Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Anti-Semitism is Down: Is that Good for the Jews?
From my perspective, if, in light of Goldstone, Madoff and a horrible economy, anti-Semitism is DOWN... that's VERY good news.
Poll: U.S. Anti-Semitic Attitudes Match Lowest Level Recorded
A nationwide survey of the American people released Thursday by ADL found that 12% of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, a decline from 15% in 2007 and matching the lowest figure ever recorded by ADL, in 1998. ADL national director Abraham Foxman said, "We can't dismiss that 12% of the American people means that there are still over 30 million Americans that hold anti-Semitic views." "The significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them."
"Some bad news remains a constant, such as 30% believing that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, and 29% believing that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. Equally of concern is that more than a quarter of African-Americans - 28% - hold anti-Semitic beliefs and more than a third of foreign-born Hispanics - 35% - have such attitudes." (Reuters)
See also 2009 Survey of American Attitudes toward Jews in America (Anti-Defamation League)
A Serious Mensch: Don Adelman
I loved Don Adelman – everyone who knew him did. He embodied what is best about the Jewish tradition, the values of learning and menschlichkite, the love of family and communuity; caring for the weakest among us. He embodied a love of Conservative Judaism in particular and of synagogue affiliation.
He was in my house just a couple of weeks ago – visiting my sukkah at our open house. At the end, after just about everyone else was gone, he was the only one left. First he talked with Mara in our kitchen for a half hour. Then, when I came inside, he schmoozed with me for another half hour. He loved to schmooze. He was a people person – and his love for all things Jewish emerged from every pore.
It has been noted by many – the fitting irony of Don’s passing while engaged in study – at the library, in preparation for teaching a Melton class – study and teaching energized him throughout his life – and his career essentially begin at a Melton program, when he was chosen by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s melton Research Center to go to Columbus, Ohio as part of the original team where he was assistant principal, youth director and teacher of many courses to all age groups, including adults.
Here in this sanctuary, Don was my right hand. Whenever I was away, he was the one I asked first to give a substitute d’var torah, and he never said no, He loved to do it, and people loved learning from him. Last June, when I was given the chance to take a few congregants down to NY for special seminars on the chancellor’s mitzvah initiative, I could think of no one more fitting than Don. I cherished those two long round trips in the car – and watching him light up returning to those hallowed halls of JTS. And he knew everybody. He didn’t just know everyone who was there – it seemed – but also all the people whose portraits were on the wall.
The best possible way to honor Don would be to learn. This past week's portion begins:
These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.
In the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), we read, "Whoever teaches children Torah, it is as if he had taught his children and his children’s children until the end of all generations.”
These are the generations of Donny. All his students, and their children, until the end of time.
Like Noah, Don was a tzaddik / but also tamim – humble. And while walking was difficult for Don at times, he had no trouble walking with God. His life was a true march of the living.
Don was a legend in the Conservative movement. When I sent out a notice on Friday to my rabbinic chat group, I began to receive e-mails back from people whose lives Don changed. At Camp Ramah he was legendary, from his stints as director in Canada, Glen Spey and then in Palmer Massachusetts, where he personally oversaw the resurrection of a camp that had closed down in 1970. He brought it back to life.
I can’t think of too many people who did more creatively for Jewish youth over the past half century, especially when it came to forging connections with Israel. What we saw here with Kulanu was just a small sampling. Here was a man who, while working for Ramah, brought many Israelis over to this country to work in the camps and develop relationships with the kids here. He led the AZYF for a time – and coordinated the great Israel Day parade in New York – that was our Don. Imagine the politics he had to deal with, but Donny knew how to deal with politics. Not through anger or manipulation, but with simple honesty and passion.
One of the youth programs he loved to talk about was his involvement in the recreation of the Exodus boat – that refugee ship that brought Jews from Europe to Palestine in 1947, only to be turned back by the British. He was so creative. There is no doubt that he personally was responsible for brining tens of thousands of Jewish youth to Israel during his life – including our Stamford group a few years ago. I was amazed that he could make that trip – but he never had trouble keeping up with the teens. Maybe the secret was that when he was in Israel, walking was never an issue, because he was always a few feet off the ground.
He also forged ties between Israel and US Jewry through his work with American-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Chief Executive of the Israel Cancer Research Fund. One of the people with whom he worked won a Nobel Prize just a couple of weeks ago. And even less formally, he had a profound impact on people with his passion for Israel. Here’s an e-mail I received last night:
After a beautiful Shabbat Noah, I opened my e-mail to read the sad news of the passing of Donny Adelman.
Though we have not met in close to 50 years he proved to become one of the most influential people in my life. We were classmates together in the late 1950’s at the JTS Joint Program. He had recently return from a unique year at the Machon L’madrikhei Hutz La’aretz. He began to work on me and ultimately prevailed upon me to register for what turned out to a transforming year in Eretz Yisrael, which brought me to an identity with the land and the people of Israel. After graduation, a stint in the US Chaplaincy, three civilian pulpits, my wife, four children and I made aliyah. We never looked back. After 32 years (and 11 sabra granchildren) we are thankful we had the zehut to be part of Eretz Yisrael. In part, thanks to Donny’s persuasiveness, which started it all… Yehi zikhro baruch
Another great and lasting accomplishment of Don’s was the Tikva program at Ramah, a program designed to integrate emotionally and mentally challenged teenagers into the Ramah community.
