Thursday, June 1, 2023

In This Moment: Ted Lasso, Mrs. Maisel and Uganda; Standing on their Shoulders


In This Moment

Last week, in discussing the alignment of Jewish and secular holidays (like Memorial Day and Shavuot), I asked when Yom Kippur would fall on Halloween for the first time - given that the Jewish calendar is shifting in that direction very slowlyby about 13 days every 1,650 years. Well, I found the answer on In the Gregorian year 6242, 4,219 years from now, you'll be able to hop straight from Neilah to your nearest haunted house. I don't know about you, but just looking at this calendar makes me feel very, very small.

Trending Toward Cruelty? Or Kindness?

Ted Lasso, Mrs. Maisel, Uganda, and a strange, ancient ritual

Shabbat Shalom!

I'm not a Succession fan, so my comments here are reserved for the finales of Ted Lasso and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In one show, the title character reached for the brass ring and in the other, the title character deliberately let go of it, and for each it was the right decision. Both series are morality tales that bring reassurance that goodness can win, kindness can be rewarded, growth is possible and perfection achievable - but only when we accept the imperfections of ourselves and our loved ones. During the dark days of the pandemic, we needed to welcome nice people into our fortress / homes, and these are nice people. The two shows are television at its best, and it's a good thing they are TV, because were they books, at least one of them likely would have been banned in Florida for a gay subplot. I'll say no more so as not to bring spoilers. But it's so nice to be able to have found such warm, fuzzy and funny comfort food at a time when persecution and hate is increasing markedly,

At a time of such inhumanity, these shows satisfied our deep hunger for something kind and gentle. Our sources agree.

Hillel and Shammai received (Torah) from them. Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and drawing them close to the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:12)

Pride Month reminds us of our mission as Jews to promote kindness and combat hate everywhere, but especially when directed toward the LGBTQ community. Uganda's new anti-gay law is so brutal that it recalls the madness of Idi Amin, who once claimed to have eaten human flesh, but it was "too salty for my taste." The new law has been universally condemned. Uganda's evil is matched in venom, if not in pure brutality, by various new anti gay laws and book bannings here in America. A new law in Texas denies healthcare to transgender youth.

Our sacred sources are not immune to brutality. This week's Torah portion of Naso features an archaic and, on the face of it, ruthless ritual known as the ordeal of the sotah, which subjected a suspected adulteress to what amounts to torture.

The sotah ritual was cruel but it probably was never actually practiced. Given that, along with the fact that other ancient cultures treated a suspected adulteress with far greater cruelty, it might be that the Torah's purpose was to take things out of the hands of a vengeful husband and put them into the hands of a supposedly peace-loving priest.

Here's how feminist Talmudic scholar Judith Hauptman explains it:

Hauptman is no knee-jerk apologist for the Torah. The point here is not that the Torah doesn't present us with misogyny, cruelty and hate. There's plenty of that to go around. The point is that, on balance, the Torah presents us with a society that is evolving away from the cruelty of neighboring and prior civilizations - and Talmudic literature all the more. We are instructed to love the stranger 36 times in the Torah. The preponderance of evidence points toward kindness.

In Uganda, Russia and some very conspicuous US states, that trend is toward cruelty.

Soon enough, we'll be missing Lasso Land and Maisel's Manhattan. Both are fictitious facsimiles of real places. Real, but illusory at the same time. The Horn and Hardart in Maiselville was just a little too clean, the Wonder Wheel ride just a little too smooth. Even the mobsters were nice (at times). Maisel's Manhattan allowed our memories to marinate in nostalgia, and Lasso's London was inexplicably (and thankfully) Windsor-free - not a royal in sight. These places were a little too perfect, the colors so vivid that even the black and white TVs seemed to be transmitting in reddish hues. Hey, the place was so perfect that the pews in the Maisel's synagogue were packed with well dressed, attentive, non-shvitzing Jews (on what seemed like Yom Kippur, no less) - including TBE's own Rebekah Raz (looking very stylish, four rows behind Midge, Joel, Ethan and the meshugenah daughter-in-law from Israel). Has any rabbi ever looked down at such an alert, well-groomed bunch? For that matter, has any series in history ever begun with the exclamation, "We got the rabbi!" - and it was a good thing?

OK, so the FBI was about to crash the service, but otherwise, this was the ideal Manhattan and idealized London that may have almost existed - at least if you happened to be well-to-do and not too ethnic. Kindness could prevail there.

But can it prevail here, in our all-too real world, a world where we can salute Congress for its bipartisanship in a vote not to commit economic hari-kari? Mazal tov! We're not suicidal after all.

Which way is the trend heading? Toward cruelty? Or kindness?


Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, our guest on Friday evening will speak about SVARA, where she is a teaching fellow, a cutting edge yeshiva known for its inclusivity. She'll speak to LGPBQ issues, as well as explaining how the Torah defends all those who are marginalized, including those with disabilities. Because she is Shabbat observant and calling in remotely, she'll be speaking in between the Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv sections of the service, about half way through. Join us for that, and for our Men's Club Shabbat on Shabbat morning.

