Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A 1 State Solution?

I subscribe the Religion Dispatches e-letter/blog. It's often got some interesting material in it, even if it often leans so far to the left that it even makes me uncomfortable (and that, my friends, is saying something). I disagree with it often, but never moreso than when someone writes in it about Israel.

It happened again today. They posted an article which was ostensibly about the idea of a shared, side-by-side 1-State solution. But, mainly it was a blatantly biased, sometimes distorted diatribe against Israel. I was tempted to not even post about this, because it's a minor blog, and so why draw more attention to it? But, the article got under my skin, so I wrote a (much shorter than I wanted to) response.

I could have done a much more detailed take-down of the article, but I frankly don't have the time or energy right now (seders must be planned!). And, I'm hoping that my response will create some decent dialogue; rambling on and on, refuting every point probably makes that less likely to happen. We'll see.

Read the article if you like. Here's what I wrote in response:
The core idea of this article--that it's possible to create a hybrid, 1 state solution, with two people living side-by-side (mixed together, actually) with autonomous governments, sounds unrealistic to me. I'd love to learn more about it, but it's hard for me to imagine that actually working (in any situation, not just one as fraught as Israel/Palestine).
Unfortunately, the author takes an awfully long time to get to that interesting, yet controversial idea. Before that, he spends quite a bit of time unfairly putting all of the blame for the situation on Israel. It is not "alleged" that the Palestinians have long rejected Israel's right to exist. It's a pretty clear fact. And, no mention is made that the decades-old rejectionism of the Palestinian leadership is, almost without a doubt, one of the primary reasons for the rise of the right in Israel. The peacenick left was eviscerated in large part because their attempts to make peace were either undermined or cynically exploited by the Palestinians.
It's also a convenient distortion to lump Israeli-citizen Arabs in with the Arabs living in the Occupied Territories, thus coming up with the 27% voting eligibility statistic. Of course non-citizens can't vote; in what country or situation can they? And, again, isn't it important to mention that the reason for the Occupation has much to do (especially in its first few decades) with the absolute refusal of the Palestinian leadership to compromise or negotiate in any way? Ever since the '67 war, the majority of Israelis were in favor of a land-for-peace deal, at least in principle. Has there even been a parallel among the Palestinians?
You use Gaza as an example of how bad Israel is, but fail to mention that the blockade only began after Israel pulled out (uprooting settlements along the way) only to see Gazans elect Hamas (which is still openly and explicitly dedicated to destroying Israel) and turn Gaza into a launching pad for endless terrorist attacks. And so on.
I'm no fan of Bibi, and I am, at my core, still a Peacenick. I long for a day when Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace. But, pretending that Israel is the willing, evil oppressor while the Palestinians are nothing except for victims of Zionist Imperialism is not true, and it's not helpful, either.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mental Illness and Judaism

This past Shabbat, our member Irma Polster gave a beautiful sermon about Mental Illness and the Jewish community. It was an important start to a conversation that we don't have often enough at Congregation Beth Am, or at many of our synagogues.
We are all here for the same reason--- to draw near to God, to find holiness regardless of our physical or mental health. Congregation Beth Am is already a kehilat chesed, a caring community. We welcome strangers, we visit the sick, we attend shivas. With a little more effort we can be mindful of each other and be kind and accepting and become truly inclusive. Let's take that extra step and become a kehila kadosha, a holy community.
Please take a moment and give the whole sermon a read. And, yasher koach to Irma!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Reverend's Call to Justice

[I'm currently at the annual CCAR (Reform Rabbis) conference in Philadelphia. I was asked to write a guest blog for the CCAR's blog. So, this is written for other Rabbis, but I hope you'll find it interesting, too].

So, when I was asked to write a blog piece for this conference, I happily accepted. There are always things to write about after a couple of days, right? What I failed to account for is how busy I would be this time. I can’t remember a conference where I had so little down time. The sessions are coming rapid fire, and there hasn’t been a moment where I haven’t wanted or needed to be somewhere. I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone write!

So, in these few minutes in between the State of the CCAR address and dinner with friends, let me share one moment with you.

For the past two years, I’ve been involved with Rabbis Organizing Rabbis (ROR) [ed: it's a group of Reform Rabbis using a Community Organzing model, focussing on Social Justice issues] , but not as much as I should have been. The urgent has far too often gotten in the way of the important, and Justice hasn’t been at the forefront of my Rabbinate, as it should be.

But then, late in today’s (very well attended) meeting, Peter Berg got up to speak, and he referenced the amazing speech (sermon, really) we heard yesterday from Dr. Reverend William Barber [ed: he's the founder of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, and one hell of a preacher]. It was a firery, passionate call to justice. But, as Rabbi Berg pointed out, it didn’t really contain any new information. We all knew, more or less, about all of the issues he raised; we all know how terrible they are. What we forget is how deeply we have to care. And, as Rabbi Berg said, what we really forget is that this is why we became Rabbis in the first place. We didn’t become Rabbis to help kids with their Haftarah blessings (as important as that is), or to work with the House Committee (as important as that is). We became Rabbis to change the world. We became Rabbis to inspire people, to move people, to challenge people, and to help people. We became Rabbis to bring more justice into the world.

