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.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Is It Just Like the Holocaust?


You may have seen an article in the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week asking “Is It Just Like the Holocaust?” While the entire organized Jewish community has condemned the policy of separating children and parents at the border, a debate has now broken out over whether comparisons to the Holocaust are accurate or not.

            When I say the “entire organized Jewish community”, it’s worth bearing in mind how unprecedented this is. Obviously individual Jews may have different opinions, but 350 national and local organizations issued a statement saying that “our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today and compels our commitment to an immigration system in this country that is compassionate and just.” Our local JCRC and the Washington Board of Rabbis issued a similar statement and even the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel called for the policy to be rescinded and for families to be immediately reunited. For a broader view of the organized community’s perspective on immigration, take a look at the JCRC’s comprehensive policy adopted last year. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the JCRC board representing the Conservative congregations and rabbinate of the greater Washington area.)

            On a certain level my main issue with Holocaust comparisons to the current situation is that they are unhelpful if they divert our attention. While the policy of deliberately separating families has at least on paper been reversed, there are still hundreds if not thousands of children who have been separated from their parents and many families may never be reunited. As Federal Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in his ruling earlier this week ordering the Federal government to reunite children and parents as quickly as possible, "The practice of separating these families was implemented without any effective system or procedure for (1) tracking the children after they were separated from their parents, (2) enabling communication between the parents and their children after separation, and (3) reuniting the parents and children after the parents are returned to immigration custody following completion of their criminal sentence. This is a startling reality," the judge wrote. "The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings. Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainees' release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process."

            No, it is not the “just like” the Holocaust in the sense that there are no death camps or gas chambers. But many Holocaust survivors who were hidden as children or survived the Kindertransport, and their children and grandchildren, do see parallels in the trauma that separation of children from parents can cause, as well as the dehumanizing language (“infest, animals”) and scapegoating being used.

            In January 1993 I was part of a group of ten rabbis who spent a week in Haiti. We went there because while he was running for President, Bill Clinton criticized the first Bush Administration’s policy of returning Haitian “boat people” to Haiti, but then announced after winning the election that he would keep it in place.
            There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

Something need not be “just like the Holocaust” for me to know that it is unjust. As long as children remain separated from their parents, the Jewish community will continue to raise its voice. As Hillel said: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Facts and Fictions about Immigration


The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted as saying that while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

There is a lot of misinformation floating around discussions of the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from their parents and about immigration generally. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, let alone an immigration lawyer. But I did study basic international law (at Georgetown) and the history of immigration (in graduate school) and while a rabbi in York, Pa. from 1997 - 2001 I spent a lot of time visiting people being detained by the then-INS and working with and sometimes translating for immigration lawyers. I believe that I have a pretty decent handle on the facts and legalities but will be happy to correct anything I write which is demonstrated to be incorrect.

On the matter of children being held separately from their parents, I have seen people say or write things along the lines of “that’s what happens when you break the law, and crossing into the US illegally is breaking the law.” However, the family separation is not only happening to people apprehended in the act of or shortly after crossing illegally.  It’s also happening to those who present themselves for asylum.

It is an established right under US and international law to show up at a legal port of entry and apply for asylum. Once you do that, you are legally entitled to remain in the country and be given an asylum hearing before an immigration judge. Since some asylum claims are false or unfounded, the government is within its rights to detain you in order to make sure you show up for your hearing and don’t just blend into the population and disappear. But this detention is not supposed to be a punishment; it’s merely meant to make sure you show up for your hearing and then leave if your claim of asylum is denied.

Attorney General Sessions and other administration officials don’t like this law and are seeking to deter people from coming here and seeking asylum, and they see the policy of separating children from their parents as a deterrent. He has acknowledged this. The president has also acknowledged that he is using these children as a bargaining chip to force congressional authorization to build his wall.

Asylum seekers have done nothing wrong. They are complying with the law. Our government is taking away their children to prevent them from doing something it doesn’t like but which is completely legal.

While the intent of this policy is to deter people from seeking asylum, the result may be the opposite of that intended. If an asylum seeker comes here and presents herself for asylum, she will have her kids taken away and only have them returned if she agrees to be deported. (By the way, the wait for an asylum hearing is over a year.) On the other hand, if she simply tries to sneak over the border, she might get caught, in which case she will either have her kids taken away or be deported -- same result as if she followed the law. But if she is successful, as some are, she will have her kids with her and try to blend into the population along with 11 million or so other undocumented immigrants. We may already be seeing this as illegal border crossings are once again on the rise after years of decline, despite the new “zero tolerance” policy.

I often see people ask in all innocence, “why don’t they just come here legally?” In the case of those seeking asylum who are having their kids taken away, the fact of the matter is that they have.

But obviously there are lots of people who do come here illegally and I often see people say things along the lines of “my family came here legally, they should too.”

