Friday, July 1, 2016

Walls, Spies, and American Jews

A friend and congregant has been sitting shiva for his mother and there have been minyanim (prayer services) at his house both morning and evening. I want to share with you a Torah thought I had yesterday morning connecting the weekly Torah reading to the secular calendar.


This week’s parasha, Shelach, begins with the story of the Twelve Spies Moses sent shortly after the Exodus to scout out the Land of Israel. Ten of the twelve tell Moses upon their return that it will be impossible to conquer the Land because the inhabitants are too strong. How do they know? Because their cities are surrounded by big tall walls.


Rashi points out that the spies got it backwards. Heavily fortified cities do not mean strong people. They mean weak people, fearful people. Strong people don’t need to hide behind walls.


We have been having our morning minyan services in Jedd’s backyard, which is visible from two streets and of course to all the neighbors. And yet we are out their davening wearing tallit and tefillin, which look pretty odd to those who aren’t familiar with them. Throughout most of Jewish history -- even in America until fairly recently -- Jews in the Diaspora would have been too afraid to pray with tallit and tefillin in such a visible manner. But because as American Jews we are not fearful, we do not feel the need to hide ourselves behind a wall.


Because I’m a student of Jewish history, I realize how utterly amazing this is. Throughout most of our history we would never have dreamed of something like this. If Jews would have been comfortable praying outdoors in a residential area, it would have only been because Jews lived segregated from the rest of the population. But we are blessed to live in a country which believes in and practices religious freedom. We live in a country which allowed us or our parents or grandparents to come here and thrive even though they didn’t speak the language and had a different religion than almost everyone else.

On this July 4th weekend let’s give thanks for the blessings of freedom we enjoy in this country.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Some Thoughts After Orlando

This has been a very difficult week for our country.

The murder of 49 people in an LGBT nightclub in Orlando has brought out some of the best and some of the worst in people and in our national character.

The gunman was an American-born Muslim, the son of immigrants from Afghanistan. In the midst of the massacre he called 911 and reported that he was acting out of loyalty to ISIS. But he also claimed loyalty to both An-Nusra and Hezbollah. This is kind of like someone claiming simultaneous loyalty to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. ISIS and An-Nusra both stem from an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, but they split in 2014 and have been actively fighting each other in Syria. Hezbollah is Shiite and not even considered to be Islamic by the other two -- and most likely, vice-versa. While the killer may well have been motivated by a perversion of Islamic teachings, he was also reportedly a regular at the nightclub and on gay dating sites. Since he is now dead, we will never know what motivated him to do what he did.

What we do know is that people were murdered because of who they loved and who they were. We also know that, too sadly, some Americans are singling out other Americans of one religion because of the actions of one adherent of that same religion. As Jews, we know from our own history what happens when all of us are blamed for the actions of one or a few of us.

Europe has had a problem in assimilating Muslims into the larger society. There are all kinds of reasons for this, beyond the scope of this brief message, but the result is that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Muslims in Europe who are deeply alienated from the countries in which they were born, reside, and have citizenship. The same is not true in the United States. American Muslims are a lot like their Jewish neighbors. They are professionals, doctors, scientists, engineers. They enjoy higher than average incomes and higher than average levels of education. They think that their neighborhoods are pretty good places to live, they are not particularly religious, and they wish that their leaders were doing more to combat extremism in the religion. Commentary Magazine, which is certainly right-of-center and hawkish on Israel and the Middle East, just published an excellent article on this topic and I encourage you to read it.

On Monday evening I attended an interfaith Iftar (Ramadan break-fast) where the local Muslim community reached out to the LGBT community. It was very moving to see our Muslim neighbors coming to grips with the anti-gay attitudes in their community and wondering how to move forward. We Jews have our own mess to clean up in this regard, and while we have certainly made progress there is still quite a ways to go.

