Thursday, February 23, 2023

In This Moment: "I Am Jewish," Shabbat for Ukrainian Jews, What does Adar joy look like?


In This Moment

As the Israeli government plows ahead in passing the initial readings of massive upheaval that will remove Israel's precious judicial checks and balances, here is a letter sent by the Federations of North America to the prime minister and opposition leader. At the bottom of this email, I've pasted the Conservative Movement's most recent resolution. The Federation letter correctly states that "such a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society." I am not confident that the ruling coalition will slow down this process, now that it is rolling downhill. They are too close to their goal. It also is clear that the security situation is unraveling speedily on the West Bank. Perhaps we need to emulate Queen Esther with some heavy duty prayer and three days of fasting. I just hope that American Jewry's purported leaders have a solid Plan B in mind for when all the diplomatic niceties fail. It would be even better if they made those plans public now, to provide an incentive for the government to stop this process and actually negotiate.

What does Adar's joy look like?

Adar is the most joyous month of the Jewish year, but what kind of joy is it? Last Shabbat I proposed eight responses, based on material in a source packet on joy that can be accessed at this link. You can watch my brief talk on the video below.

Adar's happiness is not the stoic acceptance and autumnal gratitude that characterize Sukkot joy. Rather, Adar joy is filled with anticipation; it is a joy that is enduring, one that erases worry and promotes intimacy, a re-communing with nature, community and God - and a joy of transition and transformation. With the overturning of winter's chill, this is a joy at the margins of life, where sometimes rules are meant to be broken and national calamities can be suddenly reversed. Adar is the joy of liminality, where previously unbreachable boundaries suddenly melt away, where what seemed impregnable suddenly becomes pregnant with possibility. Adar is, in fact, called the pregnant month; seven times every nineteen years, it births a leap month, an extra Adar, an added bundle of joy.

And what do you do if you feel joy? The great poet Mary Oliver shares a suggestion that seems perfect for our times, and for the days before Purim.

"I Am Jewish"

In anticipation of what will quite possibly be my final "Intro to Judaism" class here, beginning next Thursday, I present this gem from the archives. Back in 2004, I asked the congregation to share what it means to be a Jew. You can find some of the responses here. That year I dedicated my High Holidays talks to that subject, inspired by the heroism of Daniel Pearl, who died as a martyr while proclaiming "I am Jewish." Here how I concluded that sermon cycle discussing what it means to be Jewish:

What does it mean to say “I am Jewish?” To be a Jew is to have the courage to traverse the narrowest of bridges on the highest of mountain passes – but then, to find it within our hearts widen that bridge, through the power of our convictions and the depth of our capacity to love. To be a Jew is to act, because we can, to be humble, because we should, to confront fear and look the Evil Eye straight in the eye, because we dare, and to love, unconditionally, all people of all backgrounds, all over the world, because we must.

What do you think? Sign up for the ten-session class, which begins next Thursday at 7, and let us know.

More on those "He Gets Us" ads....
After I wrote my op-ed expressing concerns about the billion dollar Jesus "Gets Us" marketing campaign, I received this email from a clergy friend and colleague at a large church here in Stamford. It helped put it all in perspective for me - and really made my day. (I also found the signature slightly ironic - but "got it.") With her permission, I'm sharing it here.
Hi Josh,
I pray you and your family are well this day. I wanted to thank you for your recent article that found its way into the Presbyterian Outlook magazine recently responding to the Super Bowl commercial He Gets Us. 
I was having a long discussion with our youth here at church on Sunday after worship, and when it came up the kids had lots of questions, but one was, "what have people of other faiths said?" They really felt it was what one boy called it, "a really rude commercial to people of other faiths." So, I pulled up your article and we all read it together. 
First off, they were very impressed I knew you. Second, it really helped them process things and helped give them a framework for how problematic it was for people of different faiths as well as how it was problematic for them as Christians. We have had a lot of conversations about how many Christians put out generic messages of Jesus' love but that it always seems to come with conditions that aren't always clear at first. It's been a bit of an eye-opening thing for many of them. 
Again, thank you for the work you do. it's a pleasure to call you a colleague in these crazy times. 
Peace in Christ,
Rev. S....

Recommended Reading

Classic Parsha Packets for Terumah

Where Does God Live?