He was very proud of these accomplishments, as well he should be. But he didn’t just talk about them – he lived them.
We began with parashat Noah – we end with Lech Lecha, this week's portion, where God promises Abraham, Veheyay bracha, "You will be a blessing." In the words of one commentator, "While other nations will live but for their own welfare and glory, Abraham and his people shall know no greater task than to become a blessing to a great world."
All Don wanted was to be a blessing – to share his thirst for learning with us. It is the gift that he gave us until the very moment of his death – and it will be the gift that will keep on giving, for generations to come – dorotoav, all his generations, Don’s generations, for all time.
These are the generations of Daniel ben Zeev U'Peninah. A Serious Mensch.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Seriously Funny - Or Flawed?
Wait a minute. Am I talking about the book... or the movie?
If there is a serious message at all to the film, and I have to assume that because I really didn't find it to be laugh-out-loud-early-Woody Allen - earlier-Philip Roth funny, it is that God's ways are unknowable in an unjust, absurd world. In the end, the only one laughing is God.
As the saying goes, מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט. Man plans, God laughs.
That's a key message of Job, where the friends try to explain Job's predicament in conventional ways that never stray from the box. They never fully understand that the times are a changin' and old theological formulas just don't cut it. Meanwhile, Job senses that he's just a pawn in some celestial game of chess, saying in verse 20:3 "Why should man be born to wander blindly, hedged in by God on every side?" Job, hardly the passive sufferer of lore, rails against the darkness of his plight, screaming out in chapter 20, verse 11, "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not perish at birth?
Job the sufferer has it all over Job the "serious man."
Larry Gopnik never goes Joban, or even postal, in the movie. His wife is unfaithful, his kids are unredeemable brats more concerned with hair and TV reception than their parent' failing marriage; his job is tedious and unrewarding, his neighbor is a Jew-hater and his other neighbor a nymphomaniac, and his synagogue is an empty shell. The teachers can't teach and the rabbis can't empathize. The services are boring, the bar mitzvahs meaningless.
In some interviews, the Coen brothers alluded to their "nostalgic" look at the Minneapolis suburb of their childhood. This is hardly the nurturing shtetl fireplace, the "Oyfn Pripitchek"of Yiddish lore, where the elderly mentor slowly taught the wide-eyed child the "alef-beis." In this landscape, in fact, the rabbis are Satan, right from the very start of the movie, where, in an otherwise inexplicable prologue, a shtetl wife mistakes (we think) a saintly old man for a dybbuk. (On one level, the prologue works as an indictment of religious fundamentalism and superstition, which creates moral blinders so powerful as to allow good people to murder innocents out of a dream-provoked fear - but that's only if the strange visitor wasn't in fact, a dybbuk, something that is not firmly established).
I grew up in a community that had similar types, at a similar time. We had Hebrew School teachers that were utterly clueless to the ways of assimilated American baby boomers (though, unlike the kids of this movie, my passion was more for baseball cards than smoking pot, unlike the bar mitzvah students of this film. But, like them, I did sneak a transistor radio into Hebrew School during the 1967 World Series to hear the Red Sox). Our rabbis were not shallow idiots, however pedesteled ( see The Problem With Pedestal Rabbis) and pedestrian they were. I followed my muse to Allen, Roth, loved "The Graduate," and viewed rabbis and religion with a healthy skepticism, if not at times an unhealthy cynicism. At times I saw them as emblematic of the plastic culture we were railing against.
In college, I wrote scathing critiques of those clueless Hebrew teachers, essays and stories that would make even the Coens cringe. But I also was able to lift them off the page and give them some humanity. There was Abraham Solomon Schindler (we kids loved his initials) - who was jolly, until someone stuck gum on his chair. There were the teachers who taught only in Hebrew, admiring their work on the blackboard, even as the Woodstock sky was falling and the late '60s teenage hormones raging behind them.
I once wrote a poem about rabbis called "Painted Plastic." You can guess where that one was going. It bemoaned those half-baked handshakes and the banal advice:
"Hello dear friend," he's say, and walk away....
But there was a counterculture Judaism that I also grew up with, and that Judaism was exciting and vibrant and meaningful - and it had a home in the very same synagogue, my synagogue, that also housed the creaky - crumbling Judaism of the Coens' film. It is sad to think that the Coens had one but not the other. This might be the difference between Minneapolis, where they lived, and Boston, which was at the time churning with new ideas. They had the conformity and conventionality, a synagogue as cold as that church at the end of "The Graduate," but none of the juice of the early Havurah movement. They had A.S.S. but none of the teachers with the long hair who hummed "The Times They are a Changin.'" I had both.
They had snot spitting, phlegm-y walking corpses. I had the disciples of Heschel and Buber.
