Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Subsidiarity, Parashat Yitro

More than twenty years ago, when I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia, I was asked to travel to Princeton, NJ with two members of what was then B'nai Brith Hillel's national staff (the Hillel national office is in DC) for a meeting. The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville, about two and a half hours from the District, and rather than driving to Washington to meet my traveling companions I wanted to take a commuter flight to National and then ride with them the rest of the way. The person who had invited me to the meeting was the Associate International Director of Hillel and he agreed that it made sense for me to fly to Washington rather than drive, but he told me that he himself could not authorize the expenditure (which at the time was probably around $150) so we would have to wait for the International Director to decide if the money could be spent.

I knew then that B'nai Brith Hillel was in trouble if the only person authorized to approve an expenditure of $150 was the International Director. And not long after, the B'nai Brith Hillel Foundations were indeed no more. Hillel spun off from B'nai Brith and is now simply Hillel rather than "B'nai Brith Hillel". B'nai Brith Women is now Jewish Women International and B'nai Brith Youth Organization (still known as BBYO) is also no longer part of B'nai Brith. The Anti-Defamation League has long since ceased to be an agency of B'nai Brith and you will search long and hard for even a mention of B'nai Brith on the website.

At the beginning of this week's Parasha, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) sees his son-in-law Moses sitting all day while a long line of people wait out in the hot sun for a few minutes of his time. Moses explains that he must sit all day long, every day, to judge the people. Whoever has a dispute brings it to Moses for a ruling. Jethro tells Moses that this concentration of power and responsibility is not good -- it's not good for Moses and it's not good for the people. Moses will burn out from overwork, while the people also get worn out by the frustration of having to wait so long to have their cases heard. Jethro tells Moses to appoint judges under him for every clan and tribe. They will hear the routine cases and only the more difficult will be brought to him for resolution -- and Moses does so.

In Roman Catholic thought, this idea is known as the Principle of Subsidiarity -- matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority. This principle was carried over into the Treaty of Maastricht which established the European Union, which can only act if the action of individual countries is insufficient to deal with the problem.

It's interesting that the Torah portion which contains the Ten Commandments begins with a much more prosaic lesson. Concentration of power is bad -- bad for the person who holds all the power and bad for the group as a whole. If any social group -- a nation, a town, a corporation, a religious congregation -- is to flourish, power needs to be spread as widely as possible. Having one leader who is responsible for all decision-making is a recipe for disaster.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Two-Minute Torah -- My Father's God, Parashat BeShalach

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, "the Sabbath of Song," because
we read "Shirat Ha-Yam," the song at the sea which Moses and the Children
of Israel sang after being delivered from the Egyptians via the parting of the
Red Sea.

There is much that could be said about the "Song at the Sea" but I want to
focus on one half of one verse. Exodus Chapter 15, verse 2 says "The Lord is
my strength and song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and
I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him."

The Chasidic master Rabbi Meir of Premislan commented on the second half
of the verse thusly: "If a Jew says: “this is my God” and tries to serve God
according to his strength and his understanding, then “and I will glorify Him”
- it is good and fitting.

But if he says ”the God of my father”, relying on the merits of his righteous
ancestors, rather than toiling and working hard to find the path of truth,
then ‘and I will exalt Him’ - he is only an arrogant person, empty and

If I had a nickel for every Jew who told me that his or her grandparents
were "very religious" or that his or her grandfather was "a very Orthodox
rabbi" I would have a lot of nickels! It's nice that our ancestors were pious,
but pious ancestors don't guarantee that one has a rich and fulfilling spiritual
life, nor do pious ancestors create a Jewish future. While authentic Judaism
is always concerned about respect for the past and continuity with it, our job
is to build the present and the future.

Debbie Friedman passed away two years ago on the first day of the week
of Shabbat Shirah. You may or may not know her name, but you certainly
know her music. She wrote the "MiSheberach" prayer for healing we sing
every Shabbat morning as well as the tune for Havdalah which is probably
the one most widely used by American Jews of all stripes. She did much to
change the very paradigm of American Jewish worship -- from passive to
participatory, from elitist to inclusive. She did much to broaden our liturgy
and song to include not only "our fathers" but "our mothers" as well, most
famously taking a verse from this week's reading and turning it into a song
about Miriam the Prophetess leading the Israelite women in dancing with
their timbrels. Her memory is a blessing and an inspiration.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Slave Mentality, Parashat Bo

