Friday, July 29, 2011

Free Speech for Inflammatory Rabbis? (Hammerman on Ethics)

From the Jewish Week

Q – The recent police detainment of prominent right wing Israeli rabbis accused of incitement has been in the news lately. At issue is the halachic tract “Torat Hamelech," (the “Torah of Kings”) which allegedly condones the murder of non Jews in some circumstances. This is horrible, but how is it different from any artist or politician making an outlandish statement? Certainly those on the left have said equally inflammatory things. Are we discriminating against the rabbis? Aren’t they entitled to freedom of speech?

A – If only Israel had a Bill of Rights entitling those rabbis to freedom of speech. Rabbi Dov Lior, whose recent arrest led to widespread rioting, waxed Jeffersonian in defending his right to share his views. But were the Knesset to suddenly adopt something akin to a First Amendment, alas for Lior, it would be inconveniently accompanied by a declaration of universal human rights that would undercut the political authority of these very rabbis. I suspect there is little chance that Rabbi Lior will be taking this Jeffersonian thing to its natural conclusion, a separation of religion and state – something Israel desperately needs.

Last week in Ha’aretz, a columnist quoted verbatim from the “Torah of Kings,” demonstrating why these passages would have trouble standing up as free speech even in an American court. Someone disseminating literature stating that “every place the presence of a non-Jew endangers a Jewish life - it is permitted to kill him (even if he is one of the righteous among the gentiles and bears no guilt for the situation that had been created)," would likely be accused of a hate crime. Another passage cited includes a bizarre opinion that “when it is certain that children or infants are being raised with the objective of harming Jews, it would be doing them a favor to kill them to prevent them from growing up into evil adults.”

Makes me wonder whether Casey Anthony might have studied in Rabbi Lior’s yeshiva.

Rabbi Lior’s defenders write that he is a Holocaust survivor being humiliated by the government and that Israel’s judicial system needs to be reoriented toward Torah values. They see this controversy as ”a struggle about the future of Israel.” Indeed it is.

Fortunately, many Orthodox Israelis are uncomfortable with the extremism of “Torah of Kings.” Various groups, including “12th of Heshvan” and “Brit Hoshech Legaresh” (Alliance to Banish the Darkness), a coalition of 16 organizations from across the denominational spectrum, have taken up that battle against “Torat Hamelech” and its proponents. Their position paper claims that the book’s assertion that all gentile children are raised to hate and will therefore act against Israel, is a racist claim. I wouldn’t call it racist, since a person of any racial background can convert to Judaism, but it’s hard to characterize the authorization of killing children for revenge as anything but vile and immoral.

As horrible and inflammatory as “King’s Torah” is, Israeli artists, writers and politicians (of the left and the right) have been known to say outlandish things, some deemed by opponents to be dangerous to the state. Why should rabbis suddenly be arrested for doing precisely the same thing that novelists and filmmakers do all the time?

The problem with that argument is that rabbis ARE different from artists and writers. In Israel (and occasionally here in America) people actually listen to their rabbis - and that can be a dangerous thing. People might listen attentively to novelists like David Grossman too, but they will often obey the dictates of their chosen rabbinic leader. No one obeys Grossman. A controversial halachic ruling carries far greater potential to lead to destructive action, at least among a segment of the Jewish community, than even the most subversive op-ed or film.

In an ideal world, Rabbi Lior should have the right to speak freely, and the “King’s Torah” should not be banned. But that ideal world would be a place where the Israeli Declaration of Independence, guaranteeing “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” has been codified into Basic Laws and a formal Constitution. For now, it is up to the political, cultural and judicial mainstream of the country to unite in their strong condemnation of those abhorrent ideas. Then, while they are in a unified mood, they can begin to unravel the toxic entanglement of religion and state that, as much as any external enemy, threatens the very future of the Jewish state.

A Thousand Terrorists for Shalit? (Hammerman on Ethics)

A Thousand Terrorists for Shalit?

Q – Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?

