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.