Saturday, October 30, 2021

In This Moment: Oct. 31, 2021 - All Souls (for Jews): Halloween Special


In This Moment

Shavua Tov (a good week!)

Apologies are in order for those who tried to tune into our livestream this past Friday night. I've heard that the audio feed was flawed (to put it mildly) for much of the service, though the last segment was much improved. I would think that many who came aboard had long since abandoned ship by then. Rest assured that we are working on the problem and hope to come up with both short term fixes and long term solutions that will enable us to sustain the kind of excellence that characterized our High Holidays experience, both in-person and remote. We know how important it is to provide that excellence, and to do it in a manner that maximizes the potential for engagement and participation.

Meanwhile, our Zoom Shabbat morning today had the highest attendance in weeks, and our virtual minyans continue to be quite successful. Last night's service was very well attended too, and it was terrific.

Cantor Kaplan and I focused on a theme related both to Halloween and to the Torah portion of Hayye Sarah: reincarnation. She sang an amazing rendition of the Indigo Girls' song "Galileo," which speaks of reincarnation.
Indigo Girls - Galileo
Indigo Girls - Galileo
And for those who may have given up on our livestream, here is the full text of my talk on reincarnation (see a backgrounder here).


Here’s a story that I read several years ago on Yahoo! News: It's about a stray dog who was condemned to death by a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. The story was reprinted from the Israeli press, which reported that a stray dog wandered into a Beit Din (religious court) in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and refused to be moved. A judge on the Beit Din determined the dog was a reincarnation of a secular lawyer who died 20 years ago. The article claimed that the judges on the Beit Din then “decreed” that local children stone the dog to death.

Once the story hit Yahoo! News it got picked up by the BBC where it was the most read story of the day. If you don't believe me, you can see the BBC link here.

Of course none of this actually happened. Here's the retraction from the BBC. However, with news items traveling the globe at lightning speed thanks to the Internet, this story was everywhere within an hour. The damage was done even though the Israeli newspaper issued a correction and apology on its website, JTA released an article explaining that there was no stoning of a dog, and Yahoo! News took the story down. It was already re-posted on hundreds of websites around the world.

The religious court issued the following statement:

"There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham… A female dog did come in and found a seat in the corner of the court. And the children were delighted by it, especially when she raised her right paw and said, “So help me Dog.” (that was me - just kidding)."

"There were hundreds outside the court. They are used to seeing stray cats but most have never seen a dog before. The only action we took was to dial the number of the Jerusalem Municipality to get the people in charge to take it away."

"There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer was never mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning. Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah." (That was seriously in the statement).

The story, when circulated on Yahoo! News, attracted more than 1,800 comments, most expressing violent anger. Just another example of people believing the truly unbelievable on the Web.

I don’t know where to begin with this. The fact that Haredi kids in Jerusalem almost never see a stray dog is believable. Very traditional Jews and dogs have not historically gotten along.
Cruelty to animals is completely verboten in Jewish law. Stoning an animal would be inconceivable. Even animals marked for kosher slaughter must be killed in a manner where they don’t feel any pain.
But it’s funny how the reincarnation part seems the least objectionable. Almost a given. Even the fact that it was a lawyer who came back as a dog, with the dog apparently higher on the evolutionary scale. Makes sense. :)
Reincarnation has a prominent place in Jewish folklore – which means in Jewish theology too. Remember, we have no dogma (no pun intended) when it comes to life after death. So we can believe pretty much whatever we want. And many Jews, particularly mystics, strongly believe in reincarnation.
And it all comes back to this week’s portion of Hayye Sarah.
Right at the beginning of the portion it says, “These were the lives of Sarah.” "LIVES" is in the plural. And her 127 years are broken down in a strange way. One hundred years, and twenty years and seven years. It’s as if she had three lives.
In the portion, there seem to be interesting correspondences between Abraham and elements of eastern religions, which some believe alludes to reincarnation. After Sarah’s death, Abraham remarries and has a number of kids with Hindu sounding names, like Yokshan, whose name has the same root letters as Krishna, and a grandchild literally named Shiva – and Abraham’s own name has the same root letters as Brama, another Hindu deity.
The text in 25:5 tells us that "Abraham gave "all that he had" to Isaac. But to the concubine-children who were Abraham's from his later wife Ketura, Abraham gave gifts; then he sent them away ( verse 6), "eastward to the land of the east." The classical commentators wonder, if he had already given "all that he had" to Isaac, what were these gifts that he gave the (soon to be) eastbound children? Rashi surmised, from his 11th century perch in the Rhineland, that he gave them spiritual gifts -- knowledge that they would need for their journey to the lands of the east. It's possible that this is the common origin of Judaism and the East's shared belief in reincarnation.
The Kabbalists had a field day with this. But even among mainstream commentators, there is the traditional Jewish belief in a form of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, stemming from the idea that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai. All Souls Day for Jews is Shavuot, and our trick or treat bounty is a plate full of blintzes.
The Zohar adds, As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again. (Zohar I 186b)

Also from the Zohar:

All souls are subject to reincarnation; and people do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be God! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many reincarnations and secret works which they have to undergo, and of the number of naked souls, and how many naked spirits roam about in the other world without being able to enter within the veil of the King's Palace. Humans do not know how the souls revolve like a stone that is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed. (Zohar II 99b)

The great Italian Kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal) explained:

A single soul can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies, and in this manner, it can rectify damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly, it can also achieve perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations.