In a recent discussion on Ravnet, the e-mail group for Conservative rabbis, one of my colleagues shared a question that was asked him by a young religious school student. Why was the tenth plague (death of the firstborn) necessary? Why didn't the Israelites just leave during the ninth plague (darkness)? After all, no one would see them go!
In some ways it's definitely a child's question. If you want to take it at face value, I suppose you could say that if it was too dark for the Egyptians to see the Hebrews sneak out of Egypt, it was also too dark for them to find their way out of the country. But another colleague writing into Ravnet said that our ancestors' failure to sneak out under cover of darkness was an example of slave mentality. They could not just leave, they had to have permission. And until Pharaoh told them they could go, they had to stay put. It was a rule.
But Pharaoh had the same sort of captive mentality. Already by the seventh plague, his advisors are urging him to capitulate and let the Hebrews go. Speaking of Moses, they say: How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?"
But Pharaoh cannot let the people go. Not because God has hardened his heart. But because he cannot do so. Let the slaves go free, and what happens next? The entire edifice of royal power will collapse. It is the same reasoning that prevented the British from letting the American colonies go free; and when the British finally did surrender, their military band played "The World Turned Upside Down."
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: "Pharaoh remains an enduring symbol of a failure to listen to his own advisors. He could not see that the world had changed, that he was facing something new, that his enslavement of a people was no longer tolerable, that the old magic no longer worked, that the empire over which he presiding was growing old, and that the more obstinate he became the closer he was bringing his people to tragedy. Knowing how to listen to advice, how to respond to change and when to admit you’ve got it wrong, remain three of the most difficult tasks of leadership. Rejecting advice, refusing to change, and refusing to admit you’re wrong, may look like strength to some. But usually they are the beginning of yet another march of folly."
Our contemporary society could take a lesson from Rabbi Sacks' words. Politicians and officials dare not change their mind in the face of new circumstances or new information, lest they be accused of "flip-flopping" or of weakness. And thus, the march of folly continues.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Universal and Particular, Parashat VaEra

In my prior work as a Staff Scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, I did a lot of research and writing on the issue of interreligious prayer. I firmly believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God -- though between religions and even within each religion there are radically different conceptions of that one God. But since we worship the same God, why is interfaith prayer so difficult? Why is it so hard to create an interfaith service that seems authentic and truly prayerful?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Parashat VaEra seems to begin with a mistake or contradiction. At the Burning Bush God tells Moses that "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai; but My name Adonai I did not make known to them." But Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God did indeed appear to Abraham as Adonai and Abraham "called on the name Adonai." So the Patriarchs certainly knew God's name Adonai.

Rabbi Sacks explains, however, that throughout the Book of Genesis, God is experienced as "Creator." And for that aspect of God, the Bible generally uses the terms "Elohim" or "El Shaddai." But now the People of Israel are about to experience God as "Redeemer" and "Revealer," not merely as Creator.

Creation, Revelation, and Redemption are the three key ways in which we experience God and these three concepts structure the liturgy of Judaism, morning and evening. All human beings share the experience of living in a created universe. But only Jews experience God as the One Who redeemed our people from Egypt and gave us the Torah.

This does not preclude the possibility that God redeemed other peoples in other ways or interacted with other peoples through other forms of revelation. God has more than one blessing, and our special and particular relationship with God should not be understood to mean that God cannot have other special and particular relationships as well. God is too big to be straitjacketed by one religion.

But it does mean that our specifically Jewish experience of revelation and redemption is different than the universal human experience of creation. And this is one reason why our worship is so specifically Jewish rather than generically human.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Moses Slays the Egyptian

You are probably familiar with the story of Moses killing the Egyptian

overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, which appears in Exodus 2:12.

This act, of course, lead to Moses fleeing Egypt which then lead to

his encountering God in the Burning Bush and his return to lead our

ancestors out of bondage.

But Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, who lived in the early part of the

last century, read this incident as an allegory of something far

deeper:  “And he looked this way, and that way, and when he saw that

there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand.”

Rabbi Shapiro writes: " Moses learned about the oppressiveness of

Egyptian culture when he went out among his brethren and saw their

suffering. He understood the nature of Egyptian culture. “He looked

this way and that way”: he turned to the Left and to the Right, to all

the different parties and classes, seeking help from them; “and saw

that there was no man’; and there was not a single individual willing

to stand by the weak; ‘and he slew the Egyptian and buried him in the

sand.’ It was then that he killed the Egyptian within his heart,

divorcing himself totally from Egyptian culture. "

In other words, according to R. Shapira, the “slaying” of the Egyptian

was not literal but a battle within the soul of Moses. Rabbi Shapira

of course lived in the early part of the 20th century but after the

Communist takeover of Russia. He understood that whatever differences

might exist between the left and the right in Eastern Europe they were

not very different in their attitudes vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. He

also understood that a society is judged on how it treats the weakest

and most vulnerable members. Moses needed to slay the “Egyptian in his

heart” to embrace his destiny and his role.

The hardest struggles are not external but internal. All of us have an

"Egyptian" in our heart whom we constantly need to struggle against

and kill off.