Why would God insist on a physical place, in the desert, in which to dwell? Can't one experience holiness everywhere?

Love, Unity (God's and Ours), the Sh'ma and the Tabernacle. Why One is Not the Loneliest Number

A deep exploration of our prayer of Unity, in light of the construction of our place of Unity.

Holy Spaces: The Tabernacle, the Temple and the Kotel - More verses are dedicated to the construction of the tabernacle than any other thing in the Torah. What makes these places "holy?" Does God truly dwell there?

The Tent Peg Business, Revisited

In this week's portion we begin a long description of the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. When the tabernacle is completed, near the end of the Book of Exodus, we are told, “And it came to pass that the tabernacle was ‘one’” (Exod. 36:13). Commenting on this curious expression, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (d. 1854) observes:


In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel were joined in their hearts; no one felt superior to his fellow. At first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the “service” of the tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended on the other. Then they understood how what all they had accomplished was not by virtue of their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had only later merely joined in completing its master building plan, so that “it came to pass that the tabernacle was one” (Exod. 36:13). Moreover, the one who made the Holy Ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who had only made the courtyard tent pegs.


This midrash inspired a seminal article that has influenced synagogues greatly over the past two generations. It’s called “The Tent Peg Business,” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and it was more recently updated by his daughter, Rabbi Noa Kushner. These ideas have been integral to my thinking, as a longtime admirer of Lawrence Kushner, whose congregation in Sudbury, MA became a place of pilgrimage for me and many others back when I was in High School. He also spent a weekend here as a scholar in residence back in the ‘90s.  You can find the complete essay at


There are so many lessons to be found in this motherlode of out-of-the-box ideas. Here are about a third of the Kushners’ suggestions, many of which have become only more relevant over time.


1.   Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts that they should not, and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else.

2.   There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds (or in the classical language of Pirkei Avot: avodah, Torah, and g’milut chasadim). This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer (avodah) is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence – a matter of the heart. Study (Torah) is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, and rigorous logic and argument – a matter of the head. And good deeds (g’milut chasadim) are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing – matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies.


3.   We can broaden the description of primary Jewish acts to include all mitzvot. Specifically, I (Noa Kushner) want to emphasize a religious connection to Israel as well as interpersonal ethics (l’shon hara, etc.).


4.   In order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things that are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include maintaining a building, raising money, and perhaps forming a board of directors. (It should be here noted, however, that in the long history of our people there have been healthy, vibrant, and solvent congregations that had none of the above.)


5.   Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that maintaining the building, raising money, or the board of directors is the reason for the existence of the congregation. Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught


6.    It’s so easy for everything attached to a Jewish organization (websites! dues!) to become sacrosanct. But supportive facets of Jewish communal life (what Lawrence Kushner calls the secondary acts) are ripe for experimental approaches precisely due to the fact that they are not inherently holy. In other words, because the stakes are relatively low, we can afford to swing and miss. 13. Precisely because they are inherently holy, we must also experiment with our approaches to Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasa-dim.


7.   A goal of all institutions is stability and longevity. But our question is: At what points do stability and longevity compromise the business of nourishing and enlivening Jews and Jewish experiences?


8.   Forty years ago, Dr. Eugene Borowitz wryly proposed the creation of biodegradable congregations – communities that had predetermined life spans. (This may now be happening in many communities even though it was not part of the original plan.) To be sure, some synagogues will continue successfully on their current trajectories. But for many, it may now be time to consider “disruptive business models.” Kodak, for example, lost sight of its primary mission of “capturing moments” and became fixated instead on its own technology. Our own “technology,” too, is only relevant so long as it builds Jews and those ready to practice Jewish life.


9.   At the same time, to be sure, an innovative idea is not inherently successful by virtue of its novelty alone. There is only one test: Does the idea build Jews?


10.There is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that people who are drawn into the congregation for an innocuous nonreligious event, such as gourmet cooking, move onto activities of more primary religious worth any sooner than if they had been left alone to discover their own inevitable and personal religious agendas and timetables. Indeed, there is substantial data to suggest that congregations that run many “basement” activities in hopes of getting people from there onto upper floors, only wind up adding on to the basement.