Since the plurality of my friends and acquaintances are American Jews whose ancestors came here during the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, yes, your family probably came here legally. But with some caveats. First of all, there were basically no immigration laws at that time. No visas, no quotas. At least if you were White, you showed up at Ellis Island and if you were basically healthy you were admitted to this country.

Beyond that, there’s a good chance that someone in your family broke some laws in the process of immigrating here. The last of my immigrant relatives died in 1999 before video cameras and so on were common and I deeply regret the fact that I didn’t get some of the discussion that I had with them on video. But I distinctly remember my immigrant relatives telling stories of bribing guards to let them cross borders, of falsifying papers and changing names to keep families together. Our family legend is that “Arian” was not the original surname at all and was chosen to help an ancestor evade conscription by the Tsar’s army. Most of us have similar stories and we don’t try to hide them, indeed we are proud of them because it was a moral imperative to escape persecution and get here in any way possible. True then, true now.

Finally, I see people writing that illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs and/or living off welfare. Let’s examine these claims a bit. First of all, undocumented people are not eligible for most social welfare programs. They almost certainly aren’t living off welfare. Yes, their kids are in school and so on but remember that if you are born here, you are an American regardless of whether or not your parents are here legally.

Second, are they really “stealing jobs”? Whose jobs, what jobs? The unemployment rate is 3.8% and employers are having a hard time filling the jobs they have available. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, owners of crab canning factories are up in arms because the administration has cut the visas they use for their workforce by 40 percent and they can’t get the employees they need. I’ll repeat something I’ve been saying for years: if you are morally opposed to benefiting in any way from undocumented workers, get ready to cut your own lawn, do your own home repairs and remodeling, and don’t eat in restaurants or stay in hotels.

Immigration is a complicated and contentious issue and to my mind, some politicians of both parties perceive a benefit in continuing to exploit the issue for political gain. There have been some genuinely bipartisan attempts to fix the system and I hope those continue, but for now, I think that it’s important that when we debate and discuss we at least have the same basic facts in front of us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Rabbi, The Monk, and The Chametz

In the spring of 1997 I was several months into a nearly year-long stay at the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. The monastery provided me with a cabin, library access, and vegetarian meals, in return for which I gave occasional lectures on aspects of Jewish life to the community of monks, and taught occasional classes to those monks who were interested in studying with me. I spent every other weekend in Reno, Nevada -- about three hours away -- where I was the part-time rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, which was between full-time rabbis. As part of my rabbinic duties it was my responsibility to arrange the sale of chametz, leavened products which Jews may not own during Passover. Because it is often difficult and costly to throw away all of your chametz (since for example virtually everything in your liquor cabinet is chametz), congregants sign a document appointing their rabbi as their agent to sell the chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. While the rabbi then generally buys the chametz back after Passover, all of the forms state quite clearly that this is in fact a sale and not just a ritual exercise, and that until and unless the chametz is repurchased, it is fully the property of the Gentile buyer.

Since I lived among thirty or so Christian monks, I didn't think it would be too hard to find a Gentile to buy the chametz. As it turned out, it was more complicated than I thought it would be. Although I saw all of the monks frequently, I didn't get to converse with them very often. Contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take a "Vow of Silence", but they do have a practice of silence throughout most of the day. They spend many hours in prayer and meditation and much of the rest of their waking hours working in agriculture or crafts. And they don't have cell phones.

One of the monks, Father Mark, had a graduate degree in Bible from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and knew Hebrew quite well. But he had never studied post-biblical Jewish literature and asked me to teach him Mishnah. We met frequently and during the course of the year studied all of Tractate Berachot (the laws of prayer) and most of Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers," rabbinic ethical maxims). Since I saw him often during our study sessions and he was studying Judaism anyway, Father Mark seemed an appropriate candidate to serve as designated chametz-purchaser. I explained the concept and the procedures to him and he readily agreed.

Since it would have been nearly-impossible to observe the Passover dietary laws in the context of the monastery I arranged to spend all of Passover with friends in Los Angeles,about 500 miles away, and thus had to leave the monastery the day before the day of the first seder. Shortly before I was supposed to leave, I went to find Father Mark so we could sign the chametz sale documents. I found him, but he said to me "I can't do it."

Why not? Father Mark explained that through his studies of the Mishnah he was trying to learn to "think like a rabbi", and he understood that the sale of chametz was in fact a legally binding sale and not just a legal fiction. But, he said, "as a monk I have a vow of poverty, and that means I am not allowed to own any property. It's not a valid sale."

