Monday, April 6, 2020

Hoarding and Shortages

I heard this story at a Holocaust Remembrance Day program some years ago and I cannot swear that every detail is accurate, but the story itself is true. The person who told it is a friend who is the son of Holocaust survivors

His father was around 16 years old and the family was locked up in the Warsaw Ghetto with thousands of other Jews and no food. They were on the verge of starvation when the 16 year old decided he had nothing to lose by trying to sneak out of the Ghetto and find some food. If he succeeded, they would have something to eat. If he got killed trying, then they were still no worse off because they were soon going to die of starvation anyway.

My friend's father was gone several hours and came back with exactly one potato -- not much for their family of four, but something.

He triumphantly handed it to his father who proceeded to take a knife, cut the potato in half, and head for the door of the family's apartment.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

"The people downstairs are hungry too."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Passover in an Age of COVID-19

Passover in an age of COVID-19
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

Observing Passover (Pesach) always presents challenges but this year is more challenging than usual. In this article I want to address two different issues:
Observing the Seder when health guidelines tell us not to gather with people outside our immediate household.
Keeping kosher for Passover when going shopping presents a health hazard and supply chains are interrupted.

I do not intend to address the overall question of keeping kosher for Passover as I have covered that in previous years. That guidance can be found here but should be used bearing in mind the particular leniencies which are applicable this year.

It should be absolutely clear that under no circumstances is it permitted to gather for Seder with people other than your immediate household. There is a principle in halacha (Jewish law) known as dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the land is the law) and it is a Jewish religious obligation to obey civil laws. Since the State of Maryland has issued rulings restricting gatherings to no more than 10 people, and has further advised people to remain at home except for truly essential activities, and public health guidelines call for us to maintain a distance of at least six feet from people who are not part of our household, we consider it a sin to violate these guidelines. If you are still planning to gather for Seder with a group of less than 10, maintaining the six foot separation, you may only do so if your physician tells you that this is permitted.
Kehilat Shalom has already been streaming daily and Shabbat services via Zoom since March 19. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued guidelines that permit the use of video streaming for services (and by analogy the Pesach Seder) and allow for the recitation of Kaddish provided that there are at least ten participants and they can all see and hear each other. (This provision is why we use Zoom rather than Facebook Live or Youtube which are one way rather than interactive connections.)
The original CJLS guidance specified that streaming needed to be done in such a way that the equipment was not operated on Shabbat, neither by the person moderating or hosting the streaming session, nor by the other participants. Unfortunately, following this guidance requires all kinds of IT infrastructure that costs many thousands of dollars which we do not possess. Therefore I reluctantly concluded that we would violate the CJLS guidelines and offer Zoom services on Shabbat regardless. My reasoning is that the prohibitions which are violated by operating Zoom on Shabbat are d’rabbanan (rabbinic) rather than d’oraita (biblical) and that the rabbis have the authority to suspend d’rabbanan prohibitions when it is in the public interest to do so.

On March 25 the CJLS issued guidance which says that “ideally” the above practices should be followed but if they cannot be, it is permissible in current circumstances to connect to or initiate a stream from a computer which is already operating if it can be done by instructing a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa to do so or by clicking on a link rather than typing in a web address. The stream itself should also be set up so that it does not record. In my opinion this guidance is much more realistic and we should strive to follow it, but I still maintain that typing into a computer on Shabbat or causing video recording is at worst a rabbinic rather than biblical prohibition and can be overridden if necessary under current circumstances. Therefore it is permitted to conduct a Seder over Zoom or similar technology and include friends and family who cannot safely join you in person. Ideally there should be a seder plate at each location but at a minimum each location should have three matzahs, wine or grape juice, carpas (any green vegetable), maror (any bitter vegetable), and salt water.

Keeping Kosher for Pesach:

The main concern as we shop for Pesach this year is disruption of the supply chain combined with the risk of going shopping, and all the more so the possibility of having to go from store to store since availability of products is so inconsistent. One way to minimize this problem locally is to do your Pesach shopping online through Most of the products in their system are Kosher for Passover, and those which are not are clearly marked. They will deliver your order to our area but like everyone else they are limited by availability of product and have limited delivery time slots available.
Bear in mind that while it is prohibited to eat chametz (“leavened products” which combine liquid and any of the five grains wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) it is required to eat matzah only for the Seder. If you are having difficulty obtaining matzah this is helpful to remember. Those who have a sufficient supply of matzah should be willing to help make sure that their fellow Jews have at least three matzahs for the Seder and find a way to get them to each other in a contactless manner.
Karpas can be any vegetable (in Israel it is commonly a boiled potato). Maror can be any vegetable which brings a tear to the eye if consumed raw. In Israel it is usually romaine lettuce but it could be hot peppers, fresh ginger, mustard greens or raw lemon if horseradish is unavailable.
As I referenced in my general Passover guide, the CJLS in 2015 permitted all Jews, not just Sephardim, to consume kitniyot (“legumes”, things such as beans, rice, and corn) on Passover. For this year the CJLS is urging everyone to permit the consumption of kitniyot and general guidance can be found in my above article.
I have previously written and discussed the halachic concept of bitul b’shishim which means that an amount of non-kosher food or drink which is less than 1/60th of the total volume is nullified and the product remains kosher. While this doesn’t apply to chametz during Pesach, it does apply before Pesach and we formally nullify any chametz in our possession the night before and the morning of the first Seder. In practical terms it

