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.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
In This Moment: I Asked Chat GPT to teach me the Sh'ma. I did a better job. But it looks cool in Hindi इसराइल, यहोवा हमारा देवता है, यहोवा एक है; Israel at 75. Remembering Synaplex
In This Moment
Yediot's front page for Yom Hashoah showed 95 year old survivor Nate Leipciger returning to the very barrack where he was imprisoned at Auschwitz - Birkenau. He returned for the March of the Living, which drew over 13,000 marchers this year, and a "sea of Israeli flags." Read Nate's story here. On the bottom, the headline reads, "We are Lena's children." Lena Kuchler Silberman was surrogate mother for hundreds of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, some of whom are photographed here and who shared their stories. Read more about her here.After the Jews in her city were deported to Bełżec, she managed to make her way to Warsaw where she lived under an alias, which she used to help smuggle children out of the Ghetto. A well-known story tells how in June 1942 she found a live baby lying on top of the corpse of its mother. Tucking the baby under her coat, she smuggled it out of the Ghetto. She found it refuge in a monastery, even though they initially refused to accept a circumcised child. Learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place 80 years ago.
How do we celebrate Israel's 75th?
It's not a frivolous question. Israelis are asking it all the time, given the hard feelings generated by the current situation. What's even more sensitive is the question of Memorial Day, the day before Yom Ha'atzmaut. Israelis take those observances very personally, for obvious reasons, and there is a question as to whether it would be appropriate for politicians to attend. See the article below, fromtoday's Ha'aretz front page.
(The article continues)...Thousands of bereaved family members have already signed letters begging government ministers to break with tradition this year, out of respect for them, and stay away from the cemeteries. They presumably represent the majority of Israelis who are opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul and fear it could spell the end of democracy in the country.
Many have threatened to disrupt the speeches and even worse, should their request be denied.
Omri Shabtay, whose father was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, says he would rather just not show up. “This will be the first time I will not be standing at my father’s graveside on Memorial Day,” says the 53-year-old high school history and civics teacher.
Memorial Day has always been a symbol of consensus in what is now an increasingly divided Israel. It is the one day of the year when most Israelis are willing to put their differences aside out of respect to those young men and women who gave their lives for the country. While Memorial Day in the United States is known for big shopping mall sales and backyard barbecues, in Israel it is a time of reflection and mourning, with sad songs and heartbreaking testimonies heard throughout the day on the radio.
It is no coincidence that those who decided on the dates of Israel’s national holidays put Memorial Day a day before Independence Day. It was a way to remind Israelis of the very heavy cost of their independence.
A group of ex-pat Israelis in the Bay Area called "UnXceptable" has drafted an open letter imploring Federation leaders to un-invite the Prime Minister, who is scheduled to speak at the General Assembly in Jerusalem next week. The invitation stands, and I think it should. Netanyahu is the duly elected leader and should be invited to speak. But these are not normal times and the threat to Israel's democracy is so severe that diaspora Jewish leaders would be derelict if they were to pursue politeness beyond what is absolutely necessary. It is imperative that they speak out. Sure Netanyahu should speak, but he also should be required to listen to the concerns of diaspora Jewry. In any event, the protests surrounding the convention promise to be extremely disruptive.
The Israeli government is trying so hard to suppress protests this week that they've instructed the TV production crew to cut away from any embarrassing protests that might break out at the national ceremony on Mount Herzl, and show tapes of the dress rehearsal from the day before. One wonders, has the leadership of Startup Nation heard of cell phones and social media? If any protest occurs during the ceremony, it will go viral long before the TV stations have a chance to cut transmission of the official feed. What are they going to do then? Cut away to "Heidi?" The real question is not whether to cut away from the protests, but whether to cut to the red faces of the politicians who have brought this calamity about. Analysts of Netanyahu's awful interview with Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" are seeing signs that he is looking for a way out, and the foreboding credit outlook downgrade from Moody's might have given him just the opening to pull back the legislation.
The protests are now part of the patriotic fabric of the country, complete with songs, chants and many, many Israeli flags. Given that the judicial dismantling is still very much on the table, Israel's 75th will not be a day off from dissent. People are too concerned about what Israel will look like on its 76th birthday to let their guard down on the 75th.
Urdu: ای اسرائیل، یہووا ہمارا خدا ہے، یہووا ایک ہے۔ (Aye Israil, Yahova hamara khuda hai, Yahova ek hai.)
Vietnamese: Hỡi Ít-ra-en, Đức Giê-hô-va là Đức Chúa Trời của chúng ta, Đức Giê-hô-va là một.
Yiddish: שמע ישראל, ה' אלהינו, ה' אחד. (Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.)
