Thursday, April 28, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for the end of Pesach


הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ, עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ; וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר, נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ

"The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land."
Song of Songs 2:12

Passover 2016 in Israel: Buttercups on Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak

Passover 2016 in Stamford: Blossoms at Beth El Cemetery

Happy End of Passover to all.  The seventh and eighth days are full festival days; our office will be closed on Friday and services will take place on Friday and Shabbat mornings at 9:30.  On Friday, Gerry Ginsburg will give a guest d’var Torah.  Saturday’s service will include Yizkor prayers.  The festival ends on Saturday night slightly after 8:30 PM, or whenever three stars appear in the sky and the aroma of hot bagels rises over Fairway.  Ironically, Israelis, who normally observe only seven days of Passover, will also have an eighth day of breadlessness, because the festival runs right into Shabbat.  Sorry about that, Israelis (not!).

Text-Driving a Siddur


Friday night’s service will be at the usual time of 7:30. Since I will be “going solo” this week (we miss you, Cantor Fishman!), and since the service is abridged (we skip Lecha Dodi and other parts of Kabbalat Shabbat on a festival) I thought we would take the opportunity to sample the new Conservative prayer book.  Read about Siddur Lev Shalem here.  Our ritual committee has taken a good look at it and recommended it.  I’ve also been sharing insights from it over the past several weeks and inviting those attending our services to peruse the text.  Before our board discusses it over the coming weeks, I thought it would be a nice idea for us to take it out for a test drive at services. You can call it a text-drive.  Your reactions will be most helpful!  On Friday night we’ll also be getting a briefing on the much anticipated arrival this week of a Syrian refugee family to our community.

Go in Peace, Return in Peace

Several of our students and families will be heading to Israel this coming week with Carmel Academy and Bi Cultural Day School, and Steph and Mindy Hausman will be going on the March of the Living.  We wish them all a safe and amazing journey! And if any of them are in town this Friday or Shabbat, we are offering an aliyah to the Torah and special blessing, on the house!

Mazal tov to our 7th Graders (class wedding is Sunday)!


Judaism as a Path of Love
Song of Songs and the Holocaust

It’s customary on Passover to read the Song of Songs, arguably the greatest love poem ever written (with a polite nod to a certain W. Shakespeare).  In a speech delivered in early April to a group of interfaith scholars,  Rabbi Arthur Green looked at the centrality of the Song of Songs in framing Judaism as a path of love, rather than legalism and obedience.  He writes:

The Song of Songs was in fact first spoken at Sinai itself, the day of the mystical marriage (between God and Israel). While the public voice of God may have been heard as declaring do’s and don’ts, at the very same moments He was whispering sweet nothings into His beloved’s ear. 

To stand in God’s presence, Green asserts, is to live a life shaped by love.

As you all hopefully know by now, this message has been a central one in my own rabbinate.  It has been an uphill climb to convince people that Judaism really is a religion based on love, for two main reasons:

One is that it flies in the face of what the non-Jewish world - as well as most Jews - have long considered Judaism to be.  We’ve bought into the notion of the vengeful “Old Testament” God and of Judaism's obsession with do’s and don’ts.  It’s noteworthy that the Song of Songs didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible until the last possible minute, during the second century - by which time the Gospels had already taken shape, along with their negative stereotypes of Judaism.  Perhaps Rabbi Akiva had that PR problem in mind when he became such an advocate for adding the Song to the canon.

Secondly, there is the specter of the Holocaust.  Green understands that it is very difficult to speak of God’s love when so many are still asking where that loving God was in 1944.  Green asserts that the Jewish soul is only now beginning the slow process of recovering from that trauma.  That progress is enabling us once again to explore spiritual path of openheartedness and compassion, less burdened by anger, cynicism and grief. 

Green’s essay is an important one, especially this week, as we are nestled between past and future, closing Passover and re-reading the Song of Songs as nature comes to life around us, while anticipating Yom Hashoah this coming Wednesday night (join me at our community commemoration at Temple Sinai), seven decades years since the last embers of Auschwitz were doused.

