Friday, August 23, 2019

Disloyal Jews

          The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who died this past December, was born and grew up in Jerusalem but his parents had fled from Germany to what was then Palestine. As Oz showed in his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (made into a Hebrew-language movie by Natalie Portman), his parents never really adjusted to life in Palestine and continued to feel nostalgic for the life they left behind in Germany.

            Recalling what his father had told him about life in Germany before the Shoah, Oz wrote: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: 'Yids, go back to Palestine,' so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: 'Yids, get out of Palestine.’”

            I had actually heard Oz tell this story in speeches even before he published his memoir, but this week it resonated with me more deeply than ever before. In pre-war Europe, Jews were condemned for not living in “Palestine” and today we are condemned for doing so. Here in the United States, we have a Member of Congress, Ilhan Omar, who said in a speech in March: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country [Israel].”  And then of course earlier this week the President said that Jews who vote for Democrats are either “disloyal” or “ignorant”.

            This type of language, whether from a first-term Representative or from the President, needs to concern us. The point is not whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you generally support the President or oppose him. Everyone in the United States has a right to support the party and candidate of their choice without being called "disloyal" or conversely being accused of dual loyalty. This kind of statement is antithetical to American values.

            In the wake of these comments, as well as last week’s controversy where the President successfully pressured Israel to deny entry to Representative Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin phoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After their conversation he tweeted: "I spoke today with@SpeakerPelosi about the importance of strong US-Israel relations and I thanked her for her commitment," Rivlin tweeted Wednesday. "The link between us is between peoples, based on historical ties, deep, strong friendships and shared values, not dependent on the links with either party."

            President Rivlin is absolutely correct. A number of years ago in a previous congregation I served, I organized a discussion between two congregants who explained why they were members of the particular political party they supported. The Republican presenter, one of my closest friends in the congregation, said that one of the reasons he was a Republican is that he recognized that the majority of Jews were Democrats and that it was important that there be Jews in both parties. If not, this would be detrimental to Jewish interests because Republicans could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews won’t vote for them anyway, whereas Democrats could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews will vote for them anyway. With Jews in both parties, neither party could ignore our concerns or take our vote for granted. I found, and still find, his point to be very convincing.

            Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or an independent, if you consider yourself pro-Israel you should not want Israel to be just another partisan issue. The political pendulum in the United States swings back and forth, and at some point there will once again be a Democratic President guiding foreign policy and a Democratic Congress determining the amount of military assistance Israel receives from the United States. Support of Israel is widespread today among both parties, even if there may be disagreements with specific policies of the Israeli government. Last week 41 Democratic representatives and 31 Republican representatives traveled to Israel with AIPAC. It is not in Israel’s best interests to become too closely identified with one side of the American political divide.

            The injection of the “loyalty” of American Jews into public discussion is simply toxic and should be out of bounds, whether it comes from the left side of the spectrum or the right. Many Americans have roots in other countries, celebrate those roots, and support policies favorable to their ancestral homes, and American Jews are no different in this regard. We love and support Israel but our loyalty, which is a legal and political concept, is to the United States.

            By all means advocate for the policies you consider to be in the best interests of the United States and in the best interests of Israel. But let’s do so with love and respect and a recognition that despite whatever differences we have, we are one community and one nation.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Couple of Current TV Shows Worth Watching

           Every now and then I recommend television which I think is worth watching, and I’m going to do so again today.

            The first program is the movie “Red Sea Diving Resort” on Netflix. It tells the true story of how a small group of Israeli undercover agents worked to bring approximately 8000 Ethiopian Jews through Sudan to Israel. Recall that Sudan is an Arab country, but it borders Ethiopia and is on the Red Sea and thus accessible to the Israeli port of Eilat via ship. In order to cloak their efforts, the Israelis actually rented an unused dive resort from the Sudanese government and used it to stage their efforts and house the refugees who had walked hundreds of miles from Ethiopia to Sudan. When the effort was threatened with discovery, the United States stepped in and President Reagan authorized several military airlifts to get the remaining refugees from Sudan to Israel.

            The movie has received some criticism for focusing on the Israeli rescuers and not the Ethiopian Jews themselves, but for whatever reason this is the story the filmmakers (led by Israeli director Gideon Raff, creator of Homeland), chose to tell. But the film reminds us why Israel exists and how American administrations of both parties have worked closely with Israel to ensure its security and its status as a haven for those who need it.

            The second is a much less happy story and that is the ten part series “Our Boys” on HBO. First of all, in watching this I was reminded how accustomed I have become to watching streaming on-demand television and being able to binge watch all or most of a series. But “Our Boys” is being shown by HBO one episode at a time, with a new episode each week, and so I have only been able to see the first two episodes.

            “Our Boys” is based on the events of the summer of 2014 in and around Jerusalem. As you recall, three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frankel, were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas. Shortly after their bodies were discovered, some extremist Israeli settlers kidnapped a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and killed him by setting him on fire while he was still alive.

            The first two episodes focused mostly on the family of the Palestinian teen, their anguish while he was missing, and the Israeli Security Services’ attempt to find him. At the point where the second episode stops, the body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir has been found but his parents have not been notified. The police say that it’s unthinkable to them that any Jew would have done such a thing, but the Shin Bet officer assigned to the case knows differently (as, of course, do we).