This would help to explain the classical existential question of why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa). They make up for it in a future life.

There is a Jewish believe that a human being at their core essence is a consciousness, one that transcends the corporeal self. In this light, the human experience is painted on a vastly larger canvas than we currently imagine and has a critical bearing on who we are. One way of exploring this idea is through the following metaphor: You have an axe. It gets a nick in the head so you have it replaced. Then, the handle breaks, and you replace that. Is it the same axe? Biologically speaking we don't inhabit the same container for the duration of our lives as most of our cells fully replicate about every 10 years. If our consciousness can endure a series of shifting bodies then perhaps it can leap from one to another. It's no less conceivable than the fact of being born in the first place.

Rabbi Isaac Luria's "Gates of Incarnations" is a fascinating exploration of the soul roots of many of the key figures of the Torah. It demonstrates how seemingly unrelated events and people in classic Biblical accounts are actually the same (albeit) reincarnated souls back to take a second crack at achieving their potential or to rectify their poor choices and the negative consequences from previous incarnations.

For example, though Noah was considered a righteous man, he is faulted for failing to take responsibility for his generation and allowing them to be destroyed by the flood. The Hebrew word for the boat he built (and that saved humanity) is "teyva." This word is only used one more time in the Torah and it also involves being saved from the water. It's the name given to the little raft that Moses' mother made to hide him from the Egyptians. According to Rabbi Luria, Moses is the soul of Noah who's been offered a second chance to take responsibility for his people and the unusual word is the hint that links the accounts. (This particular soul succeeds with flying colors in round two). Others see Noah coming back as Isaac Newton and Moses as the reincarnation of Cain
Who knows where the truth lies, but as you hear all about Halloween and All Souls Day this week as being a purely Christian concept, think of that dog in the courtroom. It’s probably Bernie Madoff, just looking for a way to make things right.

Happy Halloween and All (Jewish) Souls Day!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, October 28, 2021

In This Moment: October 29, 2021

In This Moment

in memory of Emmet Manheim. Yashar Koach to Lisa, Jeff and all who participated.
Shabbat Shalom.

I hope you'll be able to join us for services, hybrid on Friday night (where we'll celebrate the recent marriage of Ben Rosenthal and Stacy Newman). Mazal tov to them, and to Joan and Bob as well. And for those who might recall my sermons from a past life, in honor of the ghostly weekend of Halloween, I'll be talking about "Judaism and Reincarnation" (see a backgrounder here).

On Shabbat morning we'll be on Zoom, but don't let that deter you. It's a really loving, supportive, participatory group. "Stop by" at 10 AM, when we'll check out a new weekly Torah study packet for all ages created by Machon Hadar. It's called "Dvash" (honey), based on the old notion that Torah study should be as sweet as honey. Here is the packet for this week's portion of Hayye SarahFor more info and to subscribe to this excellent weekly parsha magazine, click here. And to read some Torah wisdom from one of our own students, see Lolly Socaransky's recent Bat Mitzvah d'var Torah for the portion of Noah.

It's nice these days to have a spare moment to churn one of these newsletters out, and connect, given how many funerals and illnesses we've had lately. Lots to catch up on. Today I took a deep dive into the complete rupture taking place at Park East Synagogue in New York. Read about it here, What's happening there should send shivers up the spine of Jewish leaders everywhere - no schadenfreude allowed. When people anywhere see the synagogue as the place that brings out the worst in human beings, and not a place filled with integrity, warmth and trust among people who care for one another, we all lose. I know that we have fought hard to build that kind of atmosphere here. Sometimes with greater success, sometimes less so, but we have never lacked for trying. So what's happening at Park East is profoundly troubling - and it should be. But this is one train wreck that doesn't give us the luxury of averting our eyes. There are no good guys - there are no bad guys.... But good people are more than capable of making a huge mess, which is what has happened at Park East.

A very different (though no less sad) story about another old clergy-guy appeared in the NYT this week - the 100 year old priest called to leave his community after 70 (seventy!) years. Read about it here. The narrative of his final mass is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Are you a fan of Larry David? "Curb Your Enthusiasm" began a new season last week and immediately fired off some bad-taste jokes against a victim of Alzheimers. David famously has lampooned the Holocaust, so no surprise. But when is it OK to go over the edge? Here's a very interesting take from a columnist at Times of Israel.

