Monday, July 9, 2007

The Challenge of Jewish Power

David Hartman, founder and guiding spirit of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has written that the contemporary moral challenge for Jews today is the use of power. Briefly, Diaspora Jews have lived in a condition of powerlessness. (In my opinion this is not true of American Jews, and Moshe Halbertal, the most senior fellow at Hartman, said the same in his lecture last week.)

Israel aspires to be both Jewish and democratic but how that works out in practice is very complicated. I am happy that we are not shying away from exploring this challenge while we are here.

I have a close friend in Jerusalem, a fellow Conservative rabbi, who is very active in working to protect the rights of the Bedouin. Yesterday afternoon after classes finished, he took Keleigh and I to visit some of the Bedouin with whom he works, who live right off the road between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. While communication was difficult using language -- my friend speaks a bit of Arabic, I speak only a few words and Keleigh none at all -- the human connection was able to transcend the limits of words. Keleigh in particular had a marvelous time as the young women of the tribe took her for a tour of the sheepfold and she hold a young goat and a young lamb. It may have compensated her however briefly for the fact that she misses our dog Zeke so terribly.

Tomorrow the program is taking us out of Jerusalem to explore contemporary social problems in Israel. The tour Keleigh and I have chosen will take us to the Israeli Arab communities of Baka El-Gharbiyeh, Umm el-Fahm and Barta'a, a town which is half in Israel and half in the West Bank with all the complications that ensue from its divided status. Unlike the Bedouin we visited yesterday, the people we will meet tomorrow are Israeli citizens and generally fluent Hebrew speakers. It should be an interesting day.

Tomorrow night when we get back Arnie Eisen, the new head of JTS, and David Ellenson, the head of HUC, will discuss the contemporary state of American Jewry. It should be very interesting.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Yad Vashem

On Friday we did not have classes so Keleigh and I started the day with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. I had been there many times before and Keleigh had visited in 2001, but this visit was different. A completely new museum was opened in 2005 and it totally replaced the previous museum. Some of the exhibits were brought over from the older museum which opened in the 1950s, but for all intents and purposes this is a brand new museum.

As a museum it is very successful, in my opinion. It is built of stark concrete and has an effect of tunnels. At the same time the exhibits are clear and readable and people can move through at their own speed without crashing into each other too much.

What struck me, however, was the comparison to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. Recall that I was a Hillel rabbi in DC when the Museum there opened, and there has always been a degree of ambivalence about it from some parts of the Jewish community. Because it is a federal and not per se a Jewish institution, its message is quite universalist. The lesson the DC museum wishes to convey is about opposition to racism and prejudice and about equal treatment under law.

The subtext of Yad Vashem is very different. The first few exhibits in particular stress how at home German Jews felt, how successful they thought themselves to be, how assimilated many of them were and how devastated they were when their countrymen turned against them. Perhaps it was only me, but I felt that a subtle parallel was being drawn to the American (and British, Canadian and perhaps other) Jewish experience. This subtext is heightened by the last few exhibits which highlight the immigration of the survivors to Israel and the fact that the museum lets you out onto a huge terrace with a magnificent view of Jerusalem.

Which subtext speaks to you? Which more accurately reflects the world as it is?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Some updates

Finding time and internet access to blog is not easy here. The schedule at Hartman is very full.

We got here a week ago Tuesday and on Wednesday rented a car to head up north. Keleigh had been here once before about six years ago but her progam was based in Jerusalem the whole time so never got further north than Tel Aviv or further south than Masada.

We rented a Hyundai Getz which is a tinier car than any we are used to but still comfortable. If we get the same model at the end of our trip it will be a challenge to fit in all of our luggage. For our trip north we just packed overnight bags and left the rest at our Jerusalem hotel.

Highway driving in Israel is fine and the drivers on the highways are no worse than they are in Connecticut, frankly. There are new rest stop chains called Yellow and another whose name escapes me at the moment but it is a combination of an upscale 7-11 and a Starbucks. (Driving in Jerusalem is more scary as the streets are narrow, traffic patterns confusing and nobody yields for anyone.)

Northern Israel and the Golan Heights were beautiful. Wed. June 27 was Keleigh's birthday so I made us reservations at Decks, the nicest restaurant in Tiberias. It was right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee on a massive deck (in Israel it does not rain in the summer at all) and the atmosphere was marvelous. They specialize in grilled meat dishes and it is a monument to conspicuous consumption. I had told the restaurant when I called that it was Keleigh's birthday and they gave us a free dessert with sparklers on it, played "Happy Birthday" over the sound system and about 500 diners joined in. To quote Borat, "very nice!"

The next day we visited the digs at Bet Shean. It was extremely hot but a very impressive Roman city to see. When we got back to Jerusalem we decided to keep the car as it was not due until the next morning. We drove to the Mall -- the driving was a bit scary -- but had fun, especially since they have a Glatt kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken. Keleigh was in heaven, as you can imagine.

Learning at Hartman has been great but those of you who know me a bit better know that I like and need to process my learning before I write about it. I have re-connected with a lot of old friends including the rabbis who did our wedding and some classmates I have not seen in 20 years. I also met my predecessor in Norwich, Rabbi Alex Felch. What a lovely, lovely man!