That's what saddened me about the film, them lack of appreciation for the life that was being injected into Jewish communities at that time, and while there were scenes that hinted at authenticity, the lack of humanity in any of the characters left me gasping.
When Larry moved out of the house at the request of his wife and her lover, that's where he stopped being Job and morphed into Bontsha the Silent, the I.L. Peretz character (see notes here) whose passivity crosses that fine line from goodness to madness. Passivity is not good - nor is the biblical Job passive (or "patient," as the Christian stereotype suggests). Turning the other cheek is not a Jewish idea, especially with a guy who is making off - and out - with your wife. So Larry stopped being a serious Joban character at that moment for me, and this ceased being a serious attempt to grapple with Job.
As for God's place in all this. God only knows. The message seems to be a Joban one, that we have no idea what are God's ways, so as Archibald MacLeish wrote in his Joban midrash, J.B., "Blow on the coal of your heart. and we'll know..." The idea is simply to live and love and make the most of an absurd world.
Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best in his last serious (and only known) TV interview, recorded shortly before his death:
The interviewer Carl Stern asked him, “What message have you for young people?”
Heschel's reply: “Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can all do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, [let them] remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Larry finally succumbs to the temptations facing him, and either because of or despite his moral lapse, a tornado is bearing down on his son's class and the doctor alludes to some bad news regarding his health. There is no rhyme or reason, no rhythm to this world spinning out of control, save for the tunes on the boy's coveted transistor radio.
It's hard to find the meaning beyond absurdity in this kind of resolution. God gets the last laugh, but only if there is a God. Sort of reminds me of something I saw in a men's room stall in my sophomore year at Brown, on the third floor of the Rockefeller Library:
"God is dead." - Nietzsche
"Nietzsche is dead." - God
God always has the last laugh.
Did you hear the one about the tornado that decimated the Hebrew School?
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Voting is a Mitzvah
There is one incumbent running in this election, and I have no problem making that incumbent the subject of a personal endorsement: it is incumbent upon all of us to vote!
Yes, I believe that voting is not only an American privilege, it is a Jewish value. The following is adapted from Koach’s guide to elections put together a few years ago:
We never hear about the rabbis of the Talmud voting. And Moses certainly didn’t take a vote before leading the people out of slavery. Still, the democratic value inherent to voting does find expression in Jewish tradition:
Not long after the Israelites leave Egypt, God calls for a census. This count of the population reminds us of the significance of every individual. In the nation being created, each person must be accounted for, as each person plays a vital role in the viability of the whole. In the same way, each person in the United States plays some role in determining the future of the country as a whole.
The principle “you should go after the majority (Exodus 23:2) is understood by the rabbis to mean that the majority rules in legal disputes. In one famous Talmudic story, a group of rabbis argue over a legal point. Even though a divine voice supports the lone opinion of one rabbi, the majority opinion wins. Once the Torah has been transmitted to the Jewish people, the will of the people—understood as the majority opinion of the decision makers—determines the law. (Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)
The concept of hiyyuv, or personal obligation, is the central theme of Jewish law. We have obligations toward ourselves, toward God and toward others. Living with this sense of obligation means approaching the world with a feeling of responsibility for what happens. Voting is one way of acting on each of our individual obligations to make our part of the world a more just place.
Jews were deeply involved in both the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s and in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, which, among other accomplishments, achieved the extension of the right to vote to African Americans. Some early Jewish voting-rights advocates included Clara Lemlich who, in 1909, following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, organized one of the most important strikes in American history and who then turned her energies to creating a working class women’s suffrage organization; and Gertrude Weil, a leader of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League beginning in 1915 and a crusader for voting rights and election reform.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Should Jewish Children Trick-or-Treat?
Below is a selection of views from Moment Magazine.
As you might be able to tell, I come from the “lighten up” school of thought when it comes to Halloween. But the question as to whether or not Halloween is “un-Jewish,” is complex. It's all about “Jew-sion,” the fusion of Judaism and surrounding cultures. It’s a perfect time to discuss this, because there is a clear connection between the story of Noah (this week’s portion) and the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, as well as other ancient legends. See a chart comparing the two epic tales here. It shows clearly how the destiny of all humankind is intertwined.
This is not so much a halachic question; it is a public policy question. Do we want to prohibit or permit this activity?
President, Jewish Life Network/ Steinhardt Foundation
As Halloween is celebrated nowadays, it is mostly about trick-or-treating, dressing up, having fun and getting free candy, with few or no religious overtones. That said, there are issues about celebrating it that areJewishly problematic and are worthy of consideration by thoughtful Jewish parents.
A more serious conflict arises when Halloween coincides with Shabbat, Jewish holidays or Hebrew school attendance. What kind of message is a parent giving to his or her child when he or she is told that to go out trick-or-treating takes precedence over Jewish study or celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays?
Parents may also wish to consider the values suggested by Halloween, such as demanding sweets from strangers. The original saying is in actuality a threat: “If you don’t give me a treat, I’ll give you a trick.”
Can Jewish kids live without these ghosts, goblins and candy? I certainly think so. Will it do irreparable damage to their Jewish identities if they participate? Probably not. But as parents, we should think about the values, priorities and commitments we want our children to develop.