            Some of this is painful to watch. The treatment of the Abu Khdeir family by the police was not always courteous or respectful. The series shows documentary footage of angry Israeli mobs rampaging through Jerusalem shouting “Death To Arabs.” I was not in Israel when these particular events happened. (I did go, as you may remember, a few weeks later when the war to which the events of earlier that summer led broke out.) But I was in Israel after a major terror attack in 1994 and witnessed at that time the same type of mobs and the same chants.

            But we also know that Israel did find, prosecute, and convict the three men who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Beyond that, as I was watching the show, which was written and produced by both Jewish and Arab Israelis and is in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles, I was reminded of the fact that for all its flaws, Israel is a democracy with freedom of expression and a thriving creative community which by and large leans to the left politically.

            It’s hard for me to imagine that any Arab country would have permitted the creation of a television series that humanizes Israeli Jews the way that “Our Boys” humanizes Palestinian Arabs. Israeli movies and television are great in part because they tend to show the full truth of Israel, warts and all; the good parts and the not-so-good parts, the parts which fill us with pride (a la “Red Sea Diving Resort”) and the parts which are troubling. A true democracy has nothing to hide.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Judaism and the Abortion Debate


          With so many states having recently passed or considering legislation which purports to eliminate or severely restrict abortion, I want to take a look at what Judaism says about this issue.

            Before I do that, I want to talk about “framing”, in other words, how an issue is presented and perceived in the public square. To a large extent, the debate over abortion is framed as religious people who are “pro-life” vs. secular people who are “pro-choice.” In point of fact, as a Conservative rabbi I am pro-choice precisely because of our religious teachings, and this is why the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism issued this statement this week after the Alabama legislature passed a law which, if allowed to go into effect, would ban virtually all abortions.

            The most recent spate of legislation is rooted in the Catholic and Evangelical Christian belief that we become full human beings with full human rights at the moment of conception. Catholics and Evangelicals have every right to believe this but it is a belief, it is not a scientifically provable fact. The normative Jewish teaching codified in the Talmud and Codes is that a fetus becomes a full human being at the moment of birth -- when its head or in the case of a breach birth the majority of its body has emerged from the womb.

            The halachic position that a fetus is not a full human being is rooted in Exodus 21:22-23. These verses describe a situation where two men are fighting with each other and as a result of their fight, a pregnant woman is injured. If the woman herself dies as a result, the death penalty is incurred. If the fetus dies but not the mother, the perpetrator is fined. The inescapable conclusion from these verses is that a fetus is not a full human being and causing its death is not murder, because in the Pentateuch there is no such thing as a fine for murder. There is only the death penalty.

            The fact that we do not consider a fetus a full human being does not mean that a fetus has no value. The Talmud says in a number of places that “a fetus is a limb of its mother” rather than an independent being itself, but just as we would need a compelling reason to amputate a limb, we need a compelling reason to “amputate,” so to speak, a fetus. But regardless of whether the halacha would or wouldn’t countenance any particular abortion, the assertion that abortion is “murder” is contrary to Jewish teachings, full stop.

            Halacha going back as far as the Mishnah (codified in 200 CE) actually requires abortion if carrying the pregnancy to term endangers the life of the mother. This is based on the law of the rodef, the “pursuer.” In a case where the fetus endangers its mother’s life, it is considered a “pursuer” and we are obligated to put the welfare of the mother first -- up until the point where the head or the majority of the body has emerged, at which point we don’t kill one human being to protect another.

            The point of this admittedly cursory survey of halacha regarding abortion is simply to help you understand what Jewish religious teaching on the subject is and why Jews do not share the belief of many Catholics and Evangelicals that abortion is murder and that all abortions should be banned. While in point of fact Judaism might disapprove of some of the reasons some women choose to have abortions, Judaism disapproves of lots of things which people do which nevertheless are and should remain perfectly legal. I’m not aware, for example, of any move anywhere in the United States to ban the sale of pork or of clothing made from a mixture of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11).

            Having counseled women who were unsure about having an abortion, and even having accompanied women to the abortion clinic, I know that this is a serious decision that is not made lightly. I deeply respect those who have a religious-based opposition to abortion but there is no reason for any state or the Federal government to decide that the Catholic/Evangelical belief is correct and the Jewish and liberal Protestant belief is wrong. I hope and pray that these clearly unconstitutional laws will not survive the judicial scrutiny they will surely receive.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible -- 5779/2019

“Kosher for Passover” Made Intelligible

The following is intended as general guidance for observing Passover according to normative Conservative guidelines. Different families have different traditions and if you have a family tradition that may be more stringent on a particular question, it is always permissible to be strict. It is not a violation of Jewish law to avoid taking leniencies even if they are legally permitted.

