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize.  Nobel prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, so it is hard to know if Franklin would have also received the Prize, but many believe she wouldn’t have because of her gender.

I suppose the gender inequality that contributes to the lack of general knowledge about Franklin’s role in understanding DNA should be of no surprise, as we continue to see women in science treated differently.  Two weeks ago many of us learned about Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who resigned as honorary professor at the University College of London after saying that female scientists cry when criticized and are a romantic distraction in the laboratory.

Not only did the bat mitzvah remind me about the importance of gender equality and teach me about an important scientist whose research changed our understanding of biology, but the service also reminded me what a bat mitzvah should be about.  A bar/bat mitzvah experience should involve more than learning Hebrew and learning facts about Judaism.  It should be an opportunity for a student to learn more about him or herself – and in the case of the bat mitzvah I attended this weekend, it rose to the top as an opportunity for a young woman to share an important message.  That student gave voice to an important woman who came before her, whose own voice was too quieted by the men around her.



Posted on June 22, 2015

The Three People Touched by Death


In this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, Israel is given an interesting law. We are commanded to give a perfectly red cow, slaughter it in front of the kohen, or priest, who then does the usual blood sprinkling for offerings. Then, in front of him, the entire cow is burnt to bits. Then, another person who is tahor, gathers the ashes, sets them aside in a tahor place, and those ashes are used to make other people tahor.

Without getting too far into what tamei and tahor really mean (usually people define them respectively as impure and pure, but they really mean, unable to come before God in the precincts of the sanctuary, and is not a commentary on one’s cleanliness), here’s the curious thing. Everyone who touches this cow, these ashes – from the kohen, to the one who burns it, to the one who gathers the ashes (and who must start out as tahor), all of them, are made unfit for the Temple by what they do.

But why? Although this section is one that a large number of notable commentators express their puzzlement over, or simply say that the mitzvah here is simply to teach obedience, in the wake of this week’s racist murders in Charleston (and the wider wake of Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many more), I actually find myself somewhat less puzzled than I might have been at other times: It doesn’t matter whether it is our hand that has brought death about. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be our actions that have directly been involved. It’s enough that we are part of the system that brings us into contact with it: kohen, korban (sacrifice), collection of ashes. All of us are unfit to enter the Temple precincts. Not until there is no need for any further sin offering — not for the people of the community, not for those who have been directly involved, not for those who simply watch afterwards, in horror — until the community as a whole is fit, all of us are touched by the sin.

This motif will be repeated in about two months in the Torah portion Parshat Shoftim, with the ritual of the eglah arufah – the sacrifice made when a murder victim is found between two towns and the murderer is unknown. There, too, the communities are not exempt, and not innocent, and must make an atonement – they did not do what was necessary to protect not only their own, but also the stranger nearby.

We, too, are guilty. We are guilty that we have not curbed gun violence, even though we have good data about what it would take to do so. We are guilty of racism, and not speaking enough about it when it is not we who are threatened. We are guilty of allowing “us” and “them,” to exist as categories in our heads, and in the world.

And though our planet is so filled with ashes that by rights we should not be able to breathe, there is no red heifer to purify us.

Posted on June 21, 2015