A- For Jews, this is a classic search for the lesser of the evils, a choice we’re quite experienced at making. This ethical quandary is a classic example of the age-old concept of “Pidyon Shvuyim,” the rescue of captives. The Talmud considers it to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur.

Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.

There are limits. In a detailed responsum on the subject that predates Shalit’s capture, Rabbi David Golinkin concludes, “We do not pay excessive ransom… In other words, the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual. Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done.”

But it’s more complicated with regard to Shalit. The destinies of individual and group have merged, as Gilad has become everybody’s child – and a poster child for Israel’s vulnerability (and a neat counterpoint to the media’s portrayals of suffering Gazans). The “Free Gilad” movement has united all factions of Israeli society, even as they differ on what to do about it. World leaders have rallied behind Shalit and American politicians routinely invoke his name.

Strangely, time may be on Shalit’s side – that is, if he is in reasonably good health. His family has succeeded in keeping Gilad’s fate on the front burner, just as Jews succeeded at doing for Soviet Jewish Prisoners of Conscience a generation ago. That human rights campaign arguably helped to bring down the Soviet empire, leading to human rights based policies like the Jackson – Vanick Amendment that weakened the Soviet gulag.

Here, Shalit has become living proof of Hamas’s ruthlessness. The International Red Cross has spoken out forcefully that the two year absence of any first-hand information on Shalit’s condition goes beyond the pale. That message is seeping through, especially among the Europeans who will have much to say about Palestinian aspirations for statehood this coming September (significantly, Gilad Shalit also has French citizenship). While Hamas will still hold out for the best deal, Noam Shalit has succeeded in turning his son’s captivity into a moral albatross for the Gazan rulers. Gilad has become a latter-day Natan Sharansky, exposing the corrupt moral underpinnings of Hamas.

Still Gilad’s father feels that Prime Minister Netanyahu should pay the asking price, “not out of weakness but out of strength.” In his mind, Israel is secure enough to keep the released terrorists from harming its citizens, as evidenced by the success of the Security Barrier and the dramatic reduction in the number of terror victims over the past few years.

It’s an argument worth considering, but I agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even if the released terrorists may not be able to attack Israelis with impunity, every Israeli – and every Jew – will face an intensified campaign of kidnapping once it is revealed just how much it pays. A thousand terrorists is too many to exchange. But five hundred may not be.

Meanwhile, if I were Netanyahu, I’d pay for the Shalit tent to be temporarily relocated to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, just outside the U.N., for the month of September. That way the world we become better acquainted with the evil Israel confronts daily, as well as the infinite value that Jews have always placed on every human life.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Laugh. Cry. Love: Liberal Judaism Lives (Jewish Week)

Laugh. Cry. Love: Liberal Judaism Lives

Joshua Hammerman

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

I suspect that nearly every American seminary student of the past generation has heard a variant of this sage advice attributed to the preacher Henry Fosdick:

“Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry; 20 minutes, say goodbye.”

What’s true for preaching is true for services as a whole. The words, music, movement and setting for collective prayer must combine to trigger an instinctive, deeply rooted emotional response. Unfortunately, rather than heightening the emotions, all too many congregations are simply going through the motions. And in this Darwinian environment where only the most adaptable synagogues survive, “good enough” is no longer good enough.

I was also told in rabbinical school that our services couldn’t hope to be as stirring as Broadway or as moving as the Met, so we shouldn’t try to compete. But that’s not true. Done properly, a single Shabbat service has the potential to evoke more laughter and tears than a week of Neil Simon and “Aida”.

I’m pleased to say that my own congregation “gets it.” While our locale in suburbia gives us neither the media attention nor the enormous pool of attendees from which big city shuls draw, we’re doing something special here in Stamford, especially on Friday nights.