Observing the dietary restrictions of Passover is not always easy, but it is made even more complicated by misunderstandings and misinformation, both of which are rampant. To help you in your observance, I have prepared this Pesach Guide, trying to be as straightforward as possible. In doing so, I have consulted the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide, but I alone am responsible for the rulings and conclusions contained herein. This guide was revised in the spring of 2016 to reflect the recent decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement to permit the consumption of kitniyot. It was further revised for clarity and style in 2018 and again in 2019
 The full CJLS Passover Guide can ge found online at

I. What is Chametz?
Chametz (“leaven”) is the product of five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Once these grains come into contact with water for eighteen minutes they are considered chametz. These are the same five grains which can be made either into bread which requires the hamotzi blessing or into matzah. We are forbidden not only to consume these products during Pesach, but even to own them or derive benefit from them in any way. Obvious examples of chametz include bread, cakes, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages other than wine. Only products made from these five grains can become actual chametz. However, once these grains have been made into matzah they are no longer subject to becoming chametz, and thus we can use matzah meal or crumbled matzah for all kinds of different Pesach products.
Note that the issue of chametz, despite popular misconceptions, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of yeast. Crackers, pasta, pita, and flour tortillas contain no yeast, yet they are still chametz and forbidden for Passover use.
II. What are Kitniyot? 
Another category of products which Ashkenazi Jews historically did not use for Pesach is kitniyot (“legumes.”) This category in essence consists of things which can be ground into flour. The most common forms of kitniyot are corn, rice, and beans. Ashkenazi authorities, fearing that people might accidentally use wheat flour while thinking it was corn or rice flour, banned the use of these products on Pesach as well. Sephardic communities never accepted this prohibition and thus Sephardic Jews have always been free to eat these products on Pesach to their heart’s content.

In December 2015 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement passed two responsa permitting the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews. Of course, just because consumption of kitniyot is permissible does not mean it is obligatory and if changing your family custom makes you uncomfortable you are free to continue to observe it.
A couple of things are worth noting here:
a.) There was never a prohibition for Ashkenazi Jews of owning kitniyot on Pesach or having them in your home. While actual chametz needs to be disposed of or sold through the agency of the rabbi and locked away, this is not necessary with kitniyot for those who continue to refrain from them during Pesach.
b.) Different communities in Europe followed different practices with regard to what was or was not considered kitniyot. Some products which have different status in different communities are garlic, mustard, and string beans. If you maintain the practice of avoiding kitniyot during Pesach, you should follow your family’s tradition as to whether or not a particular food is to be avoided.

III. What Products Require Kosher for Passover Certification?
Another area of confusion is what products require certification, and why some products may be purchased without certification before but not during Pesach.
During the year, an accidental admixture of forbidden foods which is less than 1/60th of the total is considered nullified. This would also apply to any accidental addition of chametz in an otherwise Kosher-for-Passover product. That is the reason why we formally nullify any overlooked chametz both the evening and the morning before Pesach. But during Pesach, even the tiniest amount of chametz cannot be nullified.
An example of this type of product is orange juice. Orange juice is a product which in the normal course of things is chametz-free. But suppose it is produced in a factory which also produces chametz-containing products. There is a remote possibility that some small amount of chametz might accidentally wind up in our orange juice, but if we bought the juice before Pesach, this would be nullified. If we buy it during Pesach, the miniscule amount of chametz is not nullified, and thus juice bought during Pesach needs certification.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased before or during Pesach, i.e. they are always acceptable without special Passover certification:
Fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh kosher meat, fish.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if bought before Pesach but require certification if bought during Pesach:
Unflavored caffeinated coffee (flavored, instant and decaffeinated coffees require certification), sugar, pure tea (not herbal or decaf), salt, pepper, natural spices, pure fruit juices, frozen uncooked vegetables, milk, Grade A butter, hard cheeses, frozen uncooked fruit (with fruit as the only ingredient), and baking soda.
The following foods  require Kosher for Passover certification whether purchased before or during Pesach:
All baked products (matzah, matzah meal, cakes, cookies, etc.), processed foods, wine, vinegar, liquor, oils, dried fruits, candy, flavored milk, ice cream, yogurt, soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, herbal or flavored tea, and canned tuna fish.
Rice and dried beans should either have Passover certification “for those who eat kitniyot” or else they must be sifted through before Pesach to find and dispose of any possible grains of chametz which might have become mixed in. Processed kitniyot (such as canned beans) require Passover certification as does any other processed food because of the complexity of the manufacturing process. It is never a good idea to simply rely on the ingredients listing to determine if a product is kosher for Pesach.

IV. Pets and Pesach:
The problem with pets and Pesach is not a question of animals eating chametz or non-Kosher food. Animals are not subject to the mitzvot and there is no problem with them eating anything. The issue is that Jews are forbidden to own or benefit from chametz during Pesach.
The problem can be dealt with in one of three ways:
1. Feed your pets Kosher for Passover table scraps during Pesach if that is possible.
2. Scrutinize pet food labels to make sure they contain no chametz (kitniyot and non-kosher meats such as pork or shrimp are not a problem).
3. Include your pet and its food in the sale of chametz authorization.

V. Conservative Jews and Kitniyot
The 2015 decision of the Conservative Movement’s CJLS to permit the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews during Passover has had a mixed reception. Some follow it, some reject it, and some follow a middle ground approach.
Because we want everyone to be comfortable eating at our synagogue at all times, I have decided not to permit consumption of kitniyot or kitniyot-containing products at Kehilat Shalom during Passover.
For those of you who may wonder about my personal practice: as noted above, rice and beans to be consumed during Pesach need to be sifted through before Pesach to make sure that no grains of actual chametz have become mixed in (unless the rice or beans have reliable Kosher for Passover certification). Because I view it as unlikely that people will really do this, I do not recommend consumption of actual beans or rice during Pesach and I do not consume them myself.
However, on occasion one finds products with reliable certifications “for those who eat kitniyot” coming from Israel, France, Mexico, or other countries. I recommend these products if you are comfortable eating kitniyot, but I reiterate that you are perfectly free to continue avoiding kitniyot if that is what makes sense to you.

