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.
Though much is happening in the world around us, as we turn the corner to Labor Day, with the new year just two weeks away, it's time to turn inward. So I've collected some classic resources for doing just that, and we'll continue this focus right up until the new year.
As we dive into Labor Day Weekend and the beginning of fall, we think about the important role of labor in our tradition. It’s important to note that the Hebrew expression for work, avoda, also means worship.
As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld puts it, "Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings."
I’ve written, regarding my own profession:
"It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, 'He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn.'"
Here are some packets to help us as we proceed with our Elul and Labor Day reflections:
See below Goldie Milgrom's guidance on soul searching from her book,Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice
Accounting of the Soul:
Equanimity. Ability to live in balance.
Tolerance. Growing pains lead to knowing gains.
Orderliness. Allocating time for living life fully with integrity.
Decisiveness. Acting promptly when your reasoning is sure.
Cleanliness. Modeling dignity in your ways and space.
Humility. Know you will always have much to learn and more opinions than answers.
Righteousness. Conducting your life such that you are trusted and respected.
Economic Stability. Safe guarding enough resources for yourself to live without debt.
Zeal. Living with gusto focused on purpose and care.
Silence. Listening and reflecting before speaking.
Calmness. Giving your needs and thoughts gently while being respectful and clear.
Truth. Speaking only what is fully confirmed in fact.
Separation. Focus on each strand in its own time, avoid multi-tasking.
Temperance. Eating and drinking for good health, not dangerous excess.
Deliberation. Pausing before acting, consider consequences, integrate heart and mind wisely.
Modest Ways. Eschewing crude, lewd and boastful mannerisms and practices.
Trust. Living in the spirit of knowing there is abundance in the universe and you are in the flow.
Generosity. Finding satisfaction in making much possible for others.
First take any one of these qualities and reflect on its degree of presence and activity in your life.
Now, go into yourself and notice where in your body this quality resonates. The mind/body connection creates a short-cut to knowing. Is it lodged somewhere? Rather than thinking about the quality, listen to it, discover what your body knows about it. Then, take the information and gently set it before you and return to see if there is more, something new about this quality you can learn inside yourself.
What is your desire with regard to this quality? Sit quietly with this question until a clear image forms, til you imagine a real probability. Invite strength and support for this intention from the great dynamic flow of all possibilities in creation.
Standing During Mourners Kaddish at TBE (1993 Bulletin Article)
One of the major changes of my first year at TBE was to encourage mourners to stand for the Kaddish, but not direct the rest of the congregation to do so. People could if they wished to, but for reasons cited below, I felt that this more traditional approach would be more in line with normative practice in Conservative shuls. i also felt it was more sound psychologically and for fostering community, for reasons cited below. The article is excerpted from Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Literacy, with some insertions by the 1993 version of me.
Tel Aviv's New Light Rail - Should it Run on Shabbat?
Tel Avivians can be justifiably proud of their new light rail line, the first stage of which has just opened - it's the red line above, You can see a clearer, bi-lingual version of this map and more maps at https://ckonovalov.com/nta). But this being Israel, there is controversy, and as so often is the case, it comes down to religion. In a Jewish state, and in the world's first all-Jewish city (originally, not now), should the trains run on Shabbat? In Israel's most secular city, where parking is always at a premium, how could they not? Just last week, a "compromise" was reached, allowing the light railto run for an extra hour after Shabbat, but not on the day of rest at all. The decision came after a large public outcry after the light rail service commenced its operations at 9:30 p.m. during the preceding week. ceasing operations within a narrow two-hour window. 9:30 PM is barely mid-day in the city that never sleeps.
At the time of the state's creation, David Ben Gurion established a status quo agreement with regard to religion, enabling mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Haifa to maintain bus service on Shabbat, but to eliminate public Shabbat transport in most of the rest of the country. And there is something to be said for not having excess bus traffic on the roads on Shabbat....except that having no public transportation actually increases traffic on the roads, especially in Tel Aviv, where Shabbat is a prime beach day.
If you could create your own Jewish state - a state with a 20 percent non-Jewish minority population and a mix of secular and observant Jews, what would you do? How about running it like alternate side parking in NYC? Bus service on the first and third Shabbat of the month, no service on the second and fourth. Too confusing? How about no buses but yes for metro trains, which don't clog the roads and make relatively little noise?
But what will not work at all is to have the Haredi authorities impose their narrow and extreme interpretations of Judaism on the entire population and tell their secular cousins and non-Jewish citizens to stuff it. That is basically what has happened here (along with a host of other affronts, including enshrining the principal that Torah study is equivalent to national service in the IDF.