Rabbi Shai Held of Machon Hadar and the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote this week: “One of the biggest problems with religion is that people stubbornly, insistently reduce God to their own size; they imagine that God loves the same people they love, and that God hates the people they hate. This is not just insidious theology; it’s actually idolatry, because people are just worshiping a blown up version of themselves. So let me say it simply: God’s love transcends all of that.”

A lot of people in America are hurting today: LGBT folks, Muslims, others who feel put upon or marginalized for all kinds of reasons. Our task is to be the hands of God in this world, and reach out to those who are hurting and say “God loves you and so do I.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Thoughts on our 45th Anniversary

On Sunday May 22 Kehilat Shalom celebrated its 45th anniversary. These are my thoughts on the occasion:

As a rabbi I generally look to Jewish wisdom when I am called upon to write a message for a particular occasion. If we were celebrating a round number I would turn to Pirkei Avot, which in its fifth chapter gives the significance of every anniversary from twenty all the way up to 100 -- but only in increments of ten.

What is the significance, then, of a 45th anniversary? Gematria is a kabbalistic method of understanding the significance of words based on the numerical values of their letters, since every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. The best-known example of gematria may be the Jewish predilection for making donations in multiples of 18, since 18 is the numerical values of the Hebrew word “chai,” life.

The number 45 yields לב אחד, “one heart.” When we act together for the good of our kehila, our community, our country and our brothers and sisters throughout the world, we act with one heart.

The number 45 also yields איזה טוב ה, “how good is God.” When we act with one heart, we come closer to God and we bring God’s goodness into the world through prayer, through study, and especially through acts of lovingkindness. These are the things which our kehila exists to do, and these are the things that God has created us to do. How good is God when we act with lev echad, one heart.

And finally, the number 45 yields לא זז, “not going anywhere.” As long as our kehila continues to act with one heart and make plain the goodness of God in this world, we are not going anywhere.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kitniyot Revisited

Last year shortly before Pesach I was asked during a Kiddush Konversation about an article which had been published in Voices of Conservative Judaism which summarized a responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin permitting the consumption of kitniyot during Passover. My response was that Rabbi Golinkin was an Israeli Conservative rabbi writing for the Israeli community and that I was not prepared to endorse the practice unless and until it was permitted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement (CJLS or Law Committee.)

A quick review of the term kitniyot. Often translated as “legumes,” kitniyot are foods which Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally avoided during Pesach even though they are not chametz, leaven. Sephardic Jews have always eaten them. Among the products considered kitniyot are beans, rice, peas, corn, and mustard. Although Ashkenazi Jews have refrained from consuming them during Pesach, it was permitted to possess them and thus they were not sold before Pesach or disposed of as chametz is. Knowledgeable Ashkenazim knew that it was even permitted during Pesach to eat from utensils which had been used to prepare or serve kitniyot as long as one avoided the kitniyot themselves.

At the end of December 2015, the Law Committee passed (by a vote of 19-1 with 2 abstentions) a responsum by Rabbis Avram Reisner and Amy Levin permitting all Jews to consume kitniyot during Pesach with certain guidelines. It’s important to understand what those guidelines are because this responsum is not a blanket permission to eat any product that seems not to contain chametz just by glancing at the ingredients.

Rabbis Reisner and Levin go through the history of this practice and the various reasons that have been adduced as to why it has been followed. (It should also be noted that throughout history there were a number of great sages who viewed this as a mistaken custom and tried to eliminate it, while others said that while there was no real basis for it it should nevertheless be observed out of deference to previous generations.)

No one is absolutely sure why Ashkenazim originally prohibited kitniyot but the classic halachic literature has adduced three possibilities:
  1. kitniyot were either stored or cooked in the same manner as chametz and people might accidentally eat chametz thinking it was only kitniyot;
  2. kitniyot were harvested, stored and transported together with chametz and there was a possibility that the two would become mixed together;
  3. kitniyot and wheat (the most common chametz grain) were usually cooked together and it was considered impossible to permit one without dragging in the other.
Rabbis Reisner and Levin point out that these reasons are no longer cogent. Our marketplace is not like those of previous generations; we buy our foodstuffs in discrete packages, produced and labeled with both governmental and market oversight. We need not be concerned that permitting one will perforce lead to the accidental consumption of the other.