VI. Kosher for Passover Certification:
When looking for products which require Kosher for Passover certification, it is important to make sure that the certification is actually printed on the label or bottle cap and not just a sticker which is handled at the retail level. There is no guarantee that the sticker was applied to the proper product.
Similarly, do not assume that just because a store stocks something in the Passover section that it is actually kosher for Passover. Neither the supermarket clerks nor their managers are experts in Jewish religious practices, and it is not uncommon for “Jewish” foods which are not kosher-for-Passover to be placed in or near the Passover section. It is your responsibility to check for appropriate Passover certification. Earlier this week in the Goshen Plaza Giant, I found Kosher-for-Passover chicken stock right next to chicken stock which is kosher but not for Passover, and both were stocked in the store’s Passover section along with hamantashen left over from Purim. I am sure that the stores are acting in good faith but you must exercise reasonable vigilance.
It is not uncommon to find matzah which is not Kosher for Passover -- it will state “Not For Passover Use” on the label but you must look for it. Some people eat matzah year-round and these products are not produced using the special Passover stringencies.

VII. Some Final Thoughts:
We are fortunate to live in an age when many kosher products, both for Pesach and year-round, are available even to Jews who live in areas with relatively small Jewish communities. Gone are the days when kosher-observant Jews subsisted on matzah, potatoes, cheese and eggs during Pesach. I hope that this guide makes your Passover observance more meaningful and less stressful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Saint Peter's Prayer

Rabbi Shimon Kefach was worried. A new Jewish movement had arisen, headed by a charismatic rabbi who many of his followers believed to be the Messiah. This movement had some pluses and some minuses in his eyes. On the one hand, it appealed to many who might otherwise have moved away from Judaism altogether. They were rural, poor, uneducated, not particularly observant of many of the rules of rabbinic Judaism; but this new preacher excited at least some of them, so that was probably a good thing. On the other hand, this preacher had some eccentric ideas and was drawing the attention of the government, and not in a good way. The Jews of his time were ruled by a ruthless occupying power and anyone who was viewed as remotely threatening had to be eliminated.

So Rabbi Shimon was sent by the other rabbis to infiltrate the movement. When, as feared, the rabbi of this new movement was put to death, to everyone’s surprise the movement did not die out. In fact, it continued to grow and soon was attracting not only Jews but also Gentiles.

After their rabbi’s death, a very bitter dispute broke out among the remaining leaders of the movement. They wondered: since this was a Jewish movement and its leader was their rabbi, could a Gentile simply join the movement? Or did he have to become Jewish to do so? Or maybe he shouldn’t have to become Jewish but would nonetheless have to observe at least some of the rules and rituals of Judaism.

As the new movement became predominantly Gentile, Rabbi Shimon was torn. He was glad that non-Jews were joining the movement, giving up idolatry and relating to the same God that the Jews worshipped. But at the same time, he saw that the brother of the executed rabbi, who thought that Gentiles had to become Jews before joining the group, had been pushed out of the leadership; and that Jews who were joining the movement were now also being told that they no longer needed to observe the mitzvot. Rabbi Shimon wanted the movement to succeed, because of the good elements in it; but he didn’t want Jews to join it and thus give up their Jewish observance and become indistinguishable from non-Jews.

So Rabbi Shimon started a new branch and it became the biggest in the movement. Rabbi Shimon thought that if the movement he headed looked less like Judaism, it would attract fewer Jews. He moved Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday and instituted different holidays than those observed by Jews. He also wrote a prayer which we said earlier this morning, which we say every Shabbat and Holiday: Nishmat Kol Chai Tivarech et Shimcha -- the soul of every living thing will praise your name, O God.

It might have taken you awhile to realize that Rabbi Shimon Kefach is known to most of the world as St. Peter. What may surprise you is that the story I told about St. Peter writing Nishmat, being sent by the rabbis to infiltrate the Church, and purposely changing it to look less like Judaism and thus be less attractive to Jews, is not something that I made up. While we will never know if this is how things really happened, several ancient Jewish authorities including Rabbenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, believed this to be the case.

So, with this complex history, how have Jews viewed Christians? It might be surprising to find such a positive view of Christianity in a rabbinic source from almost 1000 years ago. I have spent a good deal of time speaking to Christian audiences and interacting with Christians, and I often remind them that what for Christians is the “Good News” -- which is the literal meaning of the word “Gospel” -- has been bad news for the Jews.

            If you know anything about Jewish history you know the stories. How the early Christians, now thoroughly separated from Judaism and seeking to curry favor with the Roman authorities, blamed the Jews rather than the Romans for Jesus’ death. How the Church believed it was the “new Israel”; that anyone who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah was doomed to go to hell. When I was younger, I was even taught that the Kol Nidre we recited last night was introduced during the Inquisition for the benefit of the Conversos, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity but still practiced Judaism in secret, and wanted to nullify their Christian vows to God. It wasn’t, because Kol Nidre goes back to the 6th century, hundreds of years earlier; but the formula recited before Kol Nidre, declaring it lawful to pray with transgressors, is from the 15th century and might well have been introduced because of the Conversos.