While I am not certain that a Catholic monastic vow has any standing in Jewish law, I appreciated Father Mark's concerns. His own religion precluded him from owning anything, and if the buyer never takes possession, the seller still owns it. In that case, all the Jews of Reno who were depending on me to sell their chametz for them would inadvertently be violating the laws of Passover. I was glad that I had taught Father Mark to "think like a rabbi" but I was also faced with the very real need to complete the chametz sale. We both realized that Father Mark's recent realization had put me in quite a bind.
"You could sell it to the Abbott." Father Mark explained that while individual monks are not permitted to own anything, the monastery itself obviously could, since it owned hundreds of acres, dozens of buildings, thousands of fruit trees and a bunch of tractors and pickup trucks. Maybe the Abbott would buy the chametz on behalf of the monastery, Father Mark mused, but then added that he didn't know exactly where the Abbott was at the moment, and he wasn't totally sure that the Abbott, not having studied Mishnah with us, would agree. "Is there something else you could do?"

Then I recalled that in Jewish law, an agent has the right to appoint a sub-agent. The Jews of Reno had appointed me as their agent to sell their chametz, but there was nothing to prevent me from delegating that task to someone else. I phoned the nearest Conservative rabbi, who was in Sacramento and did have a cell phone, and he agreed that he would serve as my agent and sell the Reno chametz along with that of Sacramento. I borrowed the monastery's fax machine, faxed Rabbi Taff some paperwork, and all was in order.
Every year as Passover approaches, I am reminded of Father Mark, the kind and gentle Trappist monk, and his concern that the Jews of Reno not fail in their duties to God through his own observance of his duties to God. May we all have such respect for those who serve God differently than we do.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The African Refugee Crisis in Israel


Yesterday morning I was one of 13 area rabbis who met with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, and Yaron Gamburg, Minister of Public Diplomacy, at the Israeli Embassy. The meeting was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council to discuss Israel’s recent decision to deport roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers who have been living in Israel for a number of years.

            This was really an unprecedented meeting which was a response to the fact that a number of mainstream Jewish organizations have called on Israel to reverse this policy -- organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and our own local Jewish Community Relations Council on whose board I serve. While there have been other meetings between rabbis or other Jewish leaders and the Embassy in the past, they dealt with “our” issues -- conversion and who is a Jew, religious pluralism, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. This is the first time I can recall where the mainstream Jewish community has been significantly at odds with the Israeli government on an issue which doesn’t impact our own narrow interests.

            Simultaneously with our meeting, a couple of other things happened concerning this issue. Five prominent American Jewish leaders whose pro-Israel credentials are unchallenged (Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and Orthodox rabbis Irving Greenberg, Marvin Hier, and Avi Weiss) issued a statement warning that going ahead with the deportations would cause “incalculable damage” to Israel’s reputation. At the same time, the Supreme Court of Israel put a temporary hold on the deportations, so for the foreseeable future they will not, in fact, be carried out.

            Coverage of the meeting in the Israeli press described the meeting as “frank and respectful” which is diplomatic language which means that there were sharp disagreements and possibly some raised voices, and indeed, that is what happened.

            I don’t want to put words in the mouths of the Israeli diplomats so I won’t try to quote what was actually said, but we also received a written statement of the Israeli Government’s position on the issue which I will be happy to share with you on request. Basically, the statement tries to make the case that Israel has no legal obligation to permit the African refugees to remain and that everything Israel is doing is in accordance with international law. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not as my undergraduate studies in Foreign Service were a long time ago and it’s not my area of expertise.

            Whether or not these deportations are legal, the larger questions for me are “are they moral?” and “are they necessary?” The Israeli government statement says that Israel’s most important obligation is to the safety and well-being of its own citizens, and of course this is correct. But the statement doesn’t even attempt to make the case as to why letting these refugees remain would be harmful to Israel or why Israel couldn’t absorb them rather than expel them.

            Over the last few years Israel has portrayed itself as the “Startup Nation” which is achieving all kinds of technological miracles, or as one of the other rabbis at the meeting put it, “turning air into water.” And of course one of the key slogans of the Zionist movement coined by its founder Theodor Herzl is “im tirtzu, ain zo aggada -- If you will it, it is not a dream.” I find it difficult to believe that Israel couldn’t find a way to successfully settle these refugees if the will to do so were there -- we are talking about 38,000 people in a population of over 8 million which on a per capita basis is roughly the same percentage of the Israeli population as DACA-eligible men and women in the US population.

            I hope and pray that the Israeli government reverses its position and allows these refugees to stay. Those of us in leadership positions in the American Jewish community are constantly alarmed by the erosion of attachment to Israel and the documented fact that the younger an American Jew is, the less likely he or she is to feel that Israel is important to them. Refugees are a hot-button issue in American society right now, and the sight of mass deportations of Africans from the State of Israel to a third country where their safety cannot be guaranteed is not going to make Israel’s image better among young Jews or among Americans generally. For Israel’s own sake, this is not the way.