For me, it’s time to draw a line. It’s time to stop letting the urgent take center stage, and to start making time for what is truly important. And, for you? Will you commit to ROR, to do a little, or a lot? Will you commit in some other way to bringing more justice into the world? Will you commit, will you re-commit, to the vision and ideals which brought you here in the first place?

The good Reverend helped me to remember why I’m really here (with an assist from Rabbi Berg). Hopefully, he can inspire us all.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Passover Seders Really Shouldn't Be Boring

We've all sat in this kind of a seder: the leader reads a passage, with a lot or very little enthusiasm, and then the rest of the table kind of drones the next paragraph together. Maybe, just to make it more participatory, we go around the table, taking turns, but always from the text.

Of course, we're crammed around a table not designed to fit everyone there, and we're smelling delicious food coming in from the kitchen, while we get to enjoy a lovely sprig of parsley, dipped in salt-water. Awesome!

Well, not really. Pretty awful, actually. But, what can we do? This is tradition, right? The amazing thing is that that kind of a seder isn't actually proper. This is one of those cases where people are so obsessed with "doing it right" that they actually are doing it very wrong. Because, the whole intent of the seder is to have an actual, engaging, fun conversation, not to read an ancient, ritual text.

Last Shabbat, I held a brief workshop on how to make a seder more enjoyable. I'm not gong to try to include everything here (especially since that was a much quicker version of a class taught by my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman), but here are a few things you really need to know, if you're hosting a seder next month.

First of all, you don't have to run the seder at your table. Feel free, up until the main meal, to be seated comfortably in some other room. That alone will make people more relaxed, and more engaged. And, you don't need to starve--the "dipping" to which we refer in the seder ("Why on all other nights do we not dip, but tonight we dip twice?")  was actually a full appetizer course. Raw veggies were dipped in flavored water--a kind of ancient crudite. So, put out lots of yummy snacks (especially cut veggies and dip), and stop torturing your guests!

But, more important is the seder itself. And, here is the big revelation--there is no mitzvah (no commandment) to read the Haggadah (the book containing the text of the seder). The original seder (as described almost 2000 years ago in the Mishna) was actually modeled on the Greek symposium--it was meant to be a chance to lean back (literally and figuratively), have a drink and talk about interesting topics--in this case, the topic is freedom. There were some required components (you had to tell a story that went from degradation to glory; you had to talk about the Torah passage that begins "My father was a wandering Aramean"; you had to explain the 3 main symbols on the table--the sacrificial lamb, the matza and the maror), but those were meant to be the starting points and framework of the discussion. The real seder was contained in the discussions which flowed from those starting points. And, those discussions could go on and on, in any direction they might flow. Most of the text of the Haggadah is actually just examples of digressions and associations made by our sages and ancestors--kind of a greatest hits of seders past, and a cheat-sheet if you don't know what to talk about. But, it was never intended as a rite--something which must be performed exactly right, year after year.

Much better is to create your own text, and to create your own discussions. Rather than just read from a static text, ask a serious, thought provoking question about what we just read. Find an alternative reading or poem which might spark someone's own ideas, or at least generate a reaction. Create an actual living, breathing seder, not a ossified, robotic ritual!

Does that sound difficult? Well, it does take some work and preparation on the part of the leader. But, not surprisingly, there are lots of great resources to help. I've compiled a list of a few of my favorites and put them on our website, but there are so many more. Feel free to share some of yours in the comments, as well.

In each and every generation, each of us is supposed to see ourselves as if we, personally, were brought out of Egypt. The seder is not our night to read, the seder is our night to remember, and to pretend, and to think, and to wonder, and to talk, and to talk, and to talk. May your seder be lively, and may your seder be alive.

HaShanah HaBa'ah b'Yerushalayim -- Next Year In Jerusalem!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Obligation To Protest

I've been teaching (along with Prof. Allan Feldman) a course on Rabbi Aryeh Cohen's wonderful book, Justice In The City. Essentially, it's an exposition of Rabbinic understandings of justice. Or, to be fair, it's Cohen's views of those views, because I'm sure that some have a different understanding. Cohen is definitely taking a stand and making an argument--several, actually.

One of them, which we looked at last night, he calls simply "The Obligation To Protest." Put simply, if someone has the opportunity to protest a wrong, and s/he doesn't do so, then s/he is held liable for that wrong. Large or small, it doesn't matter--if I could have said/done something to try to stop it, and I didn't, then that's on me.

It goes against the general Western understanding of guilt and responsibility, which generally tells us that I am not responsible for what you did (with caveats and exceptions, of course). If you did it, then you get blamed and punished. Full stop. But, Judaism takes a more expansive view of responsibility than that. And, I think that if you think it through, Judaism's take actually makes a lot of sense, logically.

Let's say that you are about to drop something, and I could easily catch it. But, I choose not to. So, it hits the floor. Now, forget about morality and judgment for a moment. Just think about logic. Why did that item hit the floor? Well, there are a few reasons. Because you dropped it. Because gravity worked. Because I didn't catch it. My lack of catching is absolutely one of the reasons that it hit the floor so, in the simplest sense of the word, I am responsible for the fact that it did so. At least partially responsible, anyway.