As we know all too well it was not just anti-Jewish teaching. What French Jewish scholar Jules Isaac came to label the “Teaching of Contempt” led almost inevitably to violence -- expulsions, Crusades, pogroms, and finally the Holocaust. While Nazism was not a Christian movement or an inevitable outgrowth of Christian anti-Judaism, the “Teaching of Contempt” meant that Nazi antisemitism had fertile ground in which to grow. While there were some Christians who risked and even lost their lives to save Jews, many others enthusiastically assisted the Nazis. Most did neither, sitting passively by as millions were slaughtered. But they were prepared to sit by and do nothing precisely because they and their ancestors had long been taught that Jews were less than human. So it’s no surprise that Jews have often been suspicious of Christians and viewed their religion negatively

Jews’ opinion of Christians has been a complex one, though.  Jewish sources have not always spoken with one voice on our relationship with Christians. Maimonides, who generally had a negative view of Christianity, wrote in Laws of Kings that “Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach's coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together. . . How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot.” So for Maimonides Christianity, for all its problems, nevertheless paves the way for the era when all would worship God as one.

Jews historically have been mindful of our shared beliefs with Christians. An authority who lived about 800 years ago, Menachem Meiri, ruled that both Christians and Muslims are “nations bound by the ways of religion,” meaning that they subscribe to the same moral principles as do Jews, and that therefore in matters of societal and business interactions, we are to treat them precisely the same as Jews. While there are many laws in both the Torah and later rabbinic writings that allow Jews to treat idolaters differently from Jews in business and other matters, both Meiri and his rough contemporaries Tosafot ruled that neither Christians nor Muslims are idolaters and these laws do not apply.

What is truly remarkable is that these teachings which view Christianity as a positive thing for Gentiles are from 800 to a thousand years ago, when persecution of Jews in many places throughout the Christian world was quite common. These sages understood that it was not Christianity per se which lead to persecution so much as it was perverse human nature and xenophobia.

Judaism has made room for the validity of other religions. The reverse has not always been historically so. For most of its history until very recently, Christianity has taught that unless you are a Christian you cannot gain salvation. Judaism has never taught that. From its very beginning, it was the particular path of a particular people, although it was open to those who felt called to join it.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac. After the angel tells Abraham not to go ahead with the sacrifice, he says that because of Abraham’s faith his descendants will be blessed and furthermore, that all the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s seed. The blessing and call of Abraham was not to make people into Jews, but rather to teach them to abandon idolatry and to know God as a God of justice. Can Christianity, as Rabbi Shimon Kefach hoped, be a vehicle for doing that?

As long as Christians sought to convert Jews, at best, and kill us, at worst, there is no way that most of us could see Christianity in a positive light. If the Church as it existed up until the early 1960s had been successful in its quest, we would not be here today as Jews if at all.

More recently, however, there have been major positive overtures to Jews from Christians. Beginning in the 1960s, in the wake of the Holocaust, a true Christian teshuvah began. In 1960 the French Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac met with Pope John XXIII and showed him the evidence he had collected demonstrating how the “Teaching of Contempt” had paved the way for the Holocaust. At the end of the audience, Isaac asked the Pope whether he could “carry away a bit of hope.” The Pope replied, "You have a right to more than hope!"  Shortly thereafter, the Pope set in motion the Second Vatican Council which reminded Christians of Paul’s statement that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” and that it was the Roman authorities, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus. But even before that, Pope John XXIII engaged in a couple of dramatic gestures. One Saturday morning the papal motorcade was passing by the Great Synagogue of Rome just as services were letting out; the Pope had his car stop and got out to greet and mingle with the worshippers. And on one Good Friday afternoon while officiating at Mass, in the middle of the service he took out a pencil and visibly crossed out a sentence in the liturgy which mentioned “the perfidious Jews.”
It is more than 50 years since Vatican II and much has happened since then -- more than can be discussed in one sermon. While Vatican II took place within the Catholic Church, in is wake many Protestant denominations also took steps to revise what they believed and taught about Jews and Judaism. Even within the Evangelical community there have been positive steps, as I learned this past June when I was one of 20 Jewish leaders chosen to participate in the annual Jewish - Evangelical Dialogue. Of course we know that the Evangelical community is pro-Israel; but Evangelicals are also showing new interest in the Jewish roots of their faith and trying to figure out how to stay true to their own beliefs while respecting the integrity of Jews and Judaism. As Rev. Jose Roberto Escobar, the pastor of the Evangelical church which rents space from us said to me, they consider it an honor to pray in a Jewish space and are anxious not to do anything which would offend our beliefs in any way.

One of the highlights of the Rosh Hashana service is the “Great Aleinu” during the malchuyot section of the Amidah. We end every service with the Aleinu but it was originally written for the High Holy Days and only later, because it was so beloved, was it added to every service. It contains probably the earliest reference in the liturgy to “Tikkun Olam,” our religious commitment to mend the world.
But in the Aleinu we do not merely mention “Tikkun Olam” but we say “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai,” to mend the world under the sovereignty of God. And we end this prayer by singing “ba-yom ha-hu, yihyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad” -- on that day the Eternal shall be one and God’s name shall be one.