11. Just because it works for one generation does not mean it will work for the next. In fact, we might even say that if it worked for one generation, that is a good indication that it will not work for the next.


12. It’s time to quit asking: “Who is a Jew?” and, instead, ask: “Who wants to do Jewish?” Enough with being gatekeepers; it’s time to invite in the people who might well want to connect with Judaism but don’t know that they are welcome.


13. Finally, the members of the congregation must nurture one another because they need one another; they simply cannot do it alone. Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are hopelessly communal people.

More Recommended Reading

  • Dealing With Troubling Texts (MJL) This is the question I needed to voice: “Would a holy text say something like this?” I articulate the question in this way in order to make it more, not less, difficult to answer. If this story were found in any other text, it would bother me to the extent that it reflected a certain attitude that was abhorrent. Yet, once the moral judgment was made, and the political investments deconstructed, I would move on. I had then fulfilled my obligation as scholar and teacher. This, however, was not the case when I confronted a text that was part of the sacred core of my tradition.

  • "I was here in 1995, and this time could be worse." (Daniel Gordis) It (almost) doesn’t matter any more what one thinks about the judicial reform. The greatest danger facing Israel may not be the judicial reform (or “judicial overthrow” as others call it), but the civil war that it could spark. This country does not have a gun problem, but there are a lot of guns in the homes of this country. It’s hard to know exactly what civil war looks like, but it’s not hard to imagine violence at any one of the massive protests now popping up across the country. If that should happen, we’re in uncharted territory


Click here to see enlarged Israeli front pages (English and Hebrew) of this crisis

The bold headlines here read, "The Protest / The Vote."

Hear the headline states, "The Cry," as protesters unscroll Israel's Declaration of Independence. On top it states, "The entire country is flags," an ironic take on a patriotic song usually sung on Independence Day.

Shabbat for Ukrainian Jews

As mark on Friday the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we dedicate our services this weekend to all Ukrainians, and in particular to the Jewish community that has been so decimated, yet, like their compatriots, remains resilient. Slava Ukraini. See the materials below (and click here for high resolution pdfs), and make this Ukraine Shabbat part of your home Shabbat experience too.

LinkedInShare This Email
Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 |
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community

Thursday, February 16, 2023

In This Moment: Majority Rules? Are we at an AI inflection point? Repro Shabbat, the first Shabbat-O-Gram


In This Moment

Should the Majority Always Rule?

Exodus 23:2

The passage above, from this week's portion of Mishpatim, states that a prerequisite for a just judicial system, and therefore a just society, is that majority rule must never become absolute. The rights of minorities cannot be trampled upon; there needs to be a check on those who are in power. For the ancient rabbinic courts, the majority did in fact rule - but only if those rulings were just and did not lead to evil. That principle, so ahead of its time, is one that can guide us now. This portion, which contains many of the 613 mitzvot, also reminds us, twice, to love the stranger, "for we were strangers in the land of Egypt." According to the sage Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah “warns against the wronging of a stranger in thirty-six places; others say, in forty-six places.” However many, it's a lot. At a time when the new Israeli government is trying to upend (rather than simply "reform") a carefully balanced judicial check on power, in a move that would bring Israel closer to the ranks of "illiberal democracies" like Hungary, the lessons of our portion warrant close scrutiny.

This week's Hebrew front page presents Israel's agonizing split screen:

Top headline: "Democracy - the Giant Demonstration Opposite the Knesset, more than 100,000 People". Bottom: "Endless TerrorAsil Suaed, a border police officer, was killed by friendly fire in Jerusalem during a terror incident outside the Shuafat refugee camp. Israelis have always lived life in split screen. The external threats have always been there. Now they are matched, and some say exceeded, by the threats from within.

From Ha'aretz:

What happened in Jerusalem on Monday wasn’t just a demonstration. Yes, people stood in front of the Knesset building with signs and posters, party leaders gave speeches, and everyone chanted in favor of democracy and against the government’s plan to crush Israel’s judiciary. But that was just one part of the story.

The Israeli media covered this huge demonstration with very little emphasis on the content of the speeches or the messages of the protesters. In today’s political climate in Israel, there is very little discussion of substance. The demonstration on Monday wasn’t about persuasion. It was meant to be a show of force.