Greek: Ακούετε, Ισραήλ, ο Κύριος ο Θεός μας, ο Κύριος είναι ένας. (Akouete, Israeel, o Kyrios o Theos mas, o Kyrios einai enas.
Dutch: Hoor, Israël, de HEER is onze God, de HEER is één.
I then asked ChatGPT to provide 20 different ways to translate the Sh'ma into English. It gave me 19, but I think I interrupted it while it was composing the last one.
Pretty pathetic, if you ask me. It strains credulity to find an Orthodox Jewish translation that would use the term "Yahweh."
Then I asked for "rabbinic and more modern" commentaries on the Sh’ma.
You'll have to go to my website to see the replies. Not worth boring you with them here.
What is the purpose of this exercise? It points to the strengths and weaknesses of Artificial Intelligence in its state of infancy - as well as the power of this particular prayer. The Sh'ma speaks to the ultimate Oneness that imbues the universe - a unity of God, of humanity, of language itself. I could have asked for the translation into a thousand dialects, but it always brings us back to the singular Hebrew original. At the same time, this unique prayer proclaiming Oneness has an infinite number of shadings and meanings. From the one, many and from the many, one.
Demonstrating that in a matter of seconds with multiple translations is a great strength of ChatGPT. But the commentaries offered were weak, pedantic, run of the mill, and so many classic Jewish insights were not included.
Frustrated by its incompetence, I decided to run rabbinic circles around Chatty by producing ten of my own takes on the Sh'ma:
Here are ten ways that I understand the Sh'ma - the verse and the prayer. All could have been part of the ChatGPT response. None were.
1) The Sh'ma as Witness:
The Hebrew verse has two letters that are enlarged, the ayin of the first word (Sh'ma) and the daled of the last word (Ehad). Why?
a) Those two letters spell the word "Ayd," which means "witness." In saying the Sh'ma we are bearing witness to the unity of God and creation
b) Those letters are enlarged to keep us from mispronouncing those two words. A daled looks much like a resh, which could lead us to say "Aher" (other) instead of "Ehad," implying that there is another God.
When it comes to bearing witness, we Jews are the world champs. Theologian Art Green asks, why does the Sh’ma say “Adonai Eloheynu,” Adonai OUR God? Adonai, he states, was what was there before each of us came into existence. Adonai becomes Eloheynu - OUR God - for the brief instant that our lives flash across the screen. But then we let it go, and it is Adonai, once again, endless being. Our individual existences are merely the blink of an eye – but we are linked to an eternal life force, and we are eternal witnesses to its power, and to the role that our people have played in the unfolding of the divine drama.
Just think about that – Sh’ma Yisrael….Adonai-Eloheynu-Adonai…echad. Each of us is living in that one narrow window of time, that brief, fleeting moment of Eloheynu, shoehorned in between the two Adonais – the eternities that preceded our birth and that will follow. For this brief moment, we inherit the mantle of being a witness to all that has come before, all of that becomes ours, all that sanctity becomes Eloheynu, Our God. What are we going to do with that gift.
Yes, much of our Jewish experience has been painful, but that has given us the unique ability to feel others’ pain because we ourselves have felt it. We have the responsibility to love the stranger, as the Torah instructs us more than 30 times, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have that certain instinct, radar to detect prejudice, an instinct that few others have. We can bear witness to all suffering. Because we have felt that pain.
2) The Sh'ma as a prayer of transformation and transition:
The Sh'ma is the perfect transitional and transformational prayer. The one that helps us mark the change from evening to morning, from past to future, from lying down to rising up, from home to away, from childhood to Bar Mitzvah to parenthood, from life to death, from comfort to martyrdom, from periphery to witness, and all by uttering the name of God, Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey – the name that is breath, the One that is One, proclaiming that all life is, in fact one – as long as we are breathing. You WILL Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. B’kchol nafshecha – with all your nefesh. That word nefesh means more than soul. It is that sacred breath of life, breathed into us by God, which we breathe back out into the world. To breathe is to testify to the gift of being alive, of constantly becoming, constantly growing.
The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant IS change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.
3) The Sh'ma and the power of ritual:
How often do we recite it? We say this prayer up to five times in a given day, more on Yom Kippur. Why do we recite it and not the Ten Commandments? In fact, the fringes of the tallit, the tzitzit, which are discussed in the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer, symbolize all 613 commandments, and not just the Big Ten. So the Sh'ma is therefore number 1.
The Sh'ma reminds us of the importance of ritual. “V’shinantam l’vanecha,” the Sh’ma says, “Teach your children and speak of these sacred words.” But it doesn’t really say "teach.” “V’shinantem” means repeat. Don’t just teach this to your child once. Do it a second time. Repeat. Again and again. We have another word for repetition. Ritual. Daily prayer, weekly Sabbath, seasonal holidays, annual gatherings like this – that’s the Jewish way of dealing with the chaos. Discipline, repetition and focus.