While there are still fundamental differences between Jews and Christians, we are also very much like a family--related with common origins, interwoven beliefs, and histories. And like with all families, our relationships are complex, and require constant vigilance to remind ourselves of what we have in common in order to work together for tikkun olam.

Schlepping the Dogma: Yom Kippur Eve 5779/2018

          Since my wife Keleigh recently had a total knee replacement, and our Westie, Zeke, is disabled, several times a day I have had to carry him up and down the stairs.

            Last week I was writing a message on my smartphone, which uses predictive text to suggest how to complete the word you are typing. I went to write “schlepping the dog” but the predictive text completed the phrase as “schlepping the dogma.”

            At first I was offended. I consider myself to be pretty open-minded and not at all dogmatic. Why would my phone make such a suggestion? What dogma would I be schlepping? Many books have been written on the question of whether or not there even are dogmas in Judaism and one of my rabbinical school professors, Jakob Petuchowski, famously said that the only dogma in Judaism is that there are no dogmas in Judaism.

            A dogma is defined as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” and is mostly associated with Catholic beliefs such as papal infallibility or the Virgin birth.  Depending on who you ask, Moses bringing the Torah down from Mt. Sinai in the precise form we have it today might be a dogma in Orthodox Judaism. But in Conservative Judaism, we don’t exclude someone from the community because they don’t believe a particular teaching. We definitely do not have dogmas. So what was this predictive text really telling me?

            Schlepping the dog was made easier by knowing that in doing so I was performing a religious act. In Jewish teaching there is a mitzvah known as tza’ar ba’ale hayyim, usually translated as “avoiding animal cruelty” but more accurately, “the obligation to avoid causing animals pain.” And Judaism going back to the Bible recognizes that animals can feel not only physical pain but emotional pain. If I wanted to avoid schlepping Zeke up and down the stairs, we could have kept him on the lower level of the house or even penned him up in the kitchen which has a tile floor rather than the wood that’s in the rest of the house. But this would have caused him distress as he is very attached to us but particularly Keleigh, and if she is in the house but he can’t be with her it bothers him a great deal -- and he lets us know it. By carrying him up and down the stairs so that he can be with Keleigh, I am helping to avoid inflicting emotional pain on an animal and thus fulfilling a mitzvah.

            So schlepping the dog is not dogma but it is a religious act. And the autocorrect reminded me that Judaism gives us a framework to make meaning out of the little things. Judaism gives us a broader context to consider the things which we do every day.

            In the play “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevya says that the Jews of Anatevka have traditions for everything -- “how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes.” Tevya of course was pious but not particularly well-educated Jewishly -- although learning Torah was his highest desire -- and he might not have recognized what was tradition, minhag, as opposed to halacha, law. But his overall point is nevertheless pretty valid. Judaism provides guidance, wisdom, and meaning in every area of life. True, I didn’t particularly enjoy carrying a 22 lb. dog up and down the stairs several times a day, and I didn’t enjoy having to occasionally go back home -- even though it’s only a 2 minute drive -- to take the dog downstairs and let him out. But reframing what I was doing from a “chore” to a fulfillment of the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim made a difference. Not merely the fact that by doing what I did I was acting in accordance with Jewish tradition or even Jewish law. But it wasn’t just that, it was something deeper. It’s not just that we are supposed to do it because it’s a mitzvah; we are supposed to do it because animals feel pain, even psychological pain. As the ones who are responsible for the wellbeing of animals entrusted to us, we are obligated to do everything within reason to avoid causing them pain.

            There is a statement in Midrash Rabba 44:1 that “the Torah was only given in order to refine human beings.” I once saw a publication from the Hillel Foundations in the 1950s that said one of the purposes of Hillel was to help Jewish college students become “spiritually finer” people.

Certainly Jews are not the only people looking to be “spiritually finer” people. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau decided to see if he could get out of his “quiet desperation” by moving to a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He advocated solitude, self-reliance, contemplation, proximity to nature, and renouncing luxuries as means of overcoming human emotional and cultural difficulties. But Thoreau didn’t maintain his experiment -- he returned to Concord after two years. His Walden experience enriched his life and through his writings has enriched millions of others, but most of us will not find meaning in our lives by moving to a cabin in the woods.

I too sought solitude in my quest to find meaning. From October 1996 to July 1997 I spent ten months living in a Trappist monastery in Northern California -- as many of you know. I had spent a year as an administrator at a rabbinical seminary and the less said about that, the better. I needed some time to regroup and figure out what I wanted to do next. Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist monk, had been an important influence on my own spiritual development and the Trappists were willing to let me come, so I went.

The first question asked in the Torah is also the shortest, when God asks Adam, “ayeka,” where are you?  This is not a question about geography. God knows where Adam is, God wants Adam to look inside himself.  A monk or a cloistered nun -- the female equivalent of a monk -- spends so much time in solitude, and even when working with others is silent. He or she is constantly asking himself or herself “ayeka,” where are you? The routine of the monastery is designed to give the monk the maximum potential to develop his soul and his relationship with God.

I went to the monastery a Jew and a rabbi and I left the monastery a Jew and a rabbi. Indeed, while living at the monastery I spent every other weekend serving as the interim rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, where I lodged at a casino owned by a congregant -- another place where there is constant, fervent, prayer. But my year at the monastery was beneficial. Before my monastery period I was known for having a short fuse and being sarcastic. Those character traits still percolate up on occasion, but much less frequently than they used to.