How special? Increased attendance of 500 percent special. Amazing buzz special. If we were in Manhattan it might be considered Next Big Thing special. Our cantor, George Mordecai, is redefining the role with a new musical synthesis – some call it “Jew-sion” – blending his Sephardic roots with contemporary rock, folk, Israeli and classical religious piyyut (poetry). Sometimes it seems more jam session than service, borrowing from traditions as diverse as Kirtan, Sufi, Gregorian, Naomi Shemer and Bob Dylan.

The service is inclusive, real, joyous, accessible, intimate, musical, serious and funny. It touches people deeply, it teaches without preaching, it is communal, it is intensely personal, it resonates for all ages, for all backgrounds, for agnostics, too. It is warm and welcoming. It is multicultural, taking us on a journey throughout the Jewish world and beyond. It is deeply connected to Israel, Hebrew language and traditional prayer. But it is utterly new. It is a shir chadash, a song both new and ancient.

A few weeks ago, with hundreds filling our sanctuary, a congregant looked over at a guest’s face glowing in wonderment and thought of a cute marketing slogan: “Sing. Pray. Love.”

Oh, and one other thing about our service. It is Conservative.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, non-Orthodox Judaism is alive and well. Are you listening, Michael Steinhardt? Far from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Beverly Hills, in the land of Target and Wal-mart, dusty synagogues are being recast as innovative start-ups and garage band minyans. Slowly, and with only limited help from fractured national leadership, the ‘burbs are birthing an authentic Judaism that speaks to the needs and desires of the vast majority of American Jews – connecting them to our shrinking, wireless world rather than building walls to keep the Other out; demonstrating inclusivity rather than fearful chauvinism; championing bold vision over knee-jerk nostalgia and honest questioning over fearful silence, and modeling an unconditional love for Israel while reserving the right to question its policies.

Out here in the ‘burbs, Millennials and Baby Boomers join hands and raise voices together, providing instant grandparents for the 20-somethings and an invigorating youthful edginess for the older folk.

While I’m proud of what my congregation is doing, I’m no blind shul shill. Truth be told, it’s taken a long time for us to reach this point. I’ve been here nearly a quarter of a century (oy) and culture change has not come easily. But it has come, and with great enthusiasm. And what we are doing is happening in lots of communities. You just don’t read about them because The Story out there is that liberal Judaism is dying. I’m telling you that it’s alive and well. Who are you going to believe? Demographers or me?

So how can your community move to the next level? Some tips:

♦ Cultivate gentleness and non-judgmentalism in your culture, beginning at the board level. Wean your leadership of negativity and mistrust.

♦ Your leaders and major donors must buy into the fact that in this environment it is “change or die.” Never be afraid to try something different, even if it means the occasional failure.

♦ Grow with your rabbi - and cantor too. And nurture their partnership.

♦ Most of all, the service is the thing. The prayer experience must be authentic yet accessible; connecting us to our deepest, most human feelings. Make it real.

♦ It’s OK to pump up attendance with meals and guest speakers, but if your service isn’t carrying the day, fix it.

♦ Aim for the emotional jugular, always:

Laugh. Cry. Love.

Our most powerful human drives and instincts (along with “eat,” which we save for the Kiddush) are also the most contagious. When there is laughter there is a potent unity. Even the worst pun imaginable evokes an instantaneous “Aw!” so forceful that it sounds like awe and feels like a prayer. When we are all singing together, even our breathing becomes synchronized, as the inspiration drawn from the prayers transcends their literal meaning, even among those who do not understand Hebrew (my congregation also distributes a comprehensive English guide to the service to placate the incurably left brained, but in truth the goal is less to comprehend the prayers than to actualize them).

Throughout the service, as we laugh, cry, sing and breathe, those involuntary biological reactions build upon themselves until they generate the most human response of all, compassion. Then, with our empathetic centrifuges spinning at maximum capacity, we project that regenerated love out into the world. As the love simply radiates from the room, the service then becomes both an expression of our collective conscience and a catalyst for communal action.