And yet, we are generally careful not to override centuries of precedent without very good reason. In my words -- not theirs -- the burden of proof is on the one who wishes to change previous practices. We don’t have to justify why a certain practice should be maintained; we need to justify why a certain practice should not be maintained.

What then is the justification for overturning this custom?

Rabbis Reisner and Levin cite two: increasing the joy of the holiday and the inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision.

Some years ago the Law Committee had already approved consumption of kitniyot by vegetarians who feared that they might not get enough protein over the holiday. This reasoning is now extended to all of us; many Jews who are not vegetarians are nevertheless seeking to cut down on their consumption of meat and of other animal products, for both health and ethical reasons. Beans in particular serve as a good source of protein in the absence of meat and permitting all Jews to consume beans on Pesach will increase our ability to eat a healthy diet without a lot of meat or dairy.

Similarly, we are all aware of how incredibly expensive kosher-for-Passover products can be. Permitting kitniyot will allow for a more balanced diet with less reliance on pre-packaged, expensive foods, and Rabbis Reisner and Levin point out that keeping the cost of Jewish observance reasonable has been cited as a halachic principle going back as far as 3rd century Babylonia.

The CJLS thus rules as follows:
In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.

However, this is not a blanket permission to rely on ingredient lists to determine if a product is acceptable for Pesach. While such a procedure might be justifiable during the rest of the year (given that prohibited food is nullified by permitted food which is 60 times its volume) it is not permitted during Pesach because there is no nullification of even the smallest amount of chametz which might have become mixed in during the manufacturing process.

These are the particulars of what is now permitted:

  1. Fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans (such as lima beans in their pods) may be consumed and purchased before or during Pesach like any other fresh vegetables.
  2. Dried kitniyot (beans, rice, legumes) can be purchased only before Pesach and must be sifted before the holiday to remove any grains of wheat or other chametz which might have gotten mixed in. Because of similar concerns of mixtures, they should only be purchased in boxes or bags and not from bulk bins.
  3. Frozen kitniyot can only be purchased before Pesach and the consumer must either ascertain that the product is not produced on the same equipment as chametz (a real issue for frozen vegetables since the advent of bagged vegetable mixtures containing pasta) or else sort through the contents beforehand to remove any possible chametz.
  4. Processed foods including canned beans still require Pesach certification due to the possibility of admixtures of chametz during production.

The good news regarding processed foods is that products from Israel with reliable certification “for those who eat kitniyot” are increasingly available, and the O-U has started certifying a small number of kitniyot-containing products as well for their Sephardic constituents. These products may now be consumed by all.

I want to also point out that just because something is permitted does not mean it is required. Failure to do everything the law allows you to do is not a violation of the law. I have no doubt that many of our people will be uncomfortable changing practices which they and their families have observed for centuries if not millenia; if this is you, you are of course free to continue refraining from kitniyot.

Similarly, since the synagogue kitchen should follow practices which allow as many Jews as permissible to feel comfortable with what they are eating or drinking, current practice for the Pesach seder and for kiddushes during Passover will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

If you have any questions or concerns, or would like a copy of the full responsum by Rabbis Reisner and Levin, please feel free to be in touch.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Some Brief Thoughts on Jewish Values and Public Policy

A recent article in the New York Times discussed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement that his father was a “Polish immigrant” without noting that his father was specifically a Polish Jewish immigrant. My friend Rabbi Michael Paley, who knew Sen. Sanders while serving as the Hillel Rabbi at Dartmouth College, stated that “nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole.” This is precisely so; my paternal grandmother was born in Warsaw but she was not Polish in any meaningful sense. She was not so much a Polish Jew as a Jew who lived in Poland.