By now you should have received the Yellow Candle from our Men’s Club.  Read about the Yellow Candle here.  It will be very meaningful for every TBE family to remember the Holocaust by lighting this candle during the coming week.  By supporting this program, we can also support Holocaust education for our teens by helping them to go on the March of the Living and other similar pilgrimages (including our TBE trip to Europe now scheduled for the summer of 2017).
Judaism as a Path of Kindness
Pirke Avot 6:6 as it appears in Siddur Lev Shalem

During the 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot (the Omer), it is customary to read that classic work of rabbinic wit and wisdom, Pirke Avot.  In chapter 6 of Avot, we find a list of 48 qualities that enable us to acquire Torah, nearly a perfect match for this period of counting as we ascend to Sinai to receive the Torah.  That connection  has been drawn explicitly by rabbis devoted to ethical behavior, or "Mussar" as it is called. Each of these Middot (qualities) is a crucial turn on the path toward a life of holiness - and happiness.  My suggestion is that we each try to explore one of them each day.  You can find the full  list here, or click on each of them below for helpful study guides. I plan on focusing on each of them later in the year as we approach the High Holidays - but it’s never too early to start!

Getting our Goat

Last week I wrote about the tragic overtones of the song “Chad Gadya.” Little did I know how, just as I was writing this, another little goat nearly caused a great deal of commotion.  If the headline weren’t so scary it would have been laughable: “Three Jewish Men Arrested for Attempting Goat Sacrifice” on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, just as Passover was about to begin.  That tiny piece of real estate has borne its share of controversy.  Just a few days before, in an act of outright anti-Semitism, UNESCO tried todeny Jewish ties to the Temple Mount altogether.  What this combustible piece of land requires is level headedness and compromise.  Not an attempt at restoring an ancient ritual that many very pious Jews consider barbaric.  Maimonides himself considered sacrifices a paltry pagan predecessor to prayer.  Thankfully, and all kid-ding aside, the Israeli police once again proved that they are the G.O.A.T., at least when it comes to goat-spotting, and an international incident was averted - though I suspect that for the goat the reprieve was only temporary. 

Shabbat Shalom and 
Happy End of Pesach!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for Passover, April 22

Eatin' it all up at TBE's Chocolate Seder!

Happy Passover to everyone in our extended TBE community, from our clergy, staff and lay leadership!

For those of you in college or other exotic places, I'd love to hear about your Seder experiences!

There will be no service here on Friday night of the first Seder.  Festival services on Shabbat and Sunday morningat 9:30.  On Shabbat morning we'll be discussing "How Much of the Seder is Set in Stone?" And on Sunday, in honor of Passover's coinciding with Earth Day this year, we'll look at the newly published "Earth Justice Seder."

Time Lapse Photography

You might recall that last year we began compiling a TBE Passover Family Album, containing photos from your Seders, past and present.  Now we have a chance to add to that album with photos from this year.  This will give us a time-lapse effect, as we watch our families - and by extension our TBE family - continue to grow, from year to year, generation to generation.  Please send me jpeg attachments - or you can upload photos directly to the album.  In our lobby, we are displaying photos from this album, as well as our school and family Passover activities, including the Chocolate Seder, along with the recent Women's Seder.


Jew Belong
If you are looking for some last minute Seder assistance, you can download our Women's Seder Haggadah, our Chocolate Seder Haggadah (great activities for the kids) and my Passover Preparation Guide. Thanks especially to Lisa Gittelman-Udi for her work on the Women's and Chocolate Seder Haggadahs.   I also highly recommend as supplements, the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Haggadah, for a more reflective, holistic approach, one of my favorites isThe Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah; there's even a Jdate Haggadah.  Families with teens can check the Moving Traditionssupplement, from the people who have provided fabulous Rosh Hodesh programming for our teens.

And for someone looking for how to lead a "Kick-Ass Seder" try the Jew Belong Haggadah.  As Rabbi Matt Gewirtz put it, referring to the label, "The name might take you aback at first, but that is part of the point. It is supposed to throw you just enough to make you take a look; to send the overt message that this is not the same old religion with which you grew up. They are encouraging an intriguing, compelling, in-your-face brand of Judaism. It is not about trends, gimmicks or fads. It is about relating to your modern self, engaging you where you are in life and reminding you that meaning is yours to own."
So whatever you do at your Seder, make it relevant!  Make it meaningful!  Make it a night different from all other nights.

