Thursday, August 24, 2023

In This Moment: The Rabbi Who Spoke Before King; Creatures, Great and Small; Driving on Shabbat, Revisited, But With a Twist


In This Moment

"Up on the Roof: As Peaceful as Can Be"

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.

From this week's portion of Ki Tetze, Deut. 22:7

Right smack dab in the middle of town, I've found a paradise that's trouble proof...

On the roof, it's peaceful as can be; and there the world below can't bother me

Carole King, Gerry Goffin

Click to enlarge these photos and see my "Jerusalem Rooftops" album

Shabbat Shalom!

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.

Click here for the March on Washington website. And here for the ADL's dedicated site.

The Speech

I speak to you as an American Jew.

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 can hop 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.

Stay tuned.

Click for discussion materials ------ Click for the two responsa

Creatures, Great and Small

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.

Click here for the full "Creatures Great and Small" album from those travels in 2018.

James Herriot wrote in All Creatures Great and Small:  

If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.

Judaism has a rich tradition emphasizing kindness to animals, a mitzvah known in Hebrew as "Tza'ar ba'alay chayim," literally "feeling the pain of living things." We should feel their pain - and we can be inspired by them too.


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.

You can read more about Animals and Judaism in this article.

See below my photo essay of some of the remarkable creatures I encountered - and click here to see more of them.

Elephant Siblings - Thailand

Elephant, Thailand

Tiger, Thailand

Ibex, En Gedi, Israel

Hyrax, En Gedi

Warthog, Indonesia

Monkey on Borneo, Indonesia

Recommended Reading

Today's Israeli Front Pages

Yediot Achronot

Ha'aretz (English)

Jerusalem Post

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.

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