In Israel, the culture wars have gone off the rails.
No one seems to be in the mood to compromise, especially when an open rail system on Shabbat would be just the thing to help get protesters into the city to rail at the government every Saturday night. Whether or not to be on on Shabbat is one thing. But closing down quickly on Saturday night, after Shabbat is over, is a direct provocation. No status quo covers that.
The plan is environmentally wise and a great example of urban planning at its best. But the reality on the ground - and underground - is something else entirely.
In preparation for the High Holidays this year, we'll be using this study guide from Pardes to discuss the nature of Teshuvah (repentance). Download it for your own study and bring it to services on the next two Shabbat mornings.
The Story behind Israel’s Diplomatic Overture to Libya (TOI) - Last week, the Libyan foreign minister Najla Mangoush met with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen in Italy. But after Israeli officials announced that the meeting had taken place, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh first insisted it was a chance encounter, then fired Mangoush and claimed that she orchestrated the meeting of her own accord—which she denies. Protests subsequently broke out in Tripoli and a few other cities, leading Mangoush to flee the country. Complicating the situation is the fact that Dbeibeh only governs the western part of Libya, and is locked in a civil war with the Russia-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar, as well as various jihadist groups.
It looks like the weather will be bringing us indoors this Shabbat (after some gorgeous days during the week), but lots to to look forward to, including Friday night's barbecue and special musical service, plus an ufruf on Shabbat morning for Harrison Shapiro and Elena Reiss. Mazal tov to them and their families.
60 Years Ago...
The Rabbi Who Spoke Out at the March on Washington
Sixty years ago this weekend, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Holocaust survivor, drew the speaking slot just before Martin Luther King in the March on Washington. Hear his story in the feature above and watch his unedited speech below. Click here for a site commemorating his career.
As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.
As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.
In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.
From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:
Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe . Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.
It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America , but all of America . It must speak up and act,. from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.
Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of "liberty and justice for all."
The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together — to work together that this children's oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.
Conservative Judaism revisits driving on Shabbat
Spoiler: It's still OK...or not
But what if the car has no driver?????
Last Shabbat we had an interesting discussion about the Conservative movement's two new responsa on the question of whether it is halachically feasible to drive to a synagogue on Shabbat using an electric car. As has become a hallmark of our movement, the two rulings supported either side of the argument, resulting in a Tevye-like "You're right, you're right and you're also right." Aside from the EV car issue, the major (and practically speaking, only) difference between this and the prior rulings in this issue back in the 1950s was that there was a concerted effort to empathize with the the other side, making it easier to support both of these diametrically opposing positions.
As is stated in one of the op-eds included in the discussion packet (below on the left), the decision can be seen as being out of touch with the current, shrunken movement, where there are many questions that are far more relevant to congregants than this one. As we were discussing these rulings last Shabbat, it did not escape me that all but one or two of those in the room had driven to get here. Now that the Jewish people have established a firm beachhead in Doral Farms, more congregants may be walking here on Shabbat, but it's doubtful that anyone will confuse Roxbury Rd. for Borough Park very soon.
Still, these rulings highlight the need to take Jewish practice seriously, especially regarding Shabbat - and also that we should be respectful of those who both more observant and less observant than we might be. That point was emphasized especially by the authors of the teshuvah who concluded that driving an electric car is still not allowed, though it's halachically less problematic than driving an old fashioned combustion-propelled vehicle. You can see some of this outreach to the other side in the summary on pages 3 and 4 of the packet below on the left. The approach is both sympathetic and a little condescending.
I do agree that there are more important items on our plate and one of them is whether the Conservative Movement is still relevant at all. It was created a century ago in order to help Jews become more American and it succeeded beyond its founders' wildest dreams. But now the key question is just the opposite: how do we assist acculturated Americans to become more Jewish.
Synagogues remain the center of Jewish community life and it makes sense to keep as many as possible in that orbit, even if they have to drive to get there. "Stay home next Shabbat!" should not be our motto. Should Conservative shuls build high-rise Shabbat apartments in their parking lots? Should Shabbos Goys be hired to turn on every electric car in the congregation? Elvis Presley was once a Shabbos Goy; he turned on lights at a local synagogue. Imagine him revving your electric car, which would undoubtedly be "all shook up" by the time you get into it.
