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.
Thursday, June 17, 2021
In This Moment, June 17: A World Turned Upside Down; Israel's Moral Compass
In This Moment
Celebrating Pride Month
Screen shot from last week's Pride Shabbat. This Friday at the new start time of 7 PM (and it looks like we'll be outdoors), join me in welcoming back Cantor Deborah Jacobson for a guest appearance while Cantor Katie Kaplan is on vacation.
Introducing Israel's new government, a government as diverse as the nation itself. The Prime. Minister even went to school in New Jersey (see the photo on the left).
Perhaps the most important speech written over the course of this transition wasn’t even delivered. It was set to be given by Yair Lapid, now the Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister of Israel. Lapid was doggedly persistent in somehow finding a way to scotch tape eight disparate parties into a government, against all odds; a move that changed the course of Israel’s history – and Jewish history as well.
He didn’t deliver his speech at the Knesset on the day of the government’s confidence vote, because he had just seen his comrade Naftali Bennett shouted down repeatedly by hecklers determined to grind the wheels of democracy to a halt.
Here’s some of what he planned to say to those hecklers in the hall:
“We are not enemies. Even the most strident opinions, even the most heated arguments, will not turn us into enemies. We will not let extremists destroy our ability to speak to one another and to work together for the good of the country.”
In subsequent speeches that he did deliver, Lapid pledged to repair ties with Jews in the Diaspora, many of whom have felt alienated from Israel over recent years. “The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heartwarming,” he said. “But the Jewish people are more than allies; they are family. Jews from all streams – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – are our family. And family is always the most important relationship and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”
It has been so long since we have heard such sentiments. And so, for those who have felt alienation, from Israel, from the established Jewish community, from Judaism itself, it’s now OK to jump back into the water.
Oh, there will be things that Jews will still disagree about. That’s what makes us Jews. And the wounds opened by the recent fighting in Gaza, which exposed dangerous fault lines and caused a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic attacks – there’s a lot of damage that will need to be undone. But as this new Israeli government takes root, we’ll begin to notice some good things. We’ll begin to see a moral compass re-emerge.
That’s exactly what happened when, just two days after the new government was sworn in, several thousand far-right Jews paraded through Jerusalem with Israeli flags shouting “Death to the Arabs.” To that provocation, Lapid responded, “It is incomprehensible how one can hold an Israeli flag in one's hand and shout 'death to Arabs' at the same time….This is not Judaism and this is not Israel.”
In a recent Times of Israel column, David Horovitz described the significant historical moment we’ve reached:
"Never in the history of this country have rightists, leftists, centrists and Arabs agreed to stake out common ground, together in government, in the cause of the greater Israeli good. While the ultra-Orthodox political apparatchiks have declared religious war on it, many key members of the “change government” have set it up with an almost messianic vision of internal Israeli right-left, Orthodox-secular, Jewish-Arab harmony. However hard this will prove to maintain, the very goal marks a laudable departure from Netanyahu’s divisive approach to retaining power."
During the summer – this year on July 19 – our calendar always returns us to the Fast of Tisha B’Av, with its focus on the destructions of the ancient temples. Chief among the causes for these debacles, according to the rabbis, was “Sinat Hinam,” “causeless hatred.” If causeless hatred has a cause, it is extremism.
Lapid wrote in his undelivered Knesset speech:
"After all the insults and the warnings, the real divide in Israeli society isn’t between left and right. The real divide is between moderates and extremists. Those who want to build and those who want to destroy. We will not let the extremists destroy the State of Israel. We will not let hate control us. Violent racists don’t become patriots just because they wrap themselves in a flag. They will not define for us what it means to love Israel."
Lapid and his counterparts in America and everywhere are responding to the populist-driven enmity of the past several years, fighting the hate wherever it is found - and slowly, slowly, the forces of love and moderation are winning.
Have a great summer – and don’t forget to pack your moral compass!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
A World Turned Upside Down
This headline appeared on the front page of Yediot Achronot on the day after the government was formed.
A world turned upside down.
The Talmud tells a story (Pesachim 50) of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became ill and was on the verge of death. He recovered and his father asked him what he saw as he hovered between life and death. “Olam Hafuch Rai’ti,” he said – “an upside down world.” Those who are important and recognized in this world, were low in that world and those who are unimportant in this world are highly regarded there.
Rabbi Yehoshua then says, “Olam Barur Ra’ita.” “A world of clarity you have seen.”
That is what happens when those who used to be seen as the lowest of the low suddenly change places with the those in charge. Someone like Naftali Bennett, whose party gained just six seats in the most recent election, and who didn't even cross the electoral threshold a couple of years ago. And now he is Prime Minister, and even more shockingly, Benjamin Netanyahu is not.
A political reversal can be subtle or dramatic, a slight turn of events or something far greater. In Israeli headlines, Mahapach is used whenever such a shift occurs.
The slightest change in direction is reflected in the Torah trope note known as Mahpach – related to that word Hafuch. It goes up and then reverses itself, and its symbol is a sideways “V.” If we are looking for a V-shaped recovery, Mahpach is your note, especially since it is almost always followed by Pashta – a note that take us to new heights. Ever upward. More Torah reading verses begin with Mahpach than any other note. Before we can move forward on to a new path, we have to turn.
The rabbis said of the Torah – Hafoch ba – turn it and turn it – keep looking at it from different angles. Turn it over and over again.
And the ultimate turn is a Mahapecha. A revolution. The American Revolution in Hebrew is called Hamahpecha Amerikayit – literally, “a world turned upside down.”
This past year, the world turned upside down: the high and mighty were brought to their knees and the little kid from New Jersey became Prime Minister of Israel.