American Jews, however, are American in ways that diaspora Jews have historically not been. This is not unique to the United States; it applies to Jewish community in other democracies as well but the American Jewish community is much larger both numerically and as a percentage of population than any other diaspora community. We have a significant impact on public policy. There are currently ten Jewish senators and 19 Jewish members of the House of Representatives. Three of the eight current Supreme Court members are Jewish, as are two of President Obama’s former Chiefs of Staff and the current and previous chairs of the Federal Reserve.


While Jews as individuals take all kinds of positions on issues of the day, I have always been intrigued by how to determine what Judaism per se has to say about a particular issue. I think this is not always a simple task, because the Jewish tradition never anticipated that Jews would be equal citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Jewish texts were written either for Jewish polities which were of course governed by Jewish norms; or for Jews who lived as at best a tolerated minority in a non-Jewish polity and had no voice in how they were governed. So the situation of American Jews is something which heretofore was unknown.


Our recent Kiddush Konversation about “Assisted Suicide in Jewish Law” was very interesting in light of the above. It is clear to me that halacha does not allow a Jew to commit suicide nor does it allow a Jew to assist another Jew to perform a forbidden act -- so that a Jewish physician could not assist a patient to commit suicide. But I went on to say that while I was quite certain that Jewish law forbids assisted suicide, it was not at all clear to me that it necessarily follows that Jews were obligated to oppose the so-called “Death with Dignity Act” now being considered by the Maryland legislature. After all, we Jews consistently tell our Roman Catholic friends that just because their religion forbids abortion is no reason for the state to enshrine their particular view as law for those of other religions or of none. That being the case, why should we ask the General Assembly to enshrine our particular view as law? How is this any different?


One of the things which I love about our Kiddush Konversations is that they are truly conversations. It is not a lecture or a sermon, there is real give-and-take. And in our discussion, I think we arrived at a methodology that might help sort some of these questions out.
While Judaism is clear that non-Jews are not required to observe halacha, there are certain values which Judaism posits are valid for all human beings, not just Jews. So it seems to me that a first step in arriving at a legitimately Jewish position on an issue is to ask, first: what are the values at stake. And second: are these values for everyone or just for Jews?


Let’s take a less controversial example than Assisted Suicide. No one doubts that Judaism permits non-Jews to eat non-kosher meat. But one of the values associated with keeping kosher is tza’ar ba’alel hayyim, avoiding cruelty to animals -- and thus the requirements of kosher slaughter which is designed to be quick and relatively pain-free. And this value is not just for Jews, so that while we would never seek to require non-Jews to keep kosher, it seems perfectly legitimate for Jews as Jews to back legislation which seeks to ameliorate the suffering of animals.

This methodology doesn’t solve all our dilemmas, of course, but I believe it is the start of some clearer thinking about the role of Jewish values in our public lives.

Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm Tired

I’m tired.

I’m tired of figuring out what to say in a sermon, in a Friday message to the congregation, or in a prayer after yet another incident of mass murder in our country. I’m tired of praying for the families, friends, and neighbors of those who were killed or injured. And I’m tired of parsing whether the latest mass murder was “terrorism” or “anti-abortion zealotry” or “workplace violence.” And I’m tired of interviews with friends and neighbors of the murderers who say that they were quiet, regular people, perhaps a little odd but “no one could have expected this.” We have to expect this as long as guns and ammunitions are so easily available.