Thoreau could not spend his life at Walden. Only a very small percentage of men who enter monasteries as postulants stay through until final vows. Withdrawing to the woods or joining a monastery can provide a meaningful life for some people but they’re not choices that most people will make. And frankly, if most people did make them, that would be the end of human existence. Thoreau never married and monks and nuns, of course, are celibate.

We all seek meaning in different ways but the search is important. Rabbi Harold Kushner is known for writing the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But he has written many other books, including When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. In that book, Rabbi Kushner writes: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter.”

So what type of meaning do people seek out? The author and columnist David Brooks is an active Conservative Jew who belongs to Adas Israel congregation in DC. A little over three years ago he wrote a book, The Road to Character, where he distinguished between what he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.”

            He’s certainly not the first person or even the first active Conservative Jew to make this type of distinction; Rabbi Kushner said many years ago that “no one ever said to me on his deathbed, gee, Rabbi, I really wish I had spent more time at the office.” But Brooks captures the distinction nicely. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

            At its best, Judaism provides us with guideposts to developing our eulogy virtues. This is one of the reasons why our religious school curriculum is now organized around Jewish values rather than distinct subjects like history, Bible, life cycle events and so on. Virtually any Jewish ritual we observe has a moral-ethical component but sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find it.

            For example, most of us know that when we are observing a Shabbat or holiday meal where we say Kiddush over wine and ha-motzi over challah, we say the Kiddush first while the challah remains covered. The conventional explanation as to why the challah remains covered is that if the challah knew we were saying the blessing over wine first, its feelings would be hurt. I’ve been a rabbi or rabbinical student for 36 years, and this is the way I have always explained it.

            A couple of years ago one of the children in our congregation raised an objection. Bread is an inanimate object. It doesn’t have feelings.

            I was momentarily taken aback. She was right. Then it hit me.

            “True,” I said. “Bread does not have feelings. But people do. If Judaism teaches us to take into consideration the feelings of a loaf of bread, which is an inanimate object, how much more should we take into consideration the feelings of our fellow human being?” While we sometimes think of our practices as mere rituals, the act of covering the bread before saying the blessing for wine can carry a deep ethical message, but sometimes it takes the innocent question of a child to help us understand what that message is.

            Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel and begin their new life as a nation without Moses to guide them. In Chapter 13, Moses says to them “אַחֲרֵ֨י יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ”, “you shall walk after the Lord your God, ” but a more literal translation would be “you shall walk behind the Lord your God.” Hundreds of years later, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah raised an objection. “How is it possible to walk behind God? After all elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:24) it says that God is a consuming fire!” If we walk behind God and God is a consuming fire, we’ll get burned up!

            The Talmud goes on to say that while we can’t physically walk behind God, that isn’t what Moses meant. We are to imitate the attributes of God and act in Godly ways -- clothe the naked, visit the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those in mourning.

            Judaism teaches us that we find God, not just in a cabin in the woods or smoke, fire, and thunder at Mt. Sinai. We encounter God through learning and then applying our practices and sacred texts. Through feeding the hungry, through worrying about hurting the feelings of a loaf of bread, and through schlepping the dogma -- I mean, schlepping the dog.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Land of the Covenant: Rosh Hashanah 5779

On Friday evening of October 3, 1980, towards the end of Simchat Torah, Palestinian terrorists set off explosive-filled saddlebags left on a motorcycle parked outside a Paris synagogue. Although the synagogue itself was damaged, all of the people killed were on the sidewalk outside. Two of the four killed were non-Jews who simply happened to be passing by the synagogue when the bombing occurred. That night, French Prime Minister Raymond Barre said that the terrorists “meant to attack Jews going to the synagogue but they hit innocent French people crossing the street.”

His words seemed to imply either that the Jews who were targeted were either not innocent or, more likely, were not truly French. While Prime Minister Barre soon apologized, he spent the rest of his political career and indeed his life dealing with charges of antisemitism. Why was this statement not so unusual for France? Because Barre’s antisemitic rhetoric was not contrary to basic tenets of France, which is a tradition-based, ethnic society, not a covenant-based one like the United States.

In October 1980 I was a senior in college and while I heard about the bombing, it wasn’t until many years later in graduate school that I learned about Barre’s comments. But hearing about them didn’t surprise me. I had relatives in Israel who emigrated from France in the early 1960s. They were originally from Lithuania, survived the concentration camps, and moved to France shortly after the end of World War II. Their children, roughly my contemporaries, were born and educated in France and spoke French like the natives they were. But as Jews, they never felt completely comfortable in France and were never fully accepted. Mainstream French society considers French people to be truly French not just if they have citizenship, but if they have the same ancestry, blood, lineage -- and even religion, because to be fully French is to be Catholic even though most French people are not particularly religious. As much as French Jews try to be French, they will always be a little bit different. And while the problematics of Muslim integration in France are extremely complicated, the sense that Muslims like Jews can never be fully French surely contributes to the problem as well .

The ethnic nature of belonging is not unique to France, of course. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, LORD Jonathan Sacks, is the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and an important public intellectual in the UK. In a commentary on the weekly parasha Ki Tavo which I quoted when we read that parasha last week, Rabbi Sacks remarks on the difference between American and British monuments. He notes that in the United States, monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials contain passages from the writings of those who are memorialized therein. By contrast, British memorials simply have the name, the dates, and the positions the person occupied or what they were famous for.