Those who ruled against using EV cars on Shabbat are, predictably, urban dwellers and not pulpit rabbis. And perhaps there could be different practices in places like NYC, where synagogues are within walking distance of just about anywhere. But out here in the burbs the question seems like an exercise in Torah for its own sake, and laughably out of touch with issues that really matter, at a time when Hawaii is burning up, California is under water and burning up simultaneously (and "all-shook-up" by an earthquake), and women's bodies are being violated by the most repugnant laws imaginable. People need to hop into their EVs to get guidance on these matters - and they need to hop here, to their synagogues on Shabbat. Or, in some places like San Francisco, they canhop into a driverless car (yes, it's permitted on Shabbat)
And finally, while the fact that there are multiple "right" answers highlights the pluralistic nature of Conservative Judaism, there are limits to pluralism. Many of us can recall how divisive it was to have two legitimate options on opposite sides of the issue of LGBTQ marriage in the mid 2000's. Our cantor, a lesbian, was denied the opportunity to lead services on the pulpit of a neighboring Conservative congregation, one that adopted the negative ruling on that issue, which led to much consternation and confusion. It's unlikely that that will happen with these two decisions, but it will test the movement's live-and-let-live approach when it comes to the wide disparity of observance levels.
Of course, this is just a dress rehearsal for the next big hurdle - interfaith marriage, coming soon to a Conservative pulpit near you.
As we look back at some of my favorite moments over the past 37 years, this commentary on this week's portion of Ki Tetze from 2018 is one of my all-timers. Not only did I write about a topic near and dear to me - kindness to animals, but I got to share some of the photos of animals that I had recently taken while visiting Israel and Asia. That orangutan above is from Borneo.
Among the highlights of my recent excursion to Israel and Southeast Asia were the opportunities to interact with God's creatures, great and small, living in their habitat. We got up-close to elephants and tigers in Thailand, ibex and hyrax in Israel and monkeys and orangutan in Indonesia. Below is a sampling of the photos I took.
We read in this week's portion of Ki Tetze:
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.
In Midrash Tanhuma, we read that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught:
The Holy One has revealed the reward for heeding two precepts in the Torah: one of these precepts is the least onerous, and the other is the most onerous. The least onerous concerns letting the mother go when chancing on a bird's nest - with regard to it, the Torah promises, "that you may have a long life." The most onerous concerns honoring one's father and mother - with regard to it, also, the Torah promises, "that your days may be long."
This midrash is teaching us that all the mitzvot are equal, from sending away the mother bird - which is spontaneous and easy, involving no expense or preparation - to honoring one's parents - which may require extraordinary effort and significant financial and emotional investment.
It also calls attention to two texts, and when you compare them, there's a fascinating discrepancy. In the Ten Commandments, the Torah says, "Honor your father and your mother in order that your days - yamekha - may be prolonged." However, in this week's portion of Ki Tetze, the text says, "let the mother bird go . . . in order that you may fare well and have a long life [literally, prolonged days] - yamim."
While the plain meaning of the second text is that by fulfilling this mitzvah you will prolong your life, that's not what the words actually say. It says, "so that you will prolong (all) life." Perhaps the commandment to send away the mother bird is not about preserving the life of the person who finds the nest, but about preventing the destruction of species, great and small.
Ramban (Nachmanides), the 13th century Spanish commentator, hints at this. He writes, "The Torah will not permit a destructive act that would uproot a species even though it does permit the ritual slaughter of members of that species." In other words, if people routinely took mother birds along with their nests, in time there would be no more nests and no more birds.
If this concerned Ramban in the 13th century, how much more should we be concerned today, when we know of thousands of extinct or endangered species.
Why should we worry about the possible extinction of plant and animal species when so many human beings around the world are in desperate need?
Some would argue that it's a matter of enlightened self-interest - perhaps we'll destroy a plant that might be used to cure cancer or an animal whose DNA might one day protect us against Alzheimer's disease. But the Torah teaches us that there is more to life than self-interest. At the very beginning of the Genesis, we read:
"And God said, let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth."
After God does so, the Torah says, "The Lord God took the human being and placed them in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it."
As the Psalmist proclaims, "The world and everything in it belongs to God." We human beings didn't create it - and we have no right to destroy what we did not make.
God gave human beings the specific task of tending, guarding, and preserving the world. So we can take the nest, but chase the mother bird away to ensure that the world will always be full of birds. When the Torah exhorts us "u'v'harta b'hayyim," choose life, there are no limits placed on the forms of life we celebrate.
See this provocative piece from Ha'aretz. I don't necessarily agree - i would think this precisely when Israel could use a significant influx or rational people who believe in democracy - but it is important for us to hear the desperation in the voices of Israelis right now. And we need to get beyond our old, stereotypical views of the relationship between the diaspora and Israel. We are no longer on the sidelines, looking on. We are right at the center of the action.