Birkat Hodesh Ga’avah: A Blessing for Pride Month

by Rabbi Lily Solochek

Source: Ritualwell

May it be Your will,

our God and God of our ancestors,

God of Ruth

An important female biblical character with her own book. The Book of Ruth, read on Shavuot, tells the story of Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and their return to Israel. Ruth’s story is often read as the first story of conversion. Ruth is the grandmother of King David.

and Naomi, 

God of David and Jonathan, 

God of Joseph

Jacob's eldest son by his beloved wife, Rachel. Joseph, the dreamer, was his father's favorite and nearly murdered by his brothers. Sold into slavery, he became viceroy of Egypt where he ultimately saves the Egyptians and also his own family from starvation. His Hebrew name is Yosef/

God of all our queer ancestors whose names have been erased, 

grant that this Pride month bring us joy and celebration, 

and bestow upon us a long life:

a life of safety, 

a life of healing,

a life of employment and housing, 

a life of love and support, 

a life of blessing and sharing of gifts,

a life free of shame and reproach,

a life of friendship, partnership, and love in the ways we wish to give and receive it, 

a life with dreams of the future.


May the One who delivered our ancestors from oppression to freedom, redeem us and all marginalized peoples. 


May the Holy One instill in us the wisdom to know our liberations are entwined together. 


May the One who creates liberation on high,

bring liberation to us, 

to all oppressed communities, 

and to the entire world, 

V’nomar, and we say, 


Click below for our TBE Pride Shabbat readings for Friday night's service, including poetic selections written by my late cousin, Jeffrey Avick z'l. it's become a TBE tradition to include Jeff's poetry at this service. He died of AIDS in the late '90s.

Standing on their Shoulders

Arthur White

Over the course of this, my final year as rabbi of TBE, I'm going to be looking back at some of the key moments we've shared and a few of the people who inspired me along this journey. In a prior newsletter, I featured one of our key innovations, Synaplex. Today, I feature one of the key innovators, and a supreme mensch - one of the most amazing people I ever had the privilege of meeting: Arthur White, who died in 2014 (Read his NY Times obituary here).

Arthur was humble, approachable, and real. For me, as for so many others, he was a mentor and a tremendous source of support. Whenever I was ready to give up on something, Arthur simply wouldn’t hear of it. Giving up was not in his vocabulary. Negativity was not in his vocabulary – and this from a die-hard Red Sox fan. Arthur inherited that love of the Sox from his father – and Arthur was 80 before he saw them win a championship. When they finally won, he almost didn’t know how to celebrate. He now needed another impossible dream to pursue. But the fact is that when he passed, the Sox were the reigning champions.

He never lost his passion for the Sox, and for Jewish learning.  He had a great love for the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel echoed Arthur’s philosophy when he wrote:

  • The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The call for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. God has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a here-now.

Man Is Not Alone : A Philosophy Of Religion (1951)

There is no use pining for eternal life and being preoccupied with death if we are not going to roll up our sleeves and focus on perfecting THIS world. Arthur almost never attended funerals. Part of that had to do with his being a cohen, from the ancient priestly class, a group that, like Judaism itself, focused not on death but on the purification of life.

Heschel also said:

  • The sense of meaning is not born in ease and sloth. It comes after bitter trials, disappointments in the glitters, foundering, strandings. It is the marrow from the bone. There is no manna in our wilderness.

There was no sloth in Arthur. Arthur never stopped working – he literally died at his desk. His life gained meaning from the struggle to climb mountains, to fulfill one quixotic quest after another, but in his case, he was not flailing at windmills, but at our inertia, Washington’s gridlock and the fact that so many people do not care. And he overcame them all.

One more Heschel quote. If there is one thing that captures popular understanding of the Jewish community’s relationship to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s an image from Selma, 1965. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel links arms with a line of activists that include Rev. King, a shoulder’s breadth away, on their historic march to Montgomery. Heschel’s comments afterward have taken on a similarly iconic status: “I felt my feet were praying.

Arthur prayed with his feet as well as his brilliant mind. He never stepped moving forward. He never got stuck in place. When he finished planting the seeds of one project, he started another. He challenged me and all of us to be better – to do more – to not accept the injustices of the world as they are. That was the Judaism he espoused, a Judaism that embraced all peoples. 

He was asked by the Bronfman foundation to help create housing for refugees on the West Bank – and went to Israel to pursue such worthy goals – he even went during the darkest days of the Gulf War, when he was given a gas mask at the airport and was, in his words, the only one staying at his hotel. Nothing got between him and the task at hand.

Arthur was a rock of support for me, even though I took his job. Yes, when I arrived as assistant rabbi they looked for something for me to do on the High Holidays. The job of checking tickets in the lobby was taken, so the only thing they could offer was to announce pages during the early part of the service, something Arthur had been doing for years. He graciously gave it up for me with no hard feelings. And Arthur was a rock of support for me support when it counted most. Arthur once served on the committee to negotiate my contract. Those negotiations didn't always go so smoothly, but I recall one meeting where, in front of the rest of the committee, Arthur passionately stated that among my rabbinic responsibilities, I should be given ample time to pursue my writing - and that it should be stated explicitly in the contract that my writing, from which the congregation takes great pride, is an integral part of the job. 