Though I write as a Reform rabbi, I offer what can be called (in the phraseology of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise) an American Jewish response.
In this same light, there are few who would connect the carefree, costume-wearing, candy- gorging escapades of our children on October 31 with the religious overtones that the holiday once carried. As such, the holiday has evolved into a secular celebration. Therefore, it would seem to be as innocent an activity as celebrating New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving (both of which once had Christian connotations).
We could boycott All Hallow’s Eve for its ghoulish associations—and, in medieval Christendom, Jews received more trick than treat. We might avoid this holiday of “pagan” origin, lest we “do as the other nations.” Ghosts of Halloweens past may still haunt us.
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation,
In the American melting pot of shared cultures, trick-or-treating is as religious as a bagel. Dressing in costume for occasions other than Purim is Jewishly acceptable. It makes sense that Jewish schools don’t celebrate Halloween, but it’s normal for Jewish students to want to take part in it.
When Halloween falls on a Friday, hold a party on motza’ei Shabbat. Invite your child’s Jewish and non-Jewish friends and serve delicious, kid-friendly food. More harm is done to Jewish continuity by forbidding youth from observing holidays like Halloween than by supporting the celebration in safe and healthy ways.
President, OHALAH: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal
This is a tough one. Jewish children should learn about their own traditions rather than always celebrating everyone else’s. Still, it is far better for a Jewish child to go trick-or-treating than to celebrate an iota of Christmas and Easter.
Walking Stick Foundation
"TBE to Go" Podcast Series, "From Israelite to Jew"
The next discussion section will take place on Sunday, December 6, at 10:30, immediately following the first session of the Mitzvah Initiative. As we will be approaching Hanukkah, we'll be discussing podcasts 5-12, which culminates with the history and legacy of the Maccabees. Those episodes can be found below.
Some key questions to consider in listening to these sessions include: How do Jews confront with the challenges of assimilation? Who is considered an "insider" and who an "outsider?" What are the tensions that grew between those who never left the land and those who lived outside the land of Israel? What is more central to Judaism in the period, the Temple or the Torah? What is the interplay of religion and politics, especially as it relates to Israel's strategic location as a crossroads between empires? How is Judaism impacted by Hellenism, even among those who reject Greek culture? (How do they demonstrate their rejection "Hellenistically?") How is the "real story" of Hanukkah different from the one we've come to know?
"TBE to Go" usies the power of the Internet to bring world-class scholarship to our doorstep. "From Israelite to Jew," by Michael Satlow, traces the history of Judaism and the Jewish people from the time of the Babylonian Exile through the Second Temple period. Satlow is Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown University, where he began teaching in 2002. He received his doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1993. Professor Satlow specializes in Early Judaism and has written extensively on issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage among Jews in antiquity, as well as on the Dead Sea scrolls, Jewish theology, methodology in Religious Studies, and the social history of Jews during the rabbinic period.
This series was designed for popular consumption (i.e. it is not overly technical or jargon-filled), but it goes into great depth in discussing topics essential to the formation of what we now know as Judaism, including the composition of the Torah, the stories of Esther and the Maccabees, key figures like Ezra and Herod and the origins of Christianity.
Each episode is about a half hour long. The episodes can be downloaded in several ways, all free of charge, including by going onto iTunes Music Store and entering "Satlow."
You can also find them below.
From Israelite to Jew: 5: Ezra
The fifth episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode deals primarily with the career of Ezra, in 458 BCE. I discuss intermarriage in the Bible and the emergence of the Torah as a source of authority in Israel.The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here.
From Israelite to Jew: 6: The Torah
In this episode, Satlow discusses the historical formation of the Torah, or Pentateuch, and provide an introduction to the documentary hypothesis. The episode can be heard here. More download options can be found here.
From Israelite to Jew: 7: Nehemiah
The seventh episode of the podcast, "From Israelite to Jew." This episode deals primarily with the career and reforms of Nehemiah, which lasted from 445 BCE to around 432 BCE. The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here.
From Israelite to Jew: 8: Jews of the Persian Empire
This episode discusses two Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem, that represented by the biblical book of Esther, and that of Elephantine, Egypt. It takes place in the fifth to fourth centuries, BCE. The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here.
From Israelite to Jew: 9: Hellenism Arrives
A discussion of Alexander's conquest of west Asia and its aftermath (323 - 200 BCE). What is "Hellenism," and how did the Jews react to it? Particular attention is paid to the Septuagint, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus. The podcast can be heard here; more downloading options are here.
From Israelite to Jew: 10: Jubilees and 1 Enoch
A discussion of two books dating from the third or second centuries, BCE, Jubilees and 1 Enoch. Both books, part of a collection traditionally known as "the Pseudepigrapha," testify to a Jewish understanding of continuing direct divine revelation in the Hellenistic period.The podcast can be heard here, more download options can be found here.
From Israelite to Jew: 11: The Revolt of the Maccabees
Why did the Maccabees revolt around 165 BCE? This episode explores both the revolt of the Maccabees and the origins of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.The episode can be heard here ; more download options are available here.