Sing. Pray. Love. The magic of prayer can transform any community. Even one living in the shadow of the nearby strip mall.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

Africa Photos

We just returned from an unforgettable visit to South Africa and Zimbabwe. The natural wonders that we witnessed were so vast that I had to try my hand at a little amateur nature photography. To see a small sampling of the over 3,000 photos I shot at Victorian Falls, Soweto, Cape Town and on Safari, click on the baboon below. Mara has also shared a number of the photos on her Facebook page, with some narrative.

It's not easy to leave the bush. When driving home from JFK on the Van Wyck this morning, I saw a large construction crane and instinctively thought it was a giraffe!

There is so much to share of what we saw. Each picture tells a story, some of them of incredible courage and love. Those stories need to be told, and some will be, beginning next week when I return from vacation. But for now, enjoy the photos. I hope you are enjoying your summer. Click below for thumbnails, and then click on the individual photos to enlarge.

See slideshow below:

Friday, July 8, 2011

Punching Your Ticket - Hammerman on Ethics (Jewish Week)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Friday, July 8, 2011
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Q - I frequently use a 10-trip punch card on the LIRR. Often the conductor fails to appear to punch the card before I get off. What is my obligation here? Should I tear up the card before it runs out to make up the difference or am I free to use it again as it is the responsibility of the railroad to collect the fare? This does not involve deception since I am ready to pay the fare. I think this falls into the category of an uncollected debt. How much trouble is the borrower required to go through to repay if he makes a good faith effort and the lender for whatever reason isn't seeking it. I have been doing "the right thing" and throwing it away early. Lately I have been thinking it might be OK to use it and give the equivalent sum to charity, as if it is "found money."

A – True, you did not deceive anyone, but that is no reason to pat yourself on the back. It’s not that different from a guy who sneaks into a second movie at the Cineplex on a single ticket and then puts a few guilt-assuaging bucks in the charity basket when they pass it around. The only difference here is that you are being a little more passive in accepting the freebie.

The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 232:2) states that if you are given excess change in error, it must be returned. Sometimes it is not easy to locate the owner, but in this case there’s no problem in locating the true owner of that money – the railroad. The free trip is not the conductor’s to give away. This is similar to a prior “Hammerman on Ethics” case in which an employee at a coffee shop gave a customer free coffee at her boss’s expense.The coffee was not hers to give away. In this case, it is possible that the conductor is lazy, but more likely he is frazzled, overwhelmed at rush hour.

You might want to express some empathy next time around and hold up your ticket and say, “I know things are crazy right now and wanted to be sure you don’t forget me.” Who knows, his supervisor might be sitting a few rows away, counting heads. You could save his job.

Your charity idea is an interesting one, but here it would not be your donation. The LIRR would be donating the cost of a single fare to charity, not you. So if you did it, make sure to send them a tax receipt.

In the future, simply throw the ticket away after all the trips are legitimately used up and buy a new one for your next trip.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Shabbat-O-Gram for July 1

Today is the first of July and tomorrow is Rosh Hodesh Tammuz. The Hebrew and secular calendars synchronize as all nature seems to be harmonizing on this beautiful day. Join us for our first Outdoor Service to actually be held outdoors, this evening at 6:30, here at TBE. We'll be missing Cantor Mordecai this Shabbat, and next week our places will be reversed, as I'll be embarking on a vacation that will take me, among other locales, to South Africa.

So, you ask, what do rabbis do on vacation? Read this entertaining response, "For rabbis on vacation, it's not easy to get away from it all." Anyway, I'll do my best to get away and in doing so conceal my secret identity. Meanwhile, I'm leaving the store in excellent hands. As of today, all hands are on deck, in fact, as we welcome our new Director of Community Engagement, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti. We'll officially welcome her at our "Borechu and Barbecue" service next month, but you'll have ample opportunity to welcome her less formally between now and then.

But this is the last you'll be hearing from me for a while, unless you are one of the many who have friended me on Facebook. If you haven't, I want to be your friend! Really! My Facebook and Twitter buddies will get the inside scoop on my comings, goings and reflections over the summer, and maybe some photos as well.

