Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In this Moment, May 5: Jewish & Pro Life

In This Moment

Anya Nadel leading prayers last Shabbat, accompanied by her brother Kyle.
Shabbat Shalom

The merry month of May gives us plenty to celebrate. I'm really looking forward to Friday night's Mediterranean Shabbat and Shabbat morning's Sisterhood Shabbat.

Which brings up a sticky topic. The Covid positivity rate for Connecticut for the past 7 days is 10.32%. It's not especially surprising to see this rise, given the recent holidays and everyone's pent up need to loosen the reins. And we know two things right now, that people who have been completely vaxxed and boosted are still being infected - we know that for sure - but it does also appear that for those who have been fully vaccinated, the dangers of severe illness and death from the current strains are relatively low.

What does a responsible congregation do with that information? That's up to our doctors and reopening committee to determine. I for one want to encourage those who are up to date on vaccinations to attend things in person, if you are comfortable doing so, beginning with this weekend's services. i'll be there for sure. We are now (very) highly recommending that masks be worn at all indoor activities.

As your rabbi, I need to answer to a higher authority and maintain a higher level of vigilance. Not only do I want try as hard as possible to prevent Super Spreaders from occurring on my watch, but I have to make it my business to avoid testing positive myself. I'm doubly boosted, so my fear of serious illness is minimal. But even if I am asymptomatic, a positive test would be devastating for a number of families who have scheduled major lifecycle events over the coming weeks. On one June day alone, I'll be doing three baby namings and a wedding. Or I could be doing none of the above, if I test positive.

Mayor Simmons, Vice President Harris, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert got Covid this week, among many others. The White House Correspondents Dinner has already claimed some victims, including Jonathan Karl, who shook President Biden's hand - and (gasp) sat next to Kim Kardashian - and reports are still coming in. Thankfully, the Vice President and Jimmy Kimmel can find replacements for most of their tasks, or work from home, or reschedule votes. I can find replacements for much of what I do too, but weddings, namings, b'nai mitzvah and funerals are all among the most important events in a family's life. Some have been years in the planning.

Think of the five most important days of your life. How many of those days included a rabbi? (OK, please don't count your first kiss or the day you pledged ΑΕΠ). On the other hand, how many involved Jimmy Kimmel? Kamala Harris? Caroline Simmons?

So that's why I need to do my best to avoid a positive test. I owe it to these families - including my own - I'm doing a cousin's wedding next week. In the past, I've led High Holiday services with acute laryngitis and many b'nai mitzvah services with the flu. But if I test positive for Covid, I can't just show up and keep it to myself. I'll be out of commission for a week even if I'm feeling fine. Kamala Harris can reschedule a Senate vote. I don't have the luxury of rescheduling a wedding.

So please understand the precautions I will be taking and why I'll be taking them. If I miss an "avoidable" indoor event, particularly one involving unmasking in order to eat, it's so that I can stand a better chance of being at all those once-in-a-lifetime moments that are coming up.

I can feel everyone's frustration that Covid hasn't gone away. The benefits of in person connections are self evident, but Zoom and Livestream have served us well, and we've done an excellent job of utilizing these hi-tech tools to enhance community.

Let's continue to pray for everyone's good health, hope that our growing collective immunities will reap dividends, and may we see one another only at simchas.
Jewish & Pro-Life
In last week's Torah portion of Achare Mot, we read in Leviticus 18:5: You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live: I am יהוה.

Rabbi Akiva notes that "Human beings shall live by them" means that we should never (or at least hardly ever) die from the performance of a commandment. Human life supersedes even the observance of resting on Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur. I've put together a packet of materials on the Jewish concept of "Pikuach Nefesh," which is derived from this verse. Pikuach Nefesh has come into play often over the past few years, as we have been called upon to stretch the boundaries of Jewish law to protect ourselves and loved ones from Covid. Life takes precedence.

We see this deeply embedded Jewish value playing out on very different arenas this week, one in Israel and one here in America.