means that if one didn’t sort through the beans or rice they bought before Pesach and they happen to find a grain of chametz in it before cooking, they can simply discard the chametz and the food remains permissible.
The concept of bitul b’shishim also means that while we normally strive to buy products which are certified for Passover, in a crisis situation such as this year we can rely on bitul to purchase products which we know do not contain any chametz but might have been produced on a production line which is also used for chametz. The CJLS has published a more in depth guide to Pesach shopping for this year which can be accessed here.

On Monday March 30 at 10 am I will be offering a seminar on these issues as well as a Q&A at the following link:

While I am happy to answer any questions and provide guidance, unless you are doing your Pesach shopping prior to this coming Monday I would ask you to hold your questions until the seminar since your question may be of broader interest.

My fervent prayer for all of us is that we merit to observe this coming Pesach as safely as we can and that in future years we once again join together in person to proclaim “next year in Jerusalem.”

Thursday, January 16, 2020

MLK Address from 2010

In January of 2010, ten years ago, I was invited by the Norwich, CT NAACP Branch to give the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service.

I want to thank Rev. Barbara White and Evans Memorial for hosting this event, and I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak here today as we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Rev. Greg Perry called me several weeks ago and asked me to do this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would accept, but I was a little surprised and a little bewildered. But then I remembered a conversation that I had about a year ago with Brother Joseph Hemphill, who some of you certainly know. What you may not know is that some of my conversations with Brother Joseph work their way into the sermons I give at Beth Jacob. And it was just about a year ago, because we Jews read the entire Five Books of Moses every year through, and it is just about this time of year that we begin reading the book of Exodus. So freedom and liberation are on our minds, and it is always appropriate that we're reading the Book of Exodus at the time that we are also remembering Dr. King. And it was in that context that Brother Joseph said something that really stuck with me. He said, "you know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the Black people."

And that's correct, and that's why it's OK for a white, Jewish person to give this talk today. What Dr. King did, he did for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, "as I would not be a slave, I would not be a slave master." It is not just that Black people needed to be liberated from the shackles of racism and oppression. White people needed to be liberated from their own oppression as well, because oppression is a product of fear. It is not just African Americans who are better off today because of Dr. King. All of us are better off, because we are working together for a society where we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dr. King's dream was not a Black dream or a white dream, it was an American dream, and a human dream. And it was a dream influenced by the Abrahamic covenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to begin this afternoon with a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish legal and ethical materials, laws and stories, that was codified around 1500 years ago, but much of the material is quite a bit older than that. When I as a Jew and a rabbi read or hear stories of Jesus, they are familiar to me, because Jesus, too, was a rabbi, and he was not the only rabbi of his time to teach by means of stories and parables. So maybe those of you who are Christians will find something familiar in this type of story as well.

One day Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered Elijah the Prophet. As you know, in our traditions Elijah is considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah. And so Rabbi Yehoshua asked him “when will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself”, came the reply. “He sits at the gate of Rome with all the other beggars, but there is one way you can single him out. All of the beggars un-bandage all their wounds at once and then re-bandage them all at once. But the Messiah un-bandages one and then immediately re-bandages it, un-bandages another and then re-bandages it, thinking that perhaps he will be needed and have to go in a hurry.”
Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Rome and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. “Shalom to you my Master and Teacher.” “Shalom to you, ben Levi.”
“When will Master come.” “Today!” the Messiah replied.
When Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah he was crestfallen. “Surely he lied to me, because he said he would come today and yet there is no sign of him.”
“You misunderstood what he was saying,” replied Elijah. “He was quoting to you from Scripture, Psalm 95. ‘Today – if you would but hearken to God’s voice.’”

Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Where no child lives in fear of the adults who control his life. Where the poor are not merely given what they need to survive but treated with respect, and given the tools with which to lift themselves out of poverty. Where workers are always treated fairly. Where disputes between individuals and between nations are settled on the basis of justice and reason, not on the basis of who has the greater might. Where animals are protected from human cruelty; where natural resources are treasured as God’s gift to humanity and used wisely, with concern for future generations and their needs. Where the elderly are not considered a burden but treasured for their wisdom and experience. 

Such a world is not a fantasy. That world is possible. You and I, with God's help, can bring that world into being. 3500 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a plan to bring that world into fruition. And then Christianity and Islam came onto the scene to spread that plan, but we still -- all of us -- continue to fall short.

The Jewish people really became a people in Egypt. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, the entire nation consisted of one patriarch, his twelve sons and one daughter, the wives and children of the twelve sons and their household employees – a band of seventy souls in all, perhaps. After four hundred years that number had grown somewhat. Six hundred thousand adult males left Egypt -- together with wives and children probably 2.5 to 3 million.
The Jewish people, then, was forged in the crucible of slavery. Thirty seven times the Torah commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Not so we should seek revenge.  In fact, we are specifically commanded not to hate the Egyptians, because they provided us food when we faced starvation. No, the Torah reminds us of our origin as strangers in order to remind us that because we were strangers, we in turn have a special responsibility not to oppress the stranger but to love him.
At the time of Jesus, there were two other great rabbis of the age, Hillel and Shammai. Once there was a pagan who, for whatever reason, enjoyed making fun of rabbis. He went to  Shammai, and said to him: “I am willing to convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai like Jesus was a carpenter by profession and apparently brooked no nonsense. He took the yardstick that was in his hand and whacked the pagan over the head.
              So the pagan went to Hillel. And Hillel took him up on the challenge. He said to him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."
     For us Jews, there are two sources of values. One is the Bible, and the other is Jewish history. I believe that it is no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of every struggle for human freedom.
Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were close friends. The picture of them marching arm in arm during the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is one of the great iconic images of the Civil Rights era. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a "Conference on Religion and Race" in Chicago. This is what Dr. Heschel said then:
"At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
 Thus it is no accident that the two white volunteers killed by the Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer in the United States almost fifty years ago alongside James Chaney were Jews named Schwerner and Goodman. It is no accident that in apartheid South Africa, for years and years the only anti-apartheid member of the all-white legislature was Helen Suzman, the Jewish representative of a predominantly Jewish district in Johannesburg. It is no accident that the two demographic groups in the United States whose voting patterns are most alike are African Americans and Jewish Americans. It is no accident; it is a direct result of the Torah’s repeated admonition to “not oppress the stranger, but remember that you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.

            All the rest is commentary. But in our day Hillel’s teaching is not enough. It is not enough because it is merely passive. And as both Blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. Rabbi Heschel said  "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," while Dr. King said "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." And so I would add a corollary to Hillel’s maxim: “what has been done to you, do not let be done to another.”

In February 1993 I was part of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who spent a week in Haiti examining the human rights situation there and the U.S. government’s policy at the time of returning Haitian refugees who were intercepted trying to make their way by boat to our country. And interestingly enough, all ten of us cited exactly the same motivation for going on this trip: the St. Louis.
In 1939 a boat with 900 Jewish refugees steamed away from the shores of Germany. They were bound for Cuba, which had given them visas. But for one reason or another, the Cubans changed their minds and sent the refugees away. So the boat, the St. Louis, headed for New York harbor. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them back to Germany, where most of them disappeared in the crematoria of the Holocaust.
So for a Jew, who knows Jewish history, seeing a boatload of refugees returned home to face likely death hit too close to home. When I am asked one day what I did when we sent the Haitians away to be killed, I won’t have to say “I was a good German. I did nothing.”
We are a people that learn from history. Because we were slaves and strangers in Egypt, we have tried to free the slave and honor the rights of the stranger. Because the world watched and did nothing while we were slaughtered, we were determined not to watch and do nothing as Bosnians and Rwandans were slaughtered. And because we are all of us people who learn from history -- whether as Jewish people, as Black people, or simply as American people -- we cannot sit idly by and watch and do nothing while people continue to die in Haiti.

            Brother Joseph was right when he reminded me that what Dr. King did, he did for all of us. Dr. King's genius was that his vision was rooted in the biblical texts that almost all Americans hold to be sacred. His dream was, as he himself said, "deeply rooted in the American dream." He called us, all of us, to be the kind of people that we know in our hearts that we ought to be. He called us to live lives of justice and of peace. He called us, finally, to join hands and build the kind of world that God wants us to have. He called us to hearken to God's voice.   
              When will redemption come? Today, if we would hearken to God’s voice.
              When will redemption come? When we bring it. Let’s not wait to begin the task.