He would challenge me as well. While Arthur loved it when we created a social action committee here - Beth El Cares - he would not be satisfied until there was a soup kitchen in our social hall and subsidized senior housing in our parking lot. We never got there, and "good enough" was never good enough for Arthur. 

He had a tremendous love for Judaism and for the potential of the rabbinate to effect change. A great respect for tradition too, something that came from the old country - by that I mean Boston.  The Roxbury of his childhood was like a shtetl and he brought a deep connection to tradition from Boston's Roxbury to Roxbury Rd. I was honored to escort his casket back up there, to a small cemetery near the VFW Parkway, a couple of miles from where my parents are buried. 

Aside from social justice, his ties to Judaism were through the study of our sacred texts. While he came to services, which he did nearly every Shabbat morning, he spent less time praying than studying. For years he brought a book with him called, “Back to the Sources,” which explores each of the key sources of our tradition. He was always studying. I was so happy to hear from the family that among the papers on his desk when he died were some study packets I had prepared. He constantly requested that I spend time at services explaining the background of the prayers. He was truly a lifelong learner.

Arthur died on Rosh Hodesh Elul. Every year, we recall his yahrzeit on the day when we begin our month long process of soul searching, in preparation for the High Holidays. He would have liked that. So every year as we light a candle for Arthur White, we are going to take stock of our lives - run a personal survey, as it were. And we'll resolve to do better. To help more people. To care for those incarcerated, illiterate or unemployed. To care for the seniors among us. To fight for the rights of minorities and the underprivileged. And to give our hearts to the one baseball team that matters. 

Elul is an acronym for "Ani L’dodi v’dodi li." I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. This is the month when, it is said, God and Israel reconcile and seek a new path together, one where love and mercy triumph over all. Arthur swung the earthly pendulum definitively in the direction of love and mercy during his 90 years of life. He never gave in to death. His legacy and love will transcend it. And we will will be reminded of that whenever we enter the month of Elul. And we will be instilled with his conviction and continually embraced by his love.  

Recommended Reading

Today's Israeli Front Pages

Jerusalem Post

Yediot Achronot

Ha'aretz (English)

Parsha Packets for Naso

Breaking Faith: Can We Handle the Truth? - Most of us are lied to on a regular basis, the lies run the gamut from "I love sushi" to "I love you." Even though we are more likely to deceive strangers than friends, we save our most serious lies for those we care about the most.

Speaking the Language of Blessings: The Spirituality of Speech - Perhaps the first step in being able to count your blessings is to make every blessing count, to make every word we utter an exercise in holy speech. Here are some time-honored spiritual practices we can follow.

Jews, Teens and Hair - I have come to the conclusion that Jews have a hang-up with hair. Think about it: first there’s Samson, then there’s women’s head coverings, and there’s the Hassidic men with beards and side curls. What is up with all of this attention to hair and its presentation?

Source packets for tonight's 7 PM Intro to Judaism class:

Packet on God

Packet on Messiah and Messianism

  • Tens of Thousands Expected to March in Jerusalem's Pride Parade Under Stringent Security (Ha'aretz) - Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's far-right National Security Minister has for years protested the Jerusalem Pride Parade. His opposition peaked in 2005, when current Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, then a young right-wing activist, and Lehava-affiliated Ben-Gvir joined forces with others to organize a "beast parade" ahead of the event, placing farm animals along the route, in order to illustrate the parallel between homosexuality and bestiality. Ben-Gvir and others called for a "holy war" against the “defilement and abomination” of the parade, leading its organizers to accuse them of incitement to murder in a police complaint against them.Ben-Gvir’s problematic relationship to the parade is the reason Jerusalem Open House appealed to Netanyahu on Saturday asking him to supervise security for the parade instead of Ben-Gvir because, given his history, he “isn’t suitable to oversee the parade and keep its participants safe.” Ben-Gvir's “presence at the police command station as well as the potential for his improper intervention in a complex security operation, causes us deep concern,” the letter read.

  • Overdue or overdone? Two scholars hope to secure the legacy of ‘Jewish Renewal’ (JTA) - How a counterculture movement came to be absorbed by the mainstream is the subject of a paper in a new collection, “The Future of American Judaism,” edited by Mark Silk and Jerome Chanes. Chanes is the co-author, with Shaul Magid, of the chapter on “Renewal” that claims it as one of the most influential if not defining Jewish movements of the last 50 years. “While Jewish Renewal has never boasted a large number of members, its influence on the larger American Jewish community has been significant, in terms of its liturgical experimentation, its revisions of ritual and its overall metaphysics,” they write. “It has also served as an ongoing conduit of information and inspiration from its own past — the havurah movement, radical politics, feminism — to the next generation.”

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350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
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