4) The Sh'ma helps us to live with focus, passion and intensity:
The Sh'ma is one of oldest prayers – it was found in tefillin from the1st century! Tefillin are alluded to in the Sh'ma - The amulet shows that our connection with God is one of great passion and intensity, like a marriage. The straps around the finger symbolize a wedding ring. (Click here for more about tefllin.) And then there is the mezuzah, the put on the doorpost to help us focus on making a home a sacred space. The Sh'ma is all about focus. In the Talmud, we hear that when the time for the Sh’ma arrived Rabbi Yehuda would cover his eyes, because he was engaged in other activities. The recitation of the Sh’ma was seen as a moment of deep inward turning and intense concentration. It remains a custom to cover our eyes today when reciting the Sh’ma. There is no multitasking with the Sh’ma. This intense concentration is how we turn a set prayer, one recited at a set time, into something more purpose-filled.
And when exactly should it be recited in the morning? How do we seize control over time? It came down to one of two things – either when it’s light enough to distinguish different colored threads of the tzitzit or for us to recognize the face of a casual acquaintance at a distance of about 6 feet. Maimonides fixed that time as being about 6 minutes before sunrise. The window for the morning Sh’ma extends for about three hours, for that is when, according to the sages, princes and kings would arise. Even royals were tied to the clock. Even they had to answer to a higher authority. Saying the Sh’ma at the right time was considered by our sages to be a more meritorious act even than the study of Torah. And then again, just before bed – when we are most fearful.
And how should we say these words? We should say the Sh'ma with Kavvana (concentration), which is why many close their eyes, with the intention of accepting the burden of the "sovereignty of heaven."
But, you may ask, hasn’t technology liberated us from the tyranny of time? Isn’t it true that now we don’t have even to set appointments? After all, if we’re running late - which we always are - we can simply text the other person so that both of us can arrive late. Spontaneity has taken over as we’ve lost our ability to schedule. Time can be adjusted to suit our own particular needs. Dinner hour? Who’s kidding whom? When you work 24/7, you don’t dine, you graze. There is never a set time to eat anymore. The Sh’ma reminds us that life should bind us to principles and responsibilities that go beyond our own whims.
6) The Sh'ma promotes Jewish unity and continuity:
Who wrote the Sh'ma? The Sh'ma is ascribed by some to King Josiah, who sought to unify his southern kingdom and draw people away from the idolatry that was rampant. The Sh'ma was the credo established to bring about that unified response, much like our Pledge of Allegiance.
Others ascribe the verse to Jacob's children at his deathbed, pledging to carry on the faith before their father, also known as Israel. "Listen, Israel (Dad), the Lord who you worship, who is also our God - is one and the same. We'll carry on the faith!"
7) The Sh'ma enables us to see the universe as an integrated whole, to see God in everything and everyone. See this Marge Piercy poem: Piercy translates it this way:
Hear, Israel, you are of God and God is one.
Praise the name that speaks us through all time.
So you shall love what is holy with all your courage, with all your passion
with all your strength.
Let the words that have come down
shine in our words and our actions.
We must teach our children to know and understand them.
We must speak about what is good
and holy within our homes
when we are working, when we are at play,
when we lie down and when we get up.
Let the work of our hands speak of goodness.
Let it run in our blood
and glow from our doors and windows.
We should love ourselves, for we are of God.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
We should love the stranger, for we
were once strangers in the land of Egypt
and have been strangers in all the lands of the world since.
Let love fill our hearts with its clear precious water.
Heaven and earth observe how we cherish or spoil our world.
Heaven and earth watch whether we choose life or choose death.
We must chose life so our children's children may live.
Be quiet and listen to the still small voice within that speaks in love.
Open to that voice, hear it, heed it and work for life.
Let us remember and strive to be good.
Let us remember to find what is holy within and without.
8) The Sh'ma escorts us from birth to death:
This prayer is the first thing Jews learn as kids (traditionally recited at bedtime) and the last thing on our lips before we die. This is the prayer recited by Rabbi Akiva as he was martyred two thousand years ago, and by Jews dying at Auschwitz. The words defiantly proclaim that the ultimate victory will be of life over death.
We are first commanded to internalize the mitzvot — to literally take them to heart. And that is the means that bring us to the end - love of God. How then, can you command love? Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.” In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love, love, love, love, love, love. Six times! Like a mantra. We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we say at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that old bit of wisdom from Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children learn what they live”
If a child lives with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If a child lives with praise, they learn to appreciate.