I hope you are enjoying these updates. Tonight we are going to the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival, we are going to see "Ratatouille" with 10,000 other people in the Sultan's Pool ampitheater beneath the walls of the old city. Should be fun!

Monday, July 2, 2007

"There Is No Torah Like the Torah of Jerusalem"

Wow! What an amazing day of learning.

Moshe Halbertal's opening lecture on the history of the term "tikkun olam" was tremendous. Nowadays tikkun olam is used to mean social action, but Halbertal showed that this is in reality the third meaning of the term. In the Mishnah it means in essence preserving the social order and more specifically family life and procreation. In Lurianic Kabbalah it is a theurgistic practice reuniting the scattered sparks of the Godhead. I realize that this may be a bit cerebral and I need to process it a bit more but it was exactly the kind of learning I love. Historically aware and thorough but also engaged, struggling with how ancient categories can live for us today in a very different social setting.

A couple of other lectures which were also good. David Hartman showed how the biblical and rabbinic concepts of God are radically different. The rabbis were dealing with the reality that while the Bible seems to promise immediate or at least "this world" reward and punishment, the world doesn't seem to work that way. We sometimes think that we are the first generation to doubt and question, but Hartman showed that we aren't.

The elective I am taking is "Posekim (Jewish legal decisors) Approach Modernity: Tikkun Olam or its corruption?" Yesterday we read two responsa on whether it is permissible to give kosher supervision to a restaurant which insists on serving ice cream to those who want it after a meat meal. I won't tell you what they said because I'll teach these sources later but the answer may surprise you.

Off to Hartman for another day of learning . . .

We're here

As I feared, I've been having a little difficulty connecting to the net so far while in Israel. But my program at Hartman starts in half an hour, and they have good access here, but since I am using a terminal in the library I can't yet post photos.

Bu, we are here. We got here Tuesday afternoon Israel time. The new airport is amazing, huge, very up to date. Passport control is now all computerized so we did not even have to fill in a landing card anymore. Our luggage came quickly, we zipped through customs and less than half an hour and $50 later, we were at our hotel.

There is a tremendous amount of construction, many more cars and even a few minivans. People seem a bit politer than they used to be though drivers are still very aggressive. We rented a car for two days to go up north and while highway driving was fine, driving in Jerusalem is scary and I am happy not to have a car until my program finishes at the end of next week.

Our trip north was fun, hopefully more about that later as I am pressed for time at the moment. Last night we went to a little reception for visitors from the Conservative movement at the new United Synagogue center in Jerusalem. The building is impressive and they have almost 100 students starting in the Conservative Yeshiva summer session -- including a young man who was active in Hillel at American University when I was the rabbi there. A nice feeling to reconnect and know he is still involved.

Off to register for my program. More to come . . .

Monday, June 4, 2007


Keleigh and I are off to Israel for three weeks, leaving late June and returning mid-July. From July 2 - 12 I will be attending the Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

According to the notice I got last week from Hartman, 120 rabbis from all over the world -- from many different branches of Judaism -- will be participating in the seminar.

The Hartman Institute is headed by Rabbi David Hartman. If you are a Beth Jacob member, you have heard me quote him in my sermons and in an occasional “Rabbi’s Message” for our synagogue newsletter. I am excited to have the privilege of learning from him in Jerusalem.

The seminar faculty includes Rabbi Hartman, his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman, and Prof. Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University, who is perhaps Israel’s leading scholar of Jewish philosophy. The guest faculty includes the new chancellor of JTS, Prof. Arnold Eisen, as well as the President of HUC, Rabbi David Ellenson.

The Hartman Institute is dedicated to the proposition that intensive study of Jewish texts will lead to a meaningful Jewish identity. Indeed, it may be the only thing which can do that. We Jews do not agree on much. Not only across denominational lines, but even within each denomination, we disagree on just about everything. What we have in common are our texts. The Torah, the rest of the Tanach, rabbinic and philosophical literature and even belles lettres are the inheritance of every Jew. I am hopeful that taking two weeks to study Torah with master teachers from Israel and the United States will strengthen me in my own role as a teacher and a provoker of questions, which are the rabbi’s most important roles.

It has been five years since I was last in Israel. In June, 2002, when I presented a paper at the Center for the Study of Christianity at the Hebrew University, it was right after a number of high-profile suicide bombings and there were very few tourists. Of the 133 rooms in the hotel where I stayed, only three were occupied. Today the security situation is much improved and tourism, which suffered a hit last summer because of the second Lebanon war, is on the rebound. We will be staying in the same hotel where I stayed last time – it was the Windmill then and is now called Prima Royale – and I hope it will be a bit more crowded.

I am also looking forward to sharing this trip with you. I’m hoping to be able to post my impressions of my studies at the Hartman Institute, our travels and encounters in Israel, and even some digital photos on this blog while we are in Israel. My ability to do so will depend on the availability of time and Internet access so I cannot say for certain that this will all happen, but this first post is at least a symbolic start of the effort.