...while the expected Supreme Court decision has not yet been finalized, the direction is clear. We are entering the post Roe era, a huge step backwards for those who value human life, at least when looked at through a Jewish lens. The overwhelming perspective of Jewish sages from all denominations and through the ages would direct us to do everything possible to save the life - of the mother. Everything including abortion.

To be Jewish, then, is to be pro-life. Pro human life. I'm all for being pro-choice as well. And I am all-in for religious freedom. My freedom of religion is being denied by a Supreme Court that questions the validity of my belief system, a system that states quite plainly that an unborn child is not yet a human being and therefore abortion is not murder.

In another place in the Talmud, the fetus who threatens the life of a mother is compared to a "Rodef," a pursuer with lethal intent. The abortion becomes, fo the rabbis, a form of self defense; until, that is, the process of childbirth reaches an advanced state. (See Sanhedrin 72b and Rashi's commentary, “the entire time that that it has not gone out into the air of the world, it is not [considered] a life.”

My point is not that rabbis living 2,000 years ago were scientifically correct in their assessments, though Roe V Wade uses some of the same logic; but that in espousing these values, Judaism from its outset was cultivating a culture of life.

We've been discussing these matters for years, but now is where the rubber hits the road. No matter where you stand on these issues, it is important to know where your religious sources stand, because, for better or for worse (and I feel it's for worse), the Supreme Court has chosen to fight this battle on religious grounds. So I recommend that you explore a newish website, Rabbis for Repro, which was created by the National Council of Jewish Women, in preparation for a battle they knew was coming. I have signed on to their rabbi's pledge. Download their Abortion and Jewish Values Toolkit. This essay by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains matters. Also, watch Ruttenberg talking about abortion in an interview with Samantha Bee,

We need to organize - to organize for life. We have ceded that high ground for far too long. It is pro-life to support the legality of abortion, even as we may wish for it to be rare. You can find out more about what NCJW is doing, and how you can help. Meanwhile, take a look at these four crucial questions below. These are prime talking points to understand consensus Jewish positions regarding abortion.

Sure it's about choice, freedom and the right to privacy (which is the foundation for so many other rights we hold sacred). But it all comes down to life - and health - of the mother. A society owes that kind of protection to those are alive, from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
Click on the logo above or here to watch Israel's 74th Yom Haatzmaut celebration

Israel turns 74 today, and the celebration is in full swing. But rather than a bombastic display of military might, Startup Nation hubris or high tech wizardry, Israel has opted for a more subdued celebration this year, with the focus on support for those most vulnerable. The logo this year focuses on hands reaching out to their neighbors. At a time when we are fighting the profound loneliness of isolation, the program began with a quote from Ecclesiastes:
Those honored with lighting the opening ceremony torches primarily work behind the scenes at social service organizations or have overcome their own challenges: a para-athlete, a survivor of domestic abuse, the diaspora-born founder of Shalva, an organization that cares for thousands with various disabilities. I've never seen so many wheelchairs at an event in Israel. Anyone who has tried to walk from the Western Wall to Jaffa Gate knows that, try as they might Israel is not the most accessible country on earth. Admittedly, there have been improvements).

There was a special focus on Mt Herzl last night and at Memorial Day ceremonies during the day, on those suffering from various forms of PTSD. And not just soldiers. Remember all the rockets that Hamas fired at Israel last May? At the celebration, the pyrotechnics over the skies of Jerusalem were silent, and the fireworks in Tel Aviv were cancelled altogether. "The barrage of fireworks is the same as a burst of gunfire for us," Ehud Amiton, a former soldier with PTSD who has worked to cancel the firework displays, told Israeli Army Radio Monday. "We don't oppose the celebrations, we oppose the noise." My dogs would very much appreciate the city of Stamford taking up this idea next July Fourth.