From Israelite to Jew: 12: The Hasmonean Kings
A discussion of Judah's consolidation of power around 162 BCE to the last of the Hasmonean kings, in 30 BCE.The episode can be heard here, or on the player below. More download options are here. The podcast is also available on iTunes.
Subsequest episodes can be found at these links: From Israelite to Jew: 22: After the Destruction: ...
From Israelite to Jew: 21: Destruction (2)
From Israelite to Jew: 20: The First Century
From Israelite to Jew: 19: Josephus
From Israelite to Jew: 18: Jesus and Other Strange...
From Israelite to Jew: 17: The Dead Sea Scrolls
From Israelite to Jew: 16: Philo (2)
From Israelite to Jew: 15: Herod the Great
From Israelite to Jew: 14: Hellenistic Judaism
From Israelite to Jew: 13: Origins of Jewish Secta...
From Israelite to Jew: 12: The Hasmonean Kings
Friday, October 23, 2009
Global Climate Healing Shabbat
And not just in synagogues. Tomorrow, October 24, has also been declared an International Day of Climate Action by 350.org. whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions worldwide to the acceptable standard of 350 parts per million, which is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere.
Here at Beth El, we'll commemorate this special Shabbat tomorrow morning by unveiling a special new project, a community garden, which is to be constructed over the next several weels. Mark Teich, a congregant who has constructed many such gardens, will tell us about it.
Here are some resources for your own celebration of this special Shabbat:
Learn more about the Parshat Noach Global Climate Healing Shabbat
Downloads from The Jewish Climate Change Campaign
Sign the Jewish Climate Change Campaign Pledge.
For Project 350:
What does the number 350 mean?
What's the day of action?
How can I get involved?
How will this make a difference?
Jewish Climate Campaign Launch in The Jerusalem Post
Noach and Climate Change in The Jewish Week
Noach and the Next Flood in the Jewish Exponent
Benefits of Community Gardens
A Prayer for the Earth
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Let's "Bat Mitzvah" the Ladybugs!
More than one person quipped that if only I "bar mitzvahed" them, I'd never see them again.
I'm happy to say that when I mentioned that to a bar mitzvah student who was working with me in my office this afternoon, he didn't get the joke.
"Why is that the case?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you see them again?"
So I replied, "In the olden days (read: the days before kids loved Hebrew School and their parents felt that bar/bat mitzvah was the end, rather than the beginning, of a lifetime of Jewish learning), that's what everyone believed. Once they became bar mitzvah, we would never see kids again."
He was dumbfounded. And then I went into my prepared speech about how important it was for this student, the first in his class to become bar mitzvah, to set the example with an excellent attendance record at Hebrew School for the remainder of the school year. Almost all the kids do finish out the year here, but it's important to make that statement right from the start.
But the thought of quitting hadn't even entered his mind. When I brought up the idea of "continuing on," he assumed I was speaking about next fall, when he reaches 8th grade, and he said he was already looking forward to being an aide (madrich) in the classroom for the younger grades.
In all our defeatism, maybe we forget that these kids - and many of their parents - are not so battle weary as Jewish educators tend to be. Maybe we in the trenches are doing a better job than all the think tankers and so-called experts tend to assume.
If this first student caused me to pause and reflect, my next student absolutely put me to shame.
By the time he came in, my the bugs were all over the place, both in and outside my window. Our executive director had gone out for bug spray - this on the eve of our Global Climate Healing Shabbat, where I intend to focus on the lovely sustainable garden we'll be creating in a few weeks. And here I was presiding over a massacre of insects.
So the student, Jordan Ganz, suggested that we suck them all up in a dustbuster and then empty the bag outside, so the harmless little creatures could go on living their brief lives in the great outdoors. That tactic had worked for him at home, where he tries never to kill insects.
I promised Jordan I would bring a dustbuster in tomorrow.
The things we learn from our students can be humbling indeed - including the very powerful message that, despite our own cynicism, we might not be doing such a bad job after all.
A Call to Civility
THE RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY ISSUES A STATEMENT
CALLING FOR CIVIL DISCOURSE AND RENOUNCING OF NAZI IMAGERY
October 21, 2009 (New York, NY) – Following several recent incidents in which Nazi imagery has been inappropriately invoked by public figures, the Rabbinical Assembly, together with Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, have issued a call to America to renounce the use of rhetoric designed to equate policy positions with the practices of the Nazis during the Second World War.
The members of the Rabbinical Assembly, constituting 1600 Conservative rabbis, have therefore issued a statement in which they collectively and individually call on all people of conscience to renounce the use of this language and to reject the representations of any speaker who would exploit the suffering of others for political gain.
STATEMENT BY THE RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY ON MISUSE OF NAZI IMAGERY
As rabbis who deal daily with the sick and dying we are aware that these are extraordinarily sensitive issues. Our tradition reminds us that the more urgent the issue the more important it is to choose one’s words with care.