This week, I've been reflecting a lot on New York State's passage of the Gay Marriage bill. See my thoughts on the Jewish Week site, Gay Marriage: A Moral Choice? In the few hours since it was originally posted, it has already been generating significant interest.

I've also been reflecting on other serious matters including the ethics of rabbis offering college students alcohol at Shabbat dinners (see Shots on Shabbat: Hammerman on Ethics).

Last week marked five years in captivity for Gilad Shalit and there was much coverage of the anniversary. Some focused on the International Red Cross's assertive protest against the Hamas government in Gaza for not allowing single visitation. In Israel, two dozen celebrities secluded themselves in a mock jail cell for one hour each in sympathy with the Israeli captive. What may have slipped you is the increasingly strident tone Shalit's father has adopted in his criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

A little excursus: The Prime Minister, who has done many positive things, has now become untouchable in the eyes of many in the American Jewish establishment, where criticism of the Israeli government is sometimes equated with a lack of support for Israel. A prime example of this is the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, whose vilification of all things J-Street has lately been extended to those who associate with them and other dovish Jewish groups, from the new head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, to most recently, the Hartford JCRC, which recently hosted Israeli politician and diplomat Colette Avital in partnership with J-Street. See the relevant articles on that topic here, here, here, here,here and for an opposing view, here. Fortunately, we now have numerous alternative ways of gaining information about Israel, with a diversity of views, and we don't have to rely on our only in state Jewish newspaper.

End of excursus.

Back to Noam Shalit, who should be heard if we are to take the "Free Gilad" efforts seriously. Israelis have agonized over the fact that the current price for Gilad's freedom would be the release of many terrorists who could potentially strike again. A valid point. Noam Shalit's response is that releasing terrorists will not alter Israel's strategic position one iota. He is claiming that it is disingenuous for Netanyahu to say, on the one hand, that Israel is capable of defending itself, with a security fence that has successfully all but ended the danger of suicide attacks, and on the other hand, be claiming that a few exiled terrorists pose a mortal threat. It's interesting to see how the Israeli right wing now is beginning to vilify him as he loses his sacred cow status over there. I'm not saying that Noam Shalit is right. I'm just saying that his views are worthy of dialogue.

That dialogue exists in Israel, every day. It needs to happen here, without fear and recrimination. We've managed to do that here this year, and I'm exceedingly proud of the wide window of programming we've offered on the subject of Israel and the changing Middle East. What other congregation could boast that it brought in Alan Dershowitz, Jeremy Ben-Ami and Ari Fleischer, all in the same year? Plus, we had a nice group join us at the AIPAC Policy Conference (a number that we want to grow next year) and we've heard from other speakers as well. On that subject, mark your calendars for Thursday, Sept. 22, when the Hoffman Lecture special guest will be Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, with topic: "Revolution and Turmoil in the Middle East: What's Changed? What Hasn't? And What Does it Mean?"

Israel will be even more of a priority for us this coming year, as I hope to and we are now sketching out plans for a congregational trip next summer. Let me know if your family is interested.

As we all depart for summer climes, a special thank you to Eileen Rosner, whose presidential term expires this week. She has been a fantastic president, beloved by all. No one is more dedicated to this congregation. I also congratulate Peter Kempner as he steps up to the presidency, offering tremendous leadership and energy. Thank you to my fellow professionals here, a true "Dream Team" that has just gotten dreamier. I hear whispers, BTW, that the first two year-old class of our Shorashim program, set to open this fall, is now just about at capacity. The expression "waiting list" is music to my ears. Special thanks to Ronnie Brockman, Al Treidel, Steve Lander and the early childhood committee for all their hard work (and see Ronnie's new blog entry My Alll Time Favorite Thing to Plant with Children). Thanks also to Cantor Mordecai for a spectacular first year. And I welcome new board members who are now beginning their terms. They - and you - are what makes Temple Beth El a very special place.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Fourth!