Facing a Broken Country on Tisha B’Av

The fast day Tisha B’Av presents a challenge to today’s Jews. Historically, we mourn the capture and destruction of Jerusalem and of the Holy Temples in ancient times. And yet today, Jerusalem is not only rebuilt, but expanded beyond belief. And we have beautiful synagogues in Israel and around the world, albeit without animal sacrifices (if that’s your thing…no judgement). And so the relevance of the days leading up to Tisha B’Av and of the fast itself becomes questionable.

This is not the only time period in which Tisha B’Av was being questioned or reexamined. The Talmud (Megilla 5b) suggests that Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi wanted to cancel the holiday (and there is then a discussion about whether he meant to do away with the fast, or just in years when it falls on Shabbat). In the years after the Holocaust, there was a movement to integrate remembrance of the Shoah into the religious observance of Tisha B’Av, while Israel went down the road of creating Yom HaShoah as a separate and secular day of remembrance. And the Talmud and Midrash posit the idea that the seeds of redemption took root even on Tisha B’Av as the Temple was being destroyed (and that Tisha B’Av itself will, in the future, become a festive holiday).

Exiting my Shabbat this week and finding that another act of domestic terror had taken place in the United States moved me further to seek meaning of the “Nine Day of Av” that we are in the midst of. What can we learn and do that reflects this period on the Hebrew calendar and that responds to today’s challenges and disasters? My suggestion: As the fast’s historical commemorations seem less relevant, Tisha B’Av’s metaphorical significance becomes more important than ever:

Tisha B’Av recognizes the eternal challenge of brokenness of communities, cultures and countries.

In ancient times in Israel and Jerusalem, it was the political brokenness of loss of self-governance, and the religious brokenness of loss of a central focus of spiritual life that was to be commemorated.

For me, as an American Jew, it is the brokenness of our society that has lost its way and is allowing and even promoting the sinat chinam, baseless hatred, that the rabbis of ancient times blamed the destructions on. And more specifically, we face the brokenness of a culture that places the “right” to purchase firearms with minimal screening and to own firearms that are designed specifically for destruction and not for protection above the rights of people to live in safety.

What do we, as American Jews, need to do during this period?

  • Update the tradition of examining how we communicate with others, and expanding it to examine the values that our elected leaders, media figures, and even social media connections are promoting. There can be no neutrality. Everyone is either part of the solution to what ails our society or is part of the problem itself. Weed out the haters from public office and from your own networks.
  • As we give tzedaka during this period, continue to give, but also to look at what the causes we support are and how they are helping to rebuild and to anchor us in the values we believe in.
  • Move from theoretical rebuilding of the Temple to practical action to rebuild every culture in which we are part.
  • Recognize that America is in crisis and that each of us living here must respond. The Temple’s destruction led to the re-invention of Judaism through the rabbis and their literature.  Today, we must all join in a renaissance of values-based society through practical action (including but not limited to political action) to bring the United States back to sanity and civility.
  • And, most practically, act for sensible gun laws that protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns while reducing the odds of guns being used in domestic terror,  and in racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ mass attacks.

Through our actions over these days, may we bring an era of positive values and security back to our country. May we all rebuild the broken spaces together.

 

Advertisements

Wearing Your Judaism on Your Sleeve…in Germany, in America

In an interview that went public on Saturday, Dr. Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, stated that “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany”.  This started an uproar in Germany and beyond:  How can anyone suggest that today that it might not be entirely safe in certain places and at certain times in Germany to wear a kippah (or, by extension, any sign that publicly announces that you’re Jewish)? Have we just accepted that anti-Semitism remains alive in Germany? In Europe?

It seems that the only people who were not surprised or even offended were those who, like myself, wear a kippah most of the time [or a tichel, a woman’s hair covering, or a chai necklace, etc]. Know why were weren’t? Because it wasn’t a news flash, and it’s certainly not about Germany.

I’ve been wearing a kippah most of the time for the past 47 years. Guess how much of that time I’ve thought about whether it’s perfectly safe to wear a kippah where I’m going during the course of the day?  47 years. Every single day. Everywhere I’ve lived:  Chicago, Jerusalem, Atlanta, St. Louis, Providence, and even the New York area.

Generally, I get it right. The vast majority of times that I’ve decided that its safe to wear a kippah publicly, I have not had negative experiences. But there was that road rage incident in Chicago, where someone blocked my car in, ran over to my car, yelled anti-Semitic slurs and threatened me. And the time in Warsaw where someone gave me a “Heil Hitler” salute. But these were exceptional, probably because just about every week, there was at least one location in which my good judgment led me to either don a baseball cap or simply to go bareheaded.

Throwback: The idea that observant Jews would wear a kippah at all times was limited until the Six Day War in 1967 led to an explosion in Jewish / Israel pride. Until that time, Jews were guided by the recollection Charles Silberman writes about in his book A Certain People. There, he talks about leaving a funeral while still wearing his kippah and his aunt reminds him to “take your yarmuka off…it’s not nice.” The Orthodox American Jews I knew, at least in the 60’s, typically took their kippah off when leaving the house for work and put it back on when they returned home. In this, they actually had the support of a number of prominent American rabbis.

d7gmmbsxsaamopb-e1558901936100

Now, it’s very nice for Germany’s Bild newspaper to print a kippah and encourage all Germans to wear one as a sign of solidarity. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture. It will not change any prejudices that exist in Germany, Europe or for that matter, America. And it will not make a difference when I leave my home for work or play. I will still think about where I am going and the likelihood of encountering anti-Semitism on my day’s path.