We note with dismay the vehement rhetoric swirling around the health care debate. An alarming number of public figures have embraced this imagery in attempt to demonize the opposition. In recent weeks alone, they include
Rev. Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called health care reform proposals “what the Nazis did” and invented the “Dr. Josef Mengele Award” to present to health care policy-maker, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) referred to the current health care system as a “holocaust in America.”
The Republican National Committee posted a video on-line showing Adolf Hitler discussing health care proposals.
Each offense was later moderated, but not until a hue and cry arose from opponents and supporters of the sources alike. The willingness of supporters of public policy positions to employ the demonizing rhetoric of Nazism not only does nothing to move conversation forward; rather, it has a chilling effect on people of conscience who find the appropriation of such imagery to be disrespectful of the victims and reinforcing of the politics of personal attack that has damaged public discourse in the United States.
The use of Nazi and other drastic imagery is categorically unacceptable. Not only is such bluster inflammatory, but it impoverishes the discussion.
We plead -- indeed we demand -- that civility govern these crucial deliberations. “Sages” warned the Rabbis of the Talmud, “take great care with the words you speak.”
When one has a public platform one cannot allow the heat of rhetoric to outrun its reason.
As we discuss issues of life and death let us not ignore the words of Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21.)”
Angry words and hateful images will not bring us closer to the healing we all seek.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
An Innocent Patient Abroad (Jewish Week)
Perhaps it was divine retribution for the blatantly treif lunch I’d enjoyed so much at one of Zichron Yaakov’s new boutique eateries earlier that day.
But somehow, late into the second evening of a long-awaited trip to Israel, I suddenly found myself aw akened in my Tel Aviv hotel room by excruciating abdominal pain. Several hours of doubled-up suffering later, I finally was no longer able to deny the obvious and succumbed to the incredible reality: I, longtime Hadassah devotee and immediate past president of my Stamford, Conn., chapter, was about to visit an Israeli ER that was not run by my beloved Women’s Zionist Organization.
An hour-long ambulance trek to Jerusalem was simply out of the question. Our hotel’s paramedic, advising against what he referred to tongue-in-cheek as Wolf-“sof” (end) hospital, shuttled us off by taxi to the closer Sourasky Medical Center, better known to locals as Ichilov. At a moment so infused with guilt about ruining our plans and fear of being seriously ill so far from home, I could hardly have anticipated that this unplanned, unwanted side tour would end up making my trip.
Rhonna Rogol's article continues here.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Cross And The Torah: Supreme Symbols, Supreme Court (Jewish Week, 10/22/09)
by Joshua Hammerman
On Simchat Torah night, I received the greatest compliment of my rabbinic career, if not my life. As the sacred scrolls began their sevenfold journey around the sanctuary, a young child pointed to me and asked his grandfather, “Is that Hashem?”
My first reaction was to laugh, as President Obama must have done when he heard about his Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve been called many things in my life, but never before have I been called God, except maybe once or twice by my kids, and not reverently.
But then it occurred to me that if ever anyone were to call me God, certainly this would not be the time. On Yom Kippur, maybe, when I’m all decked out in my while kittel, summoning all the power of the pulpit to deliver my message.
But on Simchat Torah? With everyone fussing over the scrolls, kissing and caressing them, dancing with them and around them, making such a holy to-do? If anything could be called God at a time like that, surely it would be the Torah.
And that’s precisely why it was such a compliment. This child understood, instinctively, that even as we celebrate the Torah, we don’t venerate it. The scroll is so sacred that we risk life and limb for it, and, when it is no longer reparable, we bury it as we would a human being; but that is precisely the point. The Torah is our most sacred object, and as such, we treat it not as God, but as we would treat the most sacred creation we can imagine: a human being.
We don’t worship it. We love it.
Our tree of life gains its power not as an object but as a summons. It’s a living document, one that calls upon us to choose life, to celebrate the brief moment when our little lives intersect with its eternal message.
Although it is our most sacred object, the Torah is rarely seen in ancient Jewish art; the menorah, incense pan and lulav are much more prevalent. The menorah is also often found on tombstones, along with the Star of David and priestly hands and water pitcher for a Cohen or Levite. You’ll rarely find a Torah at the cemetery, unless it is being buried.
Compare our “tree of life” to Christianity’s most sacred and omnipresent symbol, the cross. It is not surprising that the cross is often found in connection with death, since its derived its original meaning from a death. Jewish martyrdom stories from that era involve Torahs, like that of Rabbi Chananya, who was burned at the stake wrapped in a scroll; but the Torah symbol has remained for Jews a tree of life — etz chaim, not a symbol of death.
Judaism is all about the affirmation of a life that is. Christianity focuses much more on life hereafter. We are about redemption, they are about resurrection. The two faiths are simply different, as are our most sacred symbols.
But those differences are not recognized by some on the Supreme Court.
Problem solved. Or not.
If the Court simply intends to rule narrowly on the constitutionality of the congressional action, church-state separatists will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But as the Roberts court swerves rightward in its course of judicial activism, there is cause for concern. While it is unlikely that the Court could use this case to justify selling space on its front steps for the erection of a manger, I agree with Wendy Kaminer, who wrote in The Atlantic, “If the Court seizes the opportunity and denies taxpayer standing to challenge federally sponsored religious displays, then constitutional prohibitions of such displays will be effectively unenforceable.”