I’m also tired of having to defend my words when I say what I just said about the easy availability of guns. I have friends, members of this congregation and of my previous congregation, and colleagues who I very much respect, who are gun owners and members of the NRA. And I’ve said before that I fully support the right of law abiding citizens with the proper training and who use proper safeguards to possess guns for personal protection, hunting, target practice, what have you.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution has been understood by the Supreme Court to protect the individual citizen’s right to own guns. I happen to believe that this is an incorrect reading of the Second Amendment but unless the Supreme Court reverses its understanding that is the law of the land. But the fact that a person possesses a certain constitutional right does not mean that said right cannot be regulated to protect society as a whole. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but it doesn’t mean that followers of Santeria can sacrifice animals anywhere they want or that Christian Scientists have the right to withhold medical treatment from their minor children. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech but it doesn’t mean that I can libel others with impunity or shout “fire” in a crowded theater. My exercise of my rights can be regulated by society in such a way that it does not endanger the wellbeing of others.

In the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy we read of a very strange ceremony:

1 If, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down,2 then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3 The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4 the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6 All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8 Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

The Mishnah comments on this ceremony:

MISHNAH SOTAH 9:6 The elders of that town wash their hands in water at the place where the neck of the heifer was broken, and say [Deuteronomy 21], “Our hands did not shed this blood, our eyes did not see.” Could it possibly even enter our minds that that the elders of a Court were shedders of blood? Rather, [understand this to mean] “He did not come into our hands, that we should have let him go without food, and we did not see him, that we should leave him without an escort!”

In other words, leaders have more than just a responsibility to personally refrain from bloodshed. They have a responsibility to create a society where blood is not shed. If they fail to do so, they share in the guilt for those who are killed by violence. When Congress can’t even pass a law that requires additional checks before someone on the FBI’s Terrorist Watchlist can purchase a gun, something is horribly wrong.

I’m tired of this, and I hope you are tired of it too.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Danger is real, but fear is a choice

This has been a rough week for our world. A week ago today Islamist terrorists staged several simultaneous attacks in Paris and killed 129 people. Yesterday in Eretz Yisrael, Palestinian terrorists killed five people in two different attacks; one of those killed was an 18 year old American student, Ezra Schwartz of Sharon, Massachusetts. Ezra z’l was a graduate of a Jewish day school and an active member of USY who was spending a Gap Year in Israel between high school and college. This morning, again as I write, US and other forces are responding to an Islamist hostage-taking at a Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said “the entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.” A more recent version of the same idea was stated by Cypher Raige, the character played by Will Smith in the movie “After Earth.” Cypher tells his son “fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create . . . danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”

We live in a dangerous world and many of those dangers are out of our control. But how we react to danger is always in our control. In the wake of the Paris murders and the revelation that one of the terrorists may possibly have slipped into Europe using a fake Syrian passport, our American politicians are falling all over themselves rushing to protect us from the threat of Syrian refugees coming to our country. This despite the fact that the U.S. process for gaining refugee status takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months and includes the most stringent security checks imaginable; despite the fact that in the history of the refugee resettlement program not a single refugee has ever participated in an act of terror in the United States. (The Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston bombing were not refugees. They came here as children with their parents on tourist visas and later received political asylum derivatively through their parents -- a completely different process which takes place in the USA, not overseas.)

Fear is a choice. The most important thing is not to fear at all. Ezra Schwartz did not fear. He chose to spend a year in Israel despite the very real danger. While in Israel, he chose to go to Gush Etzion to visit a memorial to the three young men kidnapped and murdered last year, and to deliver food to “lone soldiers” (Israeli soldiers without parents or other family in the country) on an army base. While the car in which he was riding was stuck in traffic, he and the other inhabitants were murdered by an Uzi-wielding Palestinian terrorist.

Yes, if Ezra Schwartz had given in to fear he would probably still be alive. But that is not our way. The whole purpose of terrorism is to make us change our way of life, to be afraid to do normal everyday things like go shopping, go out for coffee, help our neighbor, or live by the generous ethical standards of both Judaism and Americanism. It is to paralyze us and fill us with fear. I for one refuse to live that way.

In Pirkei Avot chapter 4, Rabbi Matya ben Charash says “be a tail of lions and not a head of jackals.” Which will we choose?