For you Halloween fans, check out "The Season of the Jewitch," from JTA. Meet the occultists who blend witchcraft and Jewish folklore. And from the Shabbat-O-Gram archives, pre-Covid edition: "Should Jewish Children Trick-or-Treat?"

And gone but not forgotten - last week's death of Colin Powell brought out some interesting articles about his Jewish connections - including the fact that he and Thurgood Marshall both gained their early-life impressions of the Jewish community in the same way - as Shabbos goys.

World Series? What World Series? Only the most Jewish ever!
Meanwhile, Pew came out with one of it's provocative surveys this week, with the focus on church-state separation. It states, among other revelations, that 69 percent of Americans say the US government should never declare any religion as the official religion of the United States. Fifteen percent (38 million people) say it should declare the country a Christian nation. A quarter of Republicans say that the government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation. Six percent of Democrats say that. See the survey here, and below you'll find one of the more pertinent charts:
Not to be outdone, just as we read about the potential erosion of that precious wall of separation, a new survey on anti-Semitism was released by the AJC. Some key takeaways:
  • One in four American Jews has been the target of antisemitism—through in-person remarks, online or on social media, or by way of physical attacks—over the past 12 months.
  • Four in ten American Jews have changed their behavior due to fears of antisemitism over the past year, with 22% saying they have avoided wearing or displaying things that would enable others to identify them as Jewish.
  • While 82% of American Jews believe antisemitism has increased over the past five years, only 44% of the general public agrees—even though 41% of Americans say they’ve witnessed at least one antisemitic incident over the past year. 
  • Most American Jews who heard about attacks on Jews in the United States and around the world during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas said they made them feel less safe as Jews in America—but most of the general public was largely unaware the attacks had even happened. 
For the full results, along with expert analysis, click here.
It is hitting very close to home, what with yet another anti-Semitic incident reported in Darien this week.
See this opinion piece in Ha'aretz for more background on "The New Fascism" that confronts us and should scare American Jews - they are based on Umberto Eco's list of the Fourteen Common Features of Fascism (which is not behind a paywall).  In another Ha'aretz piece, Rabbi Eric Hoffman gets very specific about what should scare us most right now.
And the long-awaited trial of the Charlottesville hate groups has finally begun. Click here to see how to get regular updates. Some may recall that Amy Spitalnick, who is coordinating this court battle, spoke here just one week before the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh three years ago. It's hard to say if progress has bene made since then, but what's clear is that the hate groups singled out here have paid a hefty price already, and the trial is just getting underway. Click here for more background.
Finally, speaking of Charlottesville, see this fascinating NYT op-ed by the renowned historian, Jonathan Sarna, on Jefferson's complicated legacy - especially with regards to the Jews.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Notes on "The Modern Jewish Canon: Jewish Politics and the Public Square"

Here's the link for the video of our class on Jewish Politics and the Public Square. I enjoyed our spirited conversation. For those who want to read the freshman class term paper that i wrote on the topic, you can find it here.

And here are the links to some of the readings discussed, by Walzer, Beinart and Gordis / Brous. if you are looking for the photos from the 1987 Soviet Jewry Rally in Washington, you can find them here.

Links to my Rosh Hashanah first day sermon, which echoes Walzer's focus on utopian vs gradual societal transformation.

Some key quotes from our readings:

“Messianism is the great temptation of Western politics. Its source and spur is the apparent endlessness of the Exodus march.”  - Walzer.

"History is a burden from which we long to escape, and messianism guarantees that escape; a deliverance not only from Egypt but from Sinai and Canaan too."

Cites Maimonides on the need for a gradualistic messainism:
And finally, read more about Beinart - Gordis at TBE in 2017. Or better yet, watch it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Lolly Socaransky on Noah

In This Moment: The Lie-Star State, First Kohen in Space, Not-So Bitter Heshvan, Children of Abraham Discuss Abraham

In This Moment

Some satisfied sushi eaters!
Photo by Aviva Maller Photography, from our Sushi in the Sukkah event.
Shabbat Shalom

We are now a week into the month of Marheshvan (or Heshvan). The "Mar" supposedly stands for "bitter," because there are no holidays this month (as if we need more holidays, after last month's bounty). But in fact there are important commemorations, like Sigd, a major festival for Ethiopian Jews, held 50 days after Yom Kippur. It's a half day of fasting and a half day of feasting and dancing. Granted, the Beta Yisrael community was lost to the Jewish world for many centuries, but we were lost to them too, so it is highly biased to say that Heshvan is a "bitter" month and ignore this ancient feast. Maybe we can use it as a way of honoring Jews of Color, much as Columbus Day has become a time to honor indigenous peoples.