Ha'aretz had a feature on the topic of PTSD in the military this week, describing how "the past years have seen the appointment of psychologists with security clearance, and the senior commanders are required to identify those showing signs of distress and send them to see a professional. In addition, a social worker is stationed in every operational unit, and clinical psychologists are integrated in the field units." it is clearly a topic that needs to be discussed openly, not easy to given the default toward secrecy in the military and a tendency among some Israeli men to overdo it on the macho image and refuse to admit to vulnerability. (Watch Apple TV's new series "WeCrashed" and you'll see what I mean).

But not this week. At one of the memorial programs, two famous singers sang a popular song about PTSD. It's called "Haruach Hatova," "A Good Spirit" (or Wind, which is the same word). Here are the translated lyrics, and you can listen to the song below. (Here are the Hebrew lyrics.)

You have everything
but you don't have "you"
They shout that you're a king
and there's no kingdom here
you're a hero at winning war
but always falling in a fight against yourself
you have everything
but you don't have "you"
you understand that you're a slave
working on yourself
and there's no drug that will overcome PTSD
whoever will fly with you
will just crash with you
until the good wind comes
it will caress and peel off of you layer after layer
let yourself grow a wing and another wing
to live without fear
to die from love
You have everything
but you don't have "you"
They shout that you're a king
so where's a kingdom
you're a hero at winning war
but always falling in a fight against yourself
until the good wind comes
it will caress and peel off of you layer after layer
let yourself grow a wing and another wing
to live without fear
to die from love
מירי מסיקה ואמיר דדון - הרוח הטובה | יום הזיכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל
This song was written just last year, an indication that Israeli society is fast maturing, at age 74. It's one thing to have social services. But it's another to make the defense of the most vulnerable front-and-center at your biggest celebration. I suspect that seeing the discarded bodies of Russian soldiers in Ukraine must bother Israelis almost as much as the atrocities those soldiers committed. It's unthinkable for them to leave a soldier behind, dead or alive. A society that cares for its own is one that respects and values life, as our Jewish sources demand. It's a society that doesn't see its victories as notches on its belt. People are not trash to be discarded when they are no longer useful. The Torah teaches us never to mistreat the defenseless, the orphan, the widow - and a woman impregnated by rapists.

Israeli history is drenched in tragedy. Memorial Day encompasses every decade, nearly every year, because there have been so many wars and terror attacks. And each time young people have died, and young people grieve, and their parents grieve. Do yourself a favor and click here to watch a sampling of the memorial programs that took place in virtually every town, every kibbutz, every city in Israel on Tuesday night. They all are constantly grieving. Their post traumatic pain has little to do with noise and rockets. Silent fireworks can not really dull the pain.

All the memorial services are necessary but one is very special, because it recognizes the pain that people have inflicted on one another. The ceremony that Israelis and Palestinians do together is quite moving. You can watch it by clicking below. And the song on the video on the left was played at that ceremony. "Wanting Memories," by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a multi ethnic group that never fails to instill me with hope and put a smile on my face.
"Wanting Memories" - for the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony 2022
טקס יום הזיכרון הישראלי-פלסטיני 2022
For ultimately all the sadness of Yom HaZikaron is pierced by triumph and buoyed by hope.  Israelis, inspired by our glass-half-full religion, are and always will be a hopeful people. Their national anthem couldn't be more doleful - but it's called "The Hope." No wonder the Yom Haatzmaut celebratory concert of the Jerusalem Symphony was entitled, "Revival of the Dead." (Click on the poster below to watch it).

So I am Jewish and Pro-Life. At a time like this, it's good to remember that to be Jewish IS TO BE Pro-Life. Let's reaffirm it wherever and whenever we can.
Recommended Reading

  • Poland and the Jews. It's complicated (R.N.S.) Poland is not just a Jewish graveyard. It is Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. And yes, those bones can live. The JCC in Krakow has a thousand members. Among its clients are the children and grandchildren of Polish Jews who hid their identities. These are the children and grandchildren of Polish Jews who wound up with false baptismal certificates, in order to save their lives. Their heritage is there like lost luggage — waiting to be reclaimed.

Hag Samayach and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Temple Beth El

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