If a child lives with security, they learn to have faith.
If a child lives with acceptance, and friendship, they learn to find love in the world.
This is a popularized version of Erik Erikson’s idea of basic trust. The psychologist conducted an enormous amount of research showing that children who have a secure attachment with loving, sensitive caregivers come to know a world that is predictable and reliable. The Sh’ma is saying that such a world is at the root of the Jewish concept of love. A loving parent is doing God’s work. A nurturing community becomes God’s place - which is, by the way, what Temple Beth El aspires to be, an ever-embracing community, from womb to tomb, a conduit of divine love, nurturing our temple family and then projecting it out into the world.
Well, our prayers seem to be telling us that we have lived in a child’s paradise. A world of freely given love, an unending flow of love. And all we have to do is recognize it – and return it. And return it with ALL our heart, which for the ancients meant with our intellect, and ALL our soul, our nefesh, which is life itself, and with all our might, all our physical and material capacity. Love the world as best you can, in any way that you can, because we’ve been loved.
We take that love and hurl it right back at ya’ God, right back at ya’ to the world. That’s what we are here to do as Jews. We are here to love. Not because we are commanded to – rather because, when we have been enveloped by so much love, it is natural to want to give love back. The Sh'ma and V’Ahvata, then, to summarize, is not a command but a natural response to a lifetime of nurturing.
10) The Sh'ma as a question, rather than a proclamation.
We can also look at the Shma as a question rather than a proclamation. This is an interpretation with both Kabbalistic and modern shadings, We have to answer it – we have to MAKE God One.
Any of these commentaries could have been mentioned by Chat GPT - clearly it has a long way to go before it can replace rabbis and other Jewish educators.
So the bottom line here is that rabbis and Jewish educators are not yet obsolete.
And the Sh'ma is one potent prayer!
Synaplex at TBE
As I look back at my time at TBE over the coming year, I'll be reminiscing from time to time about some key moments, programs and people.
I introduced Synaplex to TBE back inFeb. of 2006. At the time, I'd been working on the project for several years as part of the think tank that became known as STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal), a partnership of the Schusterman, Bronfman and Steinhardt foundations that brought us Birthright Israel and revived Hillels on college campuses all over the world. Temple Beth El was selected as one of about three dozen pilot communities nationwide for the program. We were the first to bring Synaplex to Lower Fairfield County.
Our Board voted overwhelmingly to endorse our participation, which involved accepting grants from the national organization along with our own fundraising. We received additional seed funding from from the Jewish Community Endowment Foundation and other donors, most especially the Horowitz and Gladstein families, as this exciting project began to take shape for an October launching.
Though its lifespan (nationally and locally) was limited, Synaplex benefited us in so many ways, helping us develop new approaches to marketing, volunteer development, membership recruitment and retention, fundraising, community building and of course, programming.
A typical Synaplex Shabbat would include a variety of services (traditional, learners and meditative, as well as family services), along with scholars-in-residence and special features like "Storahtelling" (a particular favorite), great communal meals, learning sessions, nature walks and even bike rides.
Anything new meets with resistance, and there was some resistance here for a time, but that was quickly overcome when people saw the excitement being generated. Synaplex is remembered fondly as something that brought the congregation together and increased involvement and attendance significantly, especially in the programming residing at the core of our mission. It turned Shabbat into a "happening."
Click here to see a time capsule of Synaplex's "Greatest Hits."
Can Synaplex be replicated? Well, the blueprint is clear. And we've incorporated elements of it into our regular offerings - so no need to reinvent the wheel. Still, we should look back with fondness about what was accomplished, and how much fun it was.
As a postscript, an interesting footnote to history is that I was offered the position to direct STAR, having been recruited by Lynn Schusterman and the other donors. I believed very much in Synaplex but turned them down. Sure enough, the mega-donors lost interest after a few years, as I suspected would happen. The only big fan of synagogues among them, Charles Schusterman, had died not long before. STAR wasn't destined to last and it didn't. The foundations still fund amazing programs, just not ones designed to revitalize synagogues.
But for us, Synaplex continued in some form for several years and is remembered so fondly. It was One Shining Moment.
IS HOLOCAUST EDUCATION MAKING ANTI-SEMITISM WORSE (Dara Horn, Atlantic)-Holocaust education remains essential for teaching historical facts in the face of denial and distortions. Yet over the past year, as I’ve visited Holocaust museums and spoken with educators around the country, I have come to the disturbing conclusion that Holocaust education is incapable of addressing contemporary anti-Semitism. In fact, in the total absence of any education about Jews alive today, teaching about the Holocaust might even be making anti-Semitism worse.