That’s why the media dealt obsessively with only one question throughout the day: How many people attended the demonstration. It may sound silly – does it really matter that much if there were 90,000 or 150,000, when the images clearly show that the streets leading to the Knesset were packed with people and thousands more protested in other parts of the country?

Well, it does, because Israel isn’t experiencing a normal political debate at this critical moment in its history. Instead, it is in the midst of a "cold" civil war, so far without much physical violence (thankfully), but with a very clear emphasis on power.

The government is determined to use its power to crush the liberal elements of Israel, and it views the Supreme Court as one of the most important liberalizing forces in Israeli society. It was often the court, not the Knesset, that delivered equal rights for LGBTQ Israelis, women and minorities. Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies now see a golden opportunity to break it.

But the other side has power, too. Economic power, as evident in the decisions of tech companies to pull their funds out of the country; and also the power of numbers and determination, which was clearly on display Monday before the Knesset.

What we saw on Monday wasn’t any kind of climax for the protest movement. It was a warning shot to the other side as we prepare for the next stages of this battle for the soul of Israel.

World Wide Wrap

More Gun Violence

On this fifth anniversary of the Parkland massacre and a week of more heartbreak on campus and elsewhere, we need to turn all our attention to the need to reduce gun violence.

Jewish sources abound regarding this life-and-death issue. We can start our conversation with these passages:

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. 

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a) 

The opposite of good is not evil; it is indifference (Elie Wiesel) 

Some are guilty, but all are responsible. (Abraham Joshua Heschel) 

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev 19:16)

See more resource on this source sheet, as well as this community resource guide prepared by the Religious Action Center, and in particular Rabbi David Saperstein's explanation on why this is a religious issue, which includes this important passage:

Our legislators and the gun lobby want to blame everyone but themselves. The problem, they say, is mental illness. On the one hand, tautologically, mass murderers are emotionally disturbed. On the other, the compelling evidence testifies that the overwhelming percentage of those with mental illness are not violent and those who are violent are far more often a danger to themselves than to others. More compellingly, in Canada and Japan, there are people with the same mental illnesses as here in America but they don't pick up their mother's legally obtained Bushmaster and randomly shoot people.

Recommended Reading

  • 5 Key Takeaways from AJC’s State of Antisemitism in America Report 2022
  • 1.More Jews feel less secure in America.
  • 2. American Jews are proud, but altering behavior out of fear.
  • 3. Antisemitism online and on social media is a continuing threat. But young American Jews experience it differently. 
  • 4. American Jews pursuing higher education are experiencing some lows.
  • 5.Americans know antisemitism is a problem for society, but more can be done. 

The "He Gets Us" Super Bowl ad controversy

  • And finally - The Backstory to That Jesus Ad at the Super Bowl (Slate) As one spokesperson of the campaign told Ad Age, “the ‘He Gets Us’ Super Bowl spots will explore how the teachings and example of Jesus demonstrate that radical love, generosity, and kindness have the power to change the world.” This, ultimately, gets at the real political underpinnings of the campaign: the belief that America will become a much more peaceful, successful, and wholesome place once it has become a more fully Christian nation—a more traditional perspective than the focus on diversity and “radical compassion” and “standing up for the marginalized” implies. On Sunday, $20 million is being placed on that bet.

Meanwhile, our wonderful, seven-part interfaith conversation on "The Bible With and Without Jesus" came to a conclusion last week. Watch it here and see how mutual respect in interfaith dialogue does in fact exist.

Are we at an AI inflection point?

  • Also see Microsoft’s Bing Chatbot Offers Some Puzzling and Inaccurate Responses (NYT). See also Help, Bing Won’t Stop Declaring Its Love for Me - A.I. chatbots are not sentient beings that can think their own thoughts, despite what science fiction fans might imagine. But the similarities between those chatbots and a human brain are already quite disturbing.That’s the central takeaway from NYT’s Kevin Roose’s recent two-hour chat with the artificial intelligence software being built into Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Over the course of the discussion, the chatbot announced that its name was Sydney, that it was in love with Kevin and that it might want to engineer a deadly virus. Afterward, Kevin — a Times technology columnist who’s hardly a technophobe — pronounced himself frightened by A.I.