In an exchange with a lawyer, Justice Scalia’s comments were particularly alarming: He called the cross the “common symbol of the resting place of the dead” and asked whether the lawyer would instead want erected “some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”
The lawyer responded, “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”
To which the justice retorted, “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”
Actually, Judge Scalia, I do believe that a cross would only honor Christian war dead. No one would question the right to have crosses at individual people’s graves in military cemeteries. That’s free expression of religion. And no one should question that the cross is a powerful religious symbol.
It’s just not my symbol. My most sacred symbol would never have been considered for such a memorial.
Neither faith is superior; Christianity is simply different from Judaism. And that difference is demonstrated clearly in our supreme religious symbols; one celebrating a person called God, and the other the spark of God that resides within all people — the divine spark that one youngster saw in his rabbi on Simchat Torah night
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jake Silver on Bereisheet
I studied the story in detail and came up with three important lessons that, it turns out, have a lot to do with my life and this bar mitzvah
Lesson # 1: The importance of education
The story of the Tree of Knowledge is often misunderstood. People think it was a bad thing that Adam and Eve ate from the tree. It was definitely against what God said; but good things came out of the experience. When God told Adam he was forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, Eve wasn’t even created yet. So it was easy for her to misunderstand God’s command when she was talking to the snake. And why was that talking snake put there in the first place?
It was all a set up! I think that God wanted them to eat from the tree. He wanted them to be able to reason and make their own choices. Before that, they were no smarter than animals. But afterwards, they were capable of doing great things, including acts of kindness – mitzvot. It wasn’t just a tree of knowledge after all, but the knowledge of good and evil. Judaism has always taught us that education is very important, especially learning right from wrong. That belief was there right from the very beginning.
In order to connect with my portion and this theme of education, I chose to do a mitzvah project of collecting school supplies for middle school students in Stamford who can’t afford them.
Lesson number two: Everyone is a unique individual
My portion teaches us that all human beings were created in God’s image. This means that everyone is equal but also unique.
I’ve certainly tried to be my own person. I play the bass, which not many people do. Most want to play guitar and drums. But if you think about it, most bands can’t survive without a bass. It makes me unique, and music is a way of expressing my uniqueness. Once I have a little more time on my hands – like tomorrow – I’d love to start up band practice again.
Lesson number three: The process of growing up
As we’ve seen, God seems to want Adam and Eve to be rebellious; to disobey God’s word and make their own choices in order for them to grow up. It’s as if God set them up to break the rule so that they would learn from their mistakes and begin their life outside the garden.
The tree incident was like their bar mitzvah. After it, they gained wisdom and were considered adults. They also gained responsibility and learned that life is not always easy.
Today I begin to leave the garden. Not that I’ve done anything wrong or EVER disobeyed my parents. This is just part of growing up.
As I become a bar mitzvah today, I hope that I can help create a world a little more like the garden was, but where everyone has an equal opportunity to eat from the tree of knowledge as much as I have.
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Hannah Freund on Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan
If you have patience and confidence, things work out.
It all goes back to the story of the Golden Calf. The men were impatient for Moses to come back, because he was up on Mt. Sinai for forty days (you know how men are) – but the women were patient, and waited for him. In the end, they were rewarded by being given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh so that they could have a day of rest.
There have been many times that have tested my own patience. Like last year at camp when we put on the show Hairspray. Putting the musical on was very difficult, and a lot of cast members dropped out. No one thought that it would come together, but a few girls and I stayed in because we thought that it might work out. In the end it did, even though the director had to play one of the lead roles.
Back in ancient times, before there was a set calendar, the new month began only after people saw the moon reappear. It took patience for that, just like the people had to have patience when they were waiting for Moses.
But we’ve had to learn patience a lot throughout our history:
• It took patience for the children of Israel to wander in the wilderness for 40 years…
• And the Jewish people waited almost 2000 years to return to the land of Israel. Facing Jerusalem, Jews prayed to return to our home land, three times a day. Finally those dreams came true.
Here is how I have had to learn patience in my own life:
o Rehearsing and waiting to do a show like the Nutcracker takes a lot of patience, not to mention all the practice that went into becoming a bat mitzvah
o As my friends all know I spend lots of time at my ballet school. Learning new dance steps can take long time, but it feels great when you master them.
What I have noticed these days is that my friends and I are always rushing, texting, and multitasking. My teacher told the class a story about how his daughter was sitting in the front seat of the car, and she was texting her friend in the back seat of the car.
Heshvan is the only month without holidays – some call it Mar - (Bitter) Heshvan. But after all the holidays we’ve had, we could certainly use a break. And then, when Hanukkah comes - at the end of the next Jewish month - Kislev, we’ll be good and ready. I can wait – with a little patience, we’ll enjoy it even more when it comes.
Another example of where I needed to have patience was my Mitzvah Project. I ran bingo for the seniors at Sunrise Assisted Living. You really need patience for this activity. . . many residents have disabilities, so it’s important to speak slowly, speak loudly, and repeat your instructions frequently. . . and you have no idea how many times I said, “B14”.