So, Dr. Klein didn’t acknowledge anything new:  Germany and much of the world is a tough place to be a Jew. I wish it wasn’t true and will gladly work to try to change that reality. In the meantime, I’m going to heed his advice and stay a little bit safer.

Welcome to the New Jewish America

Good morning, my friend. I’m writing to you, and hope you don’t mind my sharing this with others. I know that your heart is broken as you learned about yet another murderous attack carried out here in the United States at a synagogue during religious services.  As Professor Deborah Lipstadt pointed out, while the media described the killer as having “acted alone”, that is far from the truth. Murders against Jews that are motivated by the simple fact of their Jewish identities aren’t acting alone. They act having been influenced by what they read in online anti-Semitic, bigoted and racist websites. I’d go a step further. Once a person becomes a murdering anti-Semite he is not a lone criminal. He has united himself with anti-Semitic ideas that have crawled around western civilization for centuries. He can find an ideological home in the Inquisition of the Catholic church, in the thinking of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, in the German ultra-nationalism that led to Auschwitz. He gets to share many of his beliefs with American racists, most of whom included Jews among the groups they pour out hatred towards.

My friend, your family and mine escaped the old country, fleeing oppression and poverty. They came to America and believed that they were not a minority group here. After all, President Washington had written a letter to the Jews of Newport RI, greeting their community and congregation and promising that the land in which they lived would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”. And while it took some years until our people were able to break down barriers to living in certain neighborhoods, being accepted to certain schools or joining certain country clubs, these were inconveniences at worst. And yes, while a few kids would be beaten up while walking to Hebrew School back in the day, this tended to be the exception, not the rule. Nothing was even close to the pogroms that our families had once survived.

Life was good in America. We became safe, upwardly mobile, comfortable. We celebrated Israel, most of us from a distance. We knew that Jews from other countries had moved there to escape persecution. But not American Jews. Those of us who moved there went out of pure idealism. Not for a moment did we think of Israel as our insurance policy. It was, for those of us who stayed in the U.S., our Jewish Disney World, where we could visit, tour, study, shop, eat, dance, play and then return to our wonderful American Diaspora.

Unexpectedly, the rug got pulled out from under us. Oh, it’s still mostly safe to be Jewish here. I put on my tallit and tefillin while waiting for a flight at Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport and didn’t give it a second thought. Before I knew what was happening, two other guys had tallit and tefillin on and were reciting their morning prayers. And nobody gave us a second look. As far as I know.

But, over the past few months, our working assumptions were blown up, with the lead taken by two anti-Semitic white supremecists armed with assault weapons. Now, when I walk to synagogue, I look around myself a little more to see who is around me. Now, I no longer laugh when my wife, whose mother left Germany just before the Holocaust struck, would warn me and the kids to always have up-to-date passports. Now I make sure to greet the North Miami Beach cop who sits in his patrol car outside the synagogue and the (armed) Israeli security guy who sits just inside the locked entrance of our synagogue, letting people in one-by-one every Shabbat and holiday.

In my optimistic heart and mind, I do not expect America to be overrun by anti-Semitic violence. But something has started here. Something that President Washington promised wouldn’t happen. And, for the first time in many years, you and I are off balance. Our steps are a little less certain.

Today, I lead a group on the March of the Living. We land tomorrow in Poland where a once proud Jewish community of 3 million now exists as a small community of a few thousand. It happened because something small began in a town in a neighboring country a few decades before the proverbial sh*t really hit the fan across Europe. So, while I want to believe in the “never again” affirmation, I’m no longer so naive as to ignore a few “isolated” incidents. And I mourn the lost innocence.

Today, I stand proud as a Jew. I stand in unity with each and every Jew. I value each and every ally who stands with me against a rising anti-Semitism. I stand with absolute faith in the belief that the Jewish people have an important role to play in human history and that we will continue to play that role faithfully.

Am Yisrael Chai — The People Israel Live!

 

You Want My (Jewish) Vote? Here’s What You Need to Do!

This week’s social media adventure began for me with a tweet from President Trump proclaiming that “Jews are leaving the Democratic Party” and declaring that the Democratic Party doesn’t “care about Israel or the Jewish people”.  This was followed by the usual meshuggenas who decided to let me know that the Democratic party is the “Party of Infanticide, Socialism and Jew-haters. In other words, Nazis”.

To be sure, there are issues with how the Democratic party is positioning itself on Israel issues (and there is tremendous diversity among its elected officials on these issues) and its response to anti-Semitism in its ranks have been less than fully convincing. But given the 50,000 votes a Holocaust denier in Illinois running on a Republican ticket gained in a recent congressional election, it’s fair to state that we have problems across the party divide.

Living in Florida and being registered as “no party affiliation” excludes me from voting next time around in a primary election. But I feel that I will want to. And I am, quite frankly, open to offers from any party. Six months before the primary, I need to switch to a party affiliation or be denied the right to vote in it. So here is the email that I intend to send to every presidential candidate before then:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I will be registering to vote in the upcoming presidential primary. In order to do so, I am required to select a party with which to affiliate. Despite a strong commitment to independent voting, I will