  • Also, ChatGPT is the best thing to happen to writers (Boston Globe) - So much writing is lazy and clichéd, and ChatGPT is just the thing to prompt us human writers to improve, to embrace our own individual personalities and voices, and to write with force, drama, and humor in a way no AI program can. Otherwise, we will be dead.

In light of the meteoric rise of Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT into our consciousness, it is worthwhile to take a look back at when the Web was new and the experience of going online so revolutionary and connecting. We've seen much more of the dark side in recent years, and my own views have shifted. But my optimism, as expressed in this chapter from my book on seeking God in cyberspace, published in 2000, is worth revisiting. And to see my first email communication with the congregation is revelatory, I've posted a key chapter from that book on my website.

The first congregational email, sent on November 25, 1996, is below.

Dear Congregants,

You are part of history: the first e-mail transmission on our Beth El congregants list.  Right now the list is about 20 strong, consisting of those of you who have given me your addresses or e-mailed me over the past few months.  The list will grow dramatically over the coming weeks as congregants hear about it in our mailings (and from you).  The advantages of a "congregants list" are obvious: instant communications, enabling us to let you know about funerals for instance, important meetings and programs, schedule changes and to otherwise answer questions of general interest.  In the not-too-distant future, I hope to be able to set up a "listserv" that will be more interactive so that you can talk to other congregants, but although this format is more one-sided (me talking to you), you are free to e-mail me with your feedback, which I can forward to others on the list.  Let me know if a matter you bring up is something you would want to share with other congregants.

                                                                                   Shalom from Cyberspace,


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

What is Shabbat Shekalim?

What is Shabbat Shekalim? Why name a Shabbat, of all days, after Israeli currency? As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes in, The Jewish Way, "More than any other holiday, Shabbat reflects the changing moods and concerns of Clal Yisrael (the collectivity of Israel).... In the weeks before Passover, four special Shabbat days prepare the community agenda: Shabbat Shekalim, the occasion to to give the annual gift to the national treasury for Temple sacrifices;  Shabbat Zachor (Remember), a reminder of the Amalekite genocidal assault on Israel and the ongoing dangers of anti-Semitism; Shabbat Parah (Red Heifer), the declaration of the need to purify in preparation for the Paschal lamb sacrifice and the central national feast; and Shabbat Hachodesh (the Month), an announcement of the arrival of the month of Passover, the new year of liberation." 

The fact that Shabbat Shekalim always comes at the time when I need to be reminded to get my own taxes in order is one way that I have tried to imbue even the secular calendar with the rhythms of Jewish sacred time. It also reminds me that the giving of taxes is in itself a sacred activity. Corny as it seems, I actually improvise a bracha when I put my completed tax forms in the mail, realizing that this money is going to help people who are in need, and help this nation maintain its position moral leadership, not to mention the fact that some of this money also helps to preserve Israel's security. 

Classic Parsha Packets for Mishpatim

A Rabbinic Driving Manual

How the portion of Mishpatim might be helpful in a driver's ed class. A handy guide to the highways of life.

Commandment and Choice: How Should Modern Jews Relate to Jewish Law? What is the relationship between Law and Love? A look at Mishpatim and the Ahavah Rabbah prayer. What does it mean for a modern Jew to say "We will do and we will obey (Na'aseh V'Nishma)?"

Coping with stress during hard economic times: Shabbat Shekalim sources for learning and meditation

A special supplement prepared during the 2008-2009 economic meltdown.

Hang in there!

Adar begins this coming Tues. and Wed.!

Blessing for the New Month of Adar (recited this Shabbat), by Ilana Streit

May we be the poppy seeds in each other's hamentaschen

this year

may the world be sweet to the taste

  soft to the touch

    and moonlight to the eyes

      and redemption to the soul

may we design contests in which we all win

may we design beauty contests to which each moment

  is a contender

may we all be blessed with cousins who have our backs

  and who would fast on our account

may we recognize when we are Esther

  when we are Mordecai

and when we are Aḥashverosh

may we keep remembering to forget to remember

may we each and may all of us appear at the party of our lives

  wearing the crown of our royalty

and whatever the hell else we choose

And finally, on this Presidents' Day weekend...

George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I.

(click on the letter to enlarge)

LinkedInShare This Email
Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 |
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community