And speaking of which, this week 235 new Olim from the Bnei Menashe community landed in Israel. Hailing from Manipur in northeast India, they have preserved the Jewish tradition across generations. The Bnei Menashe, or sons of Manasseh, claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. Their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries, before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the borders of Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout their sojourn in exile, the Bnei Menashe continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, including observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, celebrating the festivals and following the laws of family purity. They continued to nourish the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel. So let's honor Jews of color in not-so Mar Heshvan.
Meanwhile, let's honor the geezers too. I am informed by Mindy Rogoff that William Shatner became not only the first nonagenarian in space this week, he also became the first Kohen. Leonard Nimoy was also a Kohen, so the Enterprise had quite a priestly crew.

And the Shatner journey is perfect for this week when we read the portion of Lech Lecha, which describes the command to Abraham and Sarah to go forth from their homeland to a distant and unknown place, to their destiny - in other words, "to boldly go where no one has gone before."

As Mel Brooks would say, "May the Schwartz be with you!" (See the pdf of the portion here).

This month is bitter in some ways. My mother's yahrzeit is this coming week, and on a much grander scale, so are the yahrzeits of the Tree of Life victims in Pittsburgh (read about a new book on the impact of the massacre on the Pittsburgh Jewish community) and of Prime Minister Rabin, on the 12th of Heshvan, which falls this Monday. Listen below to Rabin's final speech (with subtitles), delivered at the rally where he was shot in 1995. Rabin was a victim of domestic terrorism, and as this article, written just a day after it happened, shows, "The shots targeted the very essence of the sovereign Jewish state; the blood on the pavement was the blood of democracy itself." Following the events of January 6 and after, and with the Charlottesville neo-Nazi trial finally set to begin in just days, this is a stark reminder to us of the fragility of democracy in the face of domestic terror.

Heshvan is indeed a month filled with meaning, celebration and resolve.
Yitzhak Rabin - The Last Speech (English Subtitles)

Children of Abraham Discuss Abraham
The Children of Abraham: Sharing Stories, Sharing Lives
A number of people had trouble accessing last night's statewide interfaith discussion, "Children of Abraham," featuring Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives. You can watch the archived video by clicking on the photo above. The theme of the program was on how we can build bridges to help open up eyes to the needs of the Other. It is something we do here in our community routinely, but we should never take it for granted. That's why I'm so delighted at the current work of our TBE Immigration Committee, featured in an email to the congregation yesterday.

For me there were two moments that were most special last night: One, when a Palestinian named Muhammad talked about learning to bake hallah - and taking one home to Gaza to show the folks (who smiled).

And the other was at the very end when the host asked each of us to talk about what we admire most in Abraham (who, as mentioned above, is the central figure of this week's portion). A Muslim colleague talked about his absolute faith in God, even when asked to sacrifice his son. I retorted that I preferred Abraham's demonstration of chutzpah in calling on the judge of the world to do justice by sparing the people of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are only a few righteous among them.

But i found my Christian colleague's perspective most interesting. He talked about Abraham's patience. I've never thought about Abraham as a particularly patient guy, but I hadn't noticed before what must be a fairly popular theme in Christian commentaries. Abraham has, in the current email vernacular, "constant contact" with God at the beginning of the portion. But at one point that contact stops for a long period of time. Imagine what it must have been like to be told to leave your home, uproot the family, discover the new place to be filled with famine and strife - hardly the paradise it was built up to be - and then God disables the "send" button. Abraham and Sarah are left to their own devices, so to speak, with no IT help coming from on high. Not even Apple Care can offer assistance when God is silent.

This important lesson found expression in the poetry and music of the Holocaust. And it is a reminder that our neighbors have so much to teach us - about ourselves.
The Lie-Star State: Holocaust and Critical Race Theory
I'm embarrassed and almost too disgusted to even mention this, but when news broke that a Texas school board was considering introducing Holocaust denial into their curriculum as a means of presenting "opposing views" to the classic children's book, "Number the Stars," about the rescue of Danish Jewry, it was impossible to ignore. Fortunately, I've heard that some saner minds in Texas have tried to walk this back. But it's not easy to walk this one back, especially if the letter of the law still seems to embrace Holocaust denial - or at the very least, moral relativism with regard to the worst and most proven crime ever committed. There are no "two sides" here. The issue is not "complex."

There are no legitimate opposing views on the historicity of the Holocaust. Period.

But neither should there be about slavery in the US. It happened and it was bad. Period.

As I wrote in my recent book "Embracing Auschwitz" and prior to that on these pages:
If lies can make it here, lies can make it anywhere. And Texas has become the Lie-Star State.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 |
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