I think that's part of the difference between the Western and the Jewish views on this--the subtle but important difference between blame and responsibility. If we focus on who to blame, and who to punish, then the primary actor is naturally the target. But, if we think about who is responsible for something happening, then the list gets larger. And, that's important, because realizing that I'm responsible might make me more likely to act, even if I'm not the one who's causing something to happen.

I'm firing this off quickly, before I have to leave, so I'm not doing justice to a really powerful, beautiful chapter and idea. But, if there's a takeaway, it's that we need to think less about who to point to as the one to blame, and more about what we can do to stop something from happening. It doesn't matter if it's a tiny, personal issue, or a global catastrophe. If we can try to make something better, and we don't, then we aren't acting righteously.

May Shabbat bring us all peace, and renewed strength to go out and make the world a better place, in every way that we can.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


On Monday night, Martin Luther King Day, I got to participate in an interfaith service in honor of Dr. King. It was a true honor and a thrill--it's not often I get to hear a Baptist preacher preach, if you know what I mean. And, it's really not often that I have someone start playing the organ to underscore me while I'm speaking, and that I get some "amens" and "uh-huh's" from the congregation along the way.

I love what I said, which I can admit because I wrote very little of it. The quotes from Dr. King matched against quotes from Jewish tradition I took from the RAC website, and the prayer at the end was also taken from the web (it's all over; I'm not sure who wrote it) with some mild editing.

If you're in Tampa, mark your calendars for MLK day next year--it's a service I'm already looking forward to!

Good afternoon.
The book of Leviticus declares, "The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love the stranger as yourself."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.
The psalmist declares, "Be still before Adonai; await God; do not be upset by those whose ways succeed because of wicked plans."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
The prophet Isaiah declares, "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "It is not enough to say "We must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace."
Our sages declare, "In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You'll make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."

The Rabbi who has inspired me beyond all others, and whose teachings continue to raise me up and move me forward, day after day, more than any other, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel was known for many things, high among them having had the honor of walking alongside Dr. King, during the Selma Civil Rights March. When asked what that experience was like, Rabbi Heschel replied, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King both understood that as powerful as words might be, it is through our actions that we are able to find the holiness which we seek. Our world will be redeemed by men and women who will not sit still until the noblest visions of our ancestors are made real.
And so, in honor of Dr. King, whose memory we honor today, and whose legacy we uphold, together, I offer this prayer:
Avinu Sh’beshamayim, Heavenly God, who desires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You, we thank You for inspiring us with the life and example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Grant us the wisdom to truly understand that all of humanity is created equally in Your image, so that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Open our hearts to stand with the oppressed and persecuted around the world, just as Dr. King fought for the oppressed, wherever they might be. 
Help us to feel the reassurance of Your presence as we continue forward in pursuit of civil rights and justice for all humankind. Remind us of the words of Rabbi Heschel, who taught “While some are guilty, all are responsible.” 
Adonai, our God, help us to realize Dr. King’s dream, expressed by Your prophet Isaiah, that “many peoples shall go and say: Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of God, and he will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.” And, as it is then written, “The glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” So may Your glory be revealed to us as we come together in harmony, celebrating our common humanity. Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Use Your Desires

A nice teaching from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev on this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach)*.

* To my text-loving friends, the playing around he does with Jacob/Esau is really cool, but too convoluted for me to go into right here. But, it's in translation in Green's Speaking Torah if you can't read the original Hebrew. 

He teaches that, when we are trying to do the right thing, our evil urge (or, our baser desires, if you prefer) will get in the way--we'll be tempted to do something else. Go ahead and tell that part of ourself, "Don't worry--we'll get earthly reward for this, too." Basically, bribe our less righteous parts with presents and promises, so that they don't subvert us.

What kinds of rewards? Oh, I guess that depends on what/how we each believe. If you want to believe that doing this or that righteous act will give you good fortune in the lottery--go ahead*! If you want to believe that people will like you more if you are (or just act like) a mensch--go ahead! Anything you can tell yourself, true or not, that gets you to do the right thing--go ahead!

 * Spoiler Alert: it won't.

But, aren't we supposed to do the right things for the right reasons? Isn't it bad to have personal gain and ulterior motives in mind? Well, yes and no. It's not ideal for sure. But, isn't doing the right thing for the wrong reason better than not doing it at all? And, if we do this enough, we might find ourselves finally defeating those lower urges, and then being able to do the right thing for the right reasons!

Many doctors go into medicine, at least in part, to make a lot of money and buy a nice car. You know what--some of them still save lives, no matter why they started doing so. Sometimes I visit a sick person (or lead a service, or teach a class...) not because I want to, but because I have to, and I'll get in trouble if I don't. We can all think of examples--sometimes we just can't do the right thing for the right reasons. But, that doesn't mean that we can't find a way to do it, anyway.

That's the wrestling that we're all doing--pitting our higher selves against the parts of our selves which we're not so proud of. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into letting those good parts win. And, then we'll find that we don't need to wrestle so hard, after all.