The Last Night in Egypt
If you are looking for fodder for Seder discussion, check out these 20 Table Topics for Your Passover Seder, from Jewish Boston.  Or try this challenge from David Arnow:

It's the Israelites' last night in Egypt, the night of the final plague, the slaying of the Egyptian first born. (Note: Sources are divided as to whether this plague targeted only males or included females as well.) When the Egyptians learned about this fearful plague, some Egyptian mothers decided to seek refuge for their firstborn in the houses of Israelites. Imagine the Israelites, sitting safely in their homes, and suddenly there's a knock at the door and an Egyptian mother is pleading for the life of her firstborn.
Should the Israelites take in the Egyptian firstborn?
Read Arnow's response and that of an ancient midrash that he quotes, and discuss what those at your table would have done on that fateful night.  And then reflect on the fact that a family of six from the same war torn region is scheduled to arrive in Stamford next week.

More on Legumes
Everything is coming up Kitniyot!  Suddenly the decision of the Conservative Movement, which I've been discussing in these pages for several weeks, has been discovered b the media and it has shocked the nation.  Who knew a few lentils and beans could cause such a buzz.  On Friday morning - the eve of Passover - at the conclusion of our 7:30 morning minyan, I'll hand out a source sheet on the topic and give you a few insights, so you can sound really, incredibly smart and rabbinic as you expound on kitniyot (a word used for lentils, which comes from the word "small") at your Seders tomorrow night.  That brief study session will also serve as our "Siyum for the First Born."
The Jewish Burka
The "Women of the Wall" prayer group has been planning to stage a first-ever Women's Priestly Blessing at the Kotel this Sunday.  As of this writing, that effort has been stymied by Israel's attorney general; it is on hold, at least for the time being.  While the cause of women's rights has made tremendous strides recently in Israel, the suppression of female voices continues unabated.

The culprit here is a controversial Talmudic concept known as Kol Isha ("A Woman's Voice"), which like many religious restrictions has taken on a life of its own, expanding in scope over the centuries, as female voices have continued to be suppressed and demonized.

There are some justifications for reducing a woman's public role that might have made some sense once upon a time, within the internal logic of a traditional, pre-modern patriarchal society.  Kol isha was never one of them. It was always insidious, inviting suppression and, ultimately and inevitably, harassment and physical abuse.  Once a women becomes an object of scorn, or an object of temptation, or even an object of love - she has become, irrefutably, an object.

The Kol Isha controversy stems from a Talmudic discussion where one rabbi, Samuel, called the voice of a woman ervah, meaning "indecent," "shameful," or "lustful." He was referring to the recitation of the Sh'ma, which was not to be prayed while a woman was singing.  For, as the passage states, "the voice of a woman is indecent" (kol be-ishah ervah) and would be an improper distraction from concentration on holy things.
The idea that an un-muffled female voice can lead men into a state of uncontrollable lust is reprehensible, insulting to both women and men alike.  Are we guys that incapable of keeping our zippers zipped that we have to demand that women keep their lips zipped too?

Natalie Bergner writes on the Women of the Wall website that the Talmudic prohibition flies in the face of biblical precedent; she cites the sensual love poetry of the Song of Songs, and the explicit command from God for Abraham to "listen to the voice of Sarah."
The first wide-ranging halachic prohibition of a woman's singing voice didn't occur until modern times.  In the journal Conservative JudaismEmily Teitz writes that Jewish women's singing voices were in fact heard throughout the Middle Ages, as teachers, entertainers and professional dirge singers, even within the synagogue itself.  Rabbi David Golinkin's responsum on the subject suggests that in the Talmud, Samuel may not have been referring to a woman's singing voice at all.

Golinkin writes:
There is no general prohibition against women singing in classic Jewish law based on the Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries until the early nineteenth century. The current blanket prohibition accepted by Haredi and some modern Orthodox rabbis was first suggested and rejected by Rabbi Joshua Falk (d. 1614) and was only given as a halakhic ruling by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer, in the early nineteenth century. However, this opinion is not in agreement with the simple meaning of the dictum by Samuel and with all of the opinions of the Rishonim (renowned rabbinic authorities of the Middle Ages).

The fact that such restrictions have become more pronounced over the past few decades mirrors the increased oppression of women in some quarters of the Muslim and Christian worlds and the increased polarization of American politics on religious grounds.   As feminism has taken hold, the reaction to feminism has been equally strong, pulling society both ways, and pulling hard.

With female cantors and rabbis proliferating in the non-Orthodox world, and even now among the modern Orthodox, there is no turning back on this issue.  My conscience will not allow me to participate in ceremonies that give undue deference to Kol Isha - for instance, purely secular celebrations of Israel where a woman's voice should be heard loud and clear. How absurd it is to hear the songs of Naomi Shemer or the verse of Hanna Senesh having to be sung by a man.