Broadway shows, and movies are often about kids rushing to grow up too quickly. Well, I’m in no rush! But I also know that today, as a bat mitzvah I’m in some ways becoming an adult. And one thing that shows we’ve grown up is learning that, WHAT’S WORTH HAVING IS WORTH WAITING FOR.
This has been a year of learning and growing for me. At Temple Beth El, Bat Mitzvah students become involved with both a Mitzvah and a Tzedakah project. For my Mitzvah project, I spent my Sunday evenings at the Sunrise Assisted Living Center running bingo for the seniors. At Sunrise I met many elderly people who played bingo after dinner. Watching the elderly play bingo and have a good time, filled my heart with joy because I knew I was doing something to make other people happy. I know now that I was doing a Mitzvah – also know as good deed - and I would like to do more.
For my tzedakah project, I was on the Teen Tzedakah Foundation Council. The Council allocated funds raised by the teen tzedakah program. We researched many non profit organizations, and then selected a few to receive donations. From that research, I know that the non profit organizations we donated money to will help people in need.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Witnessing Wiesel: TBE @ the Y
It was most moving to hear this great prophet of our time speak especially to the several children who were there, including 7th grader Andrew Schwartz, whose mitzvah project is supporting the Nobel Laureate's Foundation. Wiesel recognized him. When I asked what advice he might give me in charging Andrew at his upcoming bar mitzvah, given the fact that students of this generation will have so few opportunities to meet with survivors, Wiesel said that anyone who hears the stories of a survivor himself becomes a witness.
Last night, all 75 of us became witnesses.
The lecture on Job was most moving, even for those not familiar with this very complex biblical book, because it was as if it were being given by Job himself. Job, after all, was himself a survivor, and Wiesel has stated, "Whenever [Holocaust survivors] attempt to tell our own story, we transmit Job's."
At one point, he quoted a midrash from the Talmud where the rabbis attempted to explain why Job, a supposedly upright man, could have deserved such a horrible fate. In that story, recounted at http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Job_(Biblical_figure): Job was in fact one of three advisers that Pharaoh consulted, prior to taking action against the increasingly multiplying "Children of Israel." Balaam gives evil advice urging Pharaoh to kill the Hebrew male new-born babies. Jethro opposes Pharaoh and tells him not to harm the Hebrews at all, and Job keeps silent and does not reveal his mind even though he was personally opposed to Pharaoh's destructive plans. It is for his silence that God subsequently punishes him with his bitter afflictions.
Wiesel, seated at a large, ornate desk, recounted this tale and then looked up from his notes and stated, unequivocally, what is perhaps the most significant message of his life's work: silence in the face of evil always helps the oppressors. Such silence, in fact, can itself be seen as a form of evil. In "Night," the author could not comprehend how the world remained silent in the face of Nazi atrocities. In 1985 (as he recounted in our private session), he could not remain silent and "spoke truth to power" (a phrase he proudly said he originated there), pleading with President Reagan not to go to the S.S cemetery at Bitburg.
But Job's silence was not the silence of the apathetic victimizer, but rather that of the dumbfounded victim, a feeling Wiesel knows all too well. He is sympathetic to Job's silence - as he once stated in an interview regarding his own silence in the decade following the Holocaust:
You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job was silent after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health. Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence. You see, silence itself can be testimony and I was waiting for ten years, really, but it wasn't the intention. My intention simply was to be sure that the words I would use are the proper words. I was afraid of language.
In discussing the end of the book, Wiesel spoke of the fine line separating faith from insanity, suggesting that a little madness might be required in order to maintain a posture of faith in the face of an unjust world. He postulated that Job did not fear an unjust God so much as an apathetic one.
He also made the point that Job's friends just don't "get it" in trying to figure out what Job or his children did to deserve their fate. Wiesel was appalled at their unsympathetic approach.
He commented on the absurdity of Job's life going back to normal - or even better - at the end and of the sudden appearance of Job's siblings, long after they were really needed, and the strange disappearance of his wife. He wondered why no book was ever written about her, since she seems to have been afflicted every bit as much (and is the one who calls upon her husband to "Curse God and Die!").
In the end, "Job" is a very Jewish book, as Wiesel said, because it answers questions with more questions, though he speculated as to how Jewish the main character was, for not questioning the validity of all the bad news he was being told. So many questions remain, about God's role, about morality, and about the reason to go on.
But go on we must. And that was the most powerful message of all, that the Jewish experience has been such that the book of Job has not only been read from generation to generation, it has been lived. And every generation of Jews has gotten up from the dung heap and chosen life.
As Wiesel put it, in recalling Deuteronomy's call to "Choose Life," the word Hayyim also means "the living." For him, and for all survivors since Job, the only real choice has been to choose the living - as illogical as it that choice might at times appear. It may seem like madness to move on, but it is also the secret of Jewish survival.
We left the lecture - only about an hour and a quarter long, and entered the mist of the Manhattan night, as witnesses.
For more information: Read the book of Job online here. See a background essay here.
Click on photos to enlarge.