"In Judaism, we consider pikuach nefesh, the saving and preserving of life, to be one of our most critical principles. We affirm that protecting the existing life of the pregnant person is paramount at all stages of pregnancy. In fact, a fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law and, therefore, does not have the same independent rights as one who is already living and functioning in the world. The Talmud (Yevamot 69b) asserts that the fetus is “mere fluid” for the first 40 days (what would be considered 7 or 8 weeks’ gestation by today’s counting) and, following this period, the fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body (Gittin 23b).
This is why we understand the goal of the Women’s Health Protection Act — ensuring equal access to abortion nationwide — not only as a reproductive justice issue, but as a matter of religious freedom as well. Jewish historical experience, including our experiences in the US, call on us to celebrate religious liberty, which honors individuals’ rights to both freedom of and freedom from religion. We depend on religious liberty to be a protective shield, not a weapon used to harm others or to block access to essential health care. Our faith tradition and the US Constitution demand that no one religion should be enshrined in law or dictate public policy on any issue, including abortion.
For example, Judaism traditionally teaches that the fetus only has the status of personhood at the onset of labor and childbirth (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). As such, policies granting “fetal personhood” rights or establishing that “life” begins at conception are contrary to these teachings and violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by enshrining one religious view into law. What’s more, because Jewish law not only permits abortion in many cases but also requires it when the life or health (including psychological and physical health) of the pregnant individual is at risk, laws limiting or restricting access to abortion directly impede Jews’ ability to practice Judaism, further violating the Free Exercise Clause while simultaneously infringing upon the constitutional right to privacy found in the Fourteenth Amendment."
(Note: I do lots of reading so you don't have to. But actually, you do. And some of these articles link you to a paywall. While I support the need to sustain good journalism, and therefore subscribe to a number of periodicals - on your belhalf - if you are unable to access a particular article that you really want to read, drop me a line and I'll send it).
Here are things both communities should learn about each other to build a stronger relationship between Israel and the Diaspora and ensure the long-term future of the Jewish people.
1) Israeli Jews should know that American Jewry includes a spectrum of rich traditions. It does not revolve around fighting with people who hate us. According to the survey, only 39% of Israeli Jews knew the percentage of American Jews who define themselves as Reform, a denomination that makes up only a tiny sliver of the Israeli Jewish population. Only 22% of Israelis said they understand Jewish denominations well, but more than double the percentage of respondents (49%) said they felt comfortable talking about antisemitism in the Diaspora. “We want Israeli Jews to understand Diaspora Jewry is not just about antisemitism,” said Laura Shaw Frank, AJC Director of Contemporary Jewish Studies. “While it’s certainly an issue of growing concern, we have a very vibrant and rich Jewish life here. That’s hugely important.”
2) American Jews should know more about Israel’s past and present, but especially its present. When given a pop quiz about basic Israel history and demographics, only 12% of American Jews answered all the questions correctly. Asked what year the modern-day state of Israel was founded, 84% of American Jews answered correctly with 1948. About 65% knew Israel acquired the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War. Nearly half (49%) knew that David Ben Gurion was the first prime minister. Meanwhile, only 39% know that more than a third of the world’s Jews live in Israel.
3) Israeli Jews should know that Mrs. Maisel and Seinfeld are not archetypes of American Jewry. Jewish education should include lessons about the Diaspora. A whopping 69% of Israeli Jews received either no education about the Diaspora or reported that their education was not comprehensive.. Of those who say they did receive comprehensive education, a mere 44% said they got it in school while 29% said they learned about American Jews from television and movies. Woe unto us if one of the primary places Israelis learn about American Jews is via the unrealistic and inaccurate way we are typically portrayed on television and in movies! The lack of education seems to fuel a lack of curiosity. Less than half of Israelis (47%) want to learn about American Jews. Most (62%) who received comprehensive education about the Diaspora said they want to learn more. “Being able to work together for a rich Jewish future requires that we have nuanced and complex understandings of one another," Shaw Frank said. "That means more and higher quality education, which will lead to more curiosity and a desire for even more education."
4) American Jews should know Israeli Jews consider all Jews family, while Israeli Jews should know they have an open invitation to visit synagogues and homes when they’re in the U.S. More than 86% of Israelis consider American Jews to be family with 45% thinking of us as extended family; a quarter consider us siblings; and a fifth consider us first cousins.Even though 67% of Israeli Jews have family or friends living in the U.S., less than half (47%) have visited the U.S. Of those, only a quarter said it strengthened their connection to American Jews. The rest said it had no impact on their connection to Americans Jews or weakened their connection. But the 46% of American Jews who have visited Israel report the inverse impact. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who have visited said it strengthened their connection and a little more than a quarter said it had no impact or weakened their bond to the Jewish state. “Israelis don’t use visits to America as an opportunity to get to know the Diaspora community,” Shaw Frank said. “We want to get to know you. If we are family, then get to know us better. The American Jewish community should also be thinking about how to connect with visiting Israelis. It’s on us too.”
5) Both Israeli and American Jews should know that our responsibility for each other is a two-way street.
According to the survey, about three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe a thriving diaspora is as important as the state of Israel and vital to the long-term future of the Jewish people. Why? More than a third (36%) of Israeli Jews said American Jews advocate for Israel with their government; 27% said variety adds to the strength of the Jewish people; and nearly a quarter (24%) said Diaspora Jews support Israel with funding. But less than half (46%) of Israelis said the Jewish state is responsible for taking care of Jews in the Diaspora. “One thing we want to tell our Israeli brothers and sisters is we want more mutuality,” Shaw Frank said. “We’re responsible for taking care of each other. Israeli Jews should also be advocating for Diaspora Jews.”
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