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, 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.
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.
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.
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 https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-tent-peg-business-revisited-part-1/
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.
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
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.