Sacks says that this is because England is a tradition-based society whereas the US is a covenant-based society. “In a tradition-based society like England things are as they are because that is how they were. England, writes the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, “was not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home. Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there.”

“Covenant societies are different,” says Rabbi Sacks. “They don’t worship tradition for tradition’s sake. They do not value the past because it’s old. They remember the past because it was events in the past that led to the collective determination that moved people to create the society in the first place. The Pilgrim Fathers of America were fleeing religious persecution in search of religious freedom. Their society was born in an act of moral commitment, handed on to successive generations. Covenant societies exist, not because they have been there a long time, nor because of some act of conquest, nor for the sake of some economic or military advantage. They exist to honour a pledge, a moral bond, an ethical undertaking. That is why telling the story is essential to a covenant society. It reminds all citizens of why they are there.”

France, the United Kingdom, and many other European countries are having difficulties figuring out their identities because their societies are changing. Whereas not so long ago the UK was almost entirely white and ethnically English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish, today those four ethnicities make up only about 80 percent of the population.

I am not making a value judgment by saying that changes in population makeup are difficult to adjust to in societies like France or the UK which have been fairly homogeneous. By contrast the United States has historically, despite the very serious blind spots we have had around issues of race, been a nation defined not by identity but by ideals.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said in his inaugural address: “They came here—the exile and the stranger— . . .They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”

President George W. Bush said, in his first Inaugural address: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.”

And last week President Bush and President Obama shared similar thoughts in their eulogies for Sen. John McCain. President Bush said that Sen. McCain “loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.” And President Obama said “John understood, as J.F.K. understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are.”

Presidents of both the Republican and Democratic parties have emphasized that what makes us Americans is not a common ancestry but our fidelity to a common creed. But perhaps no one has said it better than Rob Tibbetts, whose daughter Mollie disappeared in Iowa in July and was found, having been murdered, about a month later. The man charged in Mollie’s murder is Mexican and seems to have been in the United States illegally. As a result, the murder of Mollie Tibbetts has been used as a cause celebre by those arguing for a more restrictive immigration policy, construction of a wall on the Mexican border, and greater efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.

Rob Tibbetts wrote earlier this month in the Des Moines Register: “I am Hispanic. I am African. I am Asian. I am European. My blood runs from every corner of the Earth because I am American. As an American, I have one tenet: to respect every citizen of the world and actively engage in the ongoing pursuit to form a more perfect union.”

If you go to the Lincoln Memorial you will see an example of what Rabbi Sacks noted about American monuments. There is of course the majestic, brooding, statue of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French but there are also long quotes from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address. For me it is a haunting place and every time I go there I cry. It is sacred ground for us as Americans. But here is the interesting thing -- last Shabbat I asked anyone present in the congregation who had at least one ancestor living in the United States when Lincoln was president to raise their hand. Not a single person did so. Are we less moved by the Lincoln Memorial because our ancestors were not here during the Civil War? Is Lincoln’s story less our story? Are we somehow less American because during the Civil War our ancestors lived in Russia or Germany or the Ottoman Empire?

While there are those in this country who would deny us our proper place in American society, like those who marched through the historic Grounds of the University of Virginia with tiki torches last August, chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” we are not the only targets of racism and white nationalism in the United States.

Let’s be clear -- many of these phenomena are not precisely new, but there has been an uptick over the last two years or so. It seems like every day there is another story in the news about police being called because black people have the audacity to be reading in the lounge of the dorm in which they reside or selling lemonade outside the house in which they live or swimming in the pool owned by their HOA or changing the tire on their own car. On our southern border, Hispanic children were taken away from their parents with less tracking and accountability than is used when a prisoner has his belt and shoelaces confiscated.

The covenant of the United States is uniquely enmeshed with the covenants of Judaism. The Pilgrims consciously modeled their society on ancient Israel. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the United States get rid of English and adopt Hebrew as its official language. Both Franklin and Thomas Jefferson suggested that the Great Seal of the United States should depict the Exodus and Moses. Here is Franklin’s description of the design he wanted:

Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Interestingly, the Hebrew term for the United States is Artzot Ha-Brit, the Lands of the Covenant -- a coinage which dates back at least to 1857.

Rabbi Sacks writes: “covenant societies are not ethnic nations bound by common racial origin. They make room for outsiders – immigrants, asylum seekers, resident aliens – who become part of the society by taking its story and making it their own, as Ruth did in the biblical book that bears her name (“Your people will be my people and your God my God”) or as successive waves of immigrants did when they came to the United States. Indeed conversion in Judaism is best understood not on the model of conversion to another religion such as Christianity or Islam, but as the acquisition of citizenship in a nation like the USA.”

As both Jews and as Americans, we are uniquely positioned to remind our country of its own values. As we remind ourselves of our covenant through each prayer, each act of tikkun olam, and each mitzvah that we perform, we are enacting ourselves as true Americans. Our ideals are those of our founding fathers, memorialized in covenants that we act on. And we are called upon to remind others of what America stands for.

When the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787, its deliberations were secret. When the Convention ended, anxious citizens gathered at Independence Hall to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. A certain Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

As Jews and Americans, may we prove equal to the task.