As a committed pluralist, I need to accept that for some Jews - and some iterations of Judaism - halachic justifications for the differentiation between male and female sex roles are internally consistent with an accepted worldview that existed in previous eras, long before feminism.  They were right, perhaps, for their time.  I can accept the fact that when I am praying with an Orthodox minyan, traditional restrictions regarding women will be upheld, mostly for reasons other than Kol Isha.

But we can't allow Kol Isha to expand incrementally as religious restrictions so often do (as we've seen even with the eating of lentils on Passover).  Jewish tradition has no inherent problem with women. The problem isn't Judaism - it's Jews.  And discrimination against women, like all discrimination, is a slippery slope, one that leads to objectification which can lead a culture to condone violence.  We need to go out of our way to reverse the disturbing trends.

Last year, when Israel's new government was sworn in, one Haredi newspaper tried to airbrush women out of the picture completely.  Women, evidently, are meant never to be heard OR seen.

Israel has become ground zero in the battle against the suppression of women's voices. Golinkin cites a 2011 incident when nine observant IDF cadets walked out when a woman began singing a solo.  He concludes that there is "no halakhic justification for anyone walking out when women sing. But even if one accepts the very strict ruling... it is forbidden to walk out in order not to insult the female performers."

At least in Israel, female singers have not been suppressed in major national ceremonies, including the official Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut ceremony on Mount Herzl.  Given current trends, this may not be the case in the near future.
Jeremiah (33:10) prophesied of a time when "the joyous voice of the bridegroom and bride would once again in the streets of Jerusalem."  Evidently that time has not yet come at the Kotel.  Despite the progress we had hoped was being made, female voices of blessing will not be heard at the Western Wall this Passover.

Kol Isha is coming dangerously close to becoming the Jewish burka, a veritable symbol of the subjugation and humiliation of half our population.  We need to reverse this trend, in Israel and in Jewish communities everywhere. The Jewish burka must be eliminated.

It is time to silence Kol Isha.

The Chad Gadya Machine
As we pray for a peaceful Passover everywhere, especially in light of this week's bus bombing in Jerusalem and other terror attacks this month across the globe, here is a classic poem from Yehuda Amichai:

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Chad Gadya, that child's song at the end of the Seder, has a very serious side.  The playful ditty traces a cascade of events beginning with a baby goat being devoured by a cat. Each verse adds a link to the chain reaction; a dog comes and bites the cat, a stick beats the dog, fire burns the stick, water puts out the fire ... and on it goes. Each successive verse gets longer until the fable ends in a final saving stroke; God kills the Death Angel.
Chad Gadya has become a modern metaphor, reflecting how utterly hopeless things can seem.  The ending is nice, but with the world utterly destroyed before we get there, of what use is such salvation? 

The great Israeli singer Chava Alberstein wrote her own version of the song in 1989a time when the Israeli army was in Lebanon and the first Palestinian uprising had begun only months before.  After opening with the traditional Aramaic lyrics, the words of the song turned to the relationship between oppressor and oppressed, with Alberstein stating: "What has changed [mah nishtana]?" - "I have changed this year."
The song was quickly barred from broadcast on the government-controlled airways, but public pressure ultimately caused the ban to be lifted. Now it's a fixture on the play lists during the pre-Pesach period in Israel.
You can see hear it below:

Our father went to market and bought a little goat
For two bits, for two bits
This is how the traditional story goes...
The cat came along and ate the kid
A small kid, a white kid that our father bought
Why are you singing this traditional song?
It's not yet spring and Passover's not here.
And what has changed for you? What has changed?
I have changed this year.
On all other nights I ask the four questions, but tonight I have one more:
How long will the cycle last?
How long will the cycle of violence last?

The chased and the chaser
The beaten and the beater
When will all this madness end?
I used to be a kid and a peaceful sheep
Today I am a tiger and a ravenous wolf.
I used to be a dove and I used to be a deer,
Today I don't know who I am anymore.
Deezvan abba beetray zuzay...
And we start all over again
Now hear Alberstein's version, but this time sung in Arabic and Hebrew by a combined Jewish-Arab choir from Jaffa.

When you watch this video, just uploaded last month, suddenly the Chad Gadya machine doesn't seem nearly so imposing.  Maybe we can somehow manage to extricate ourselves from its wheels.  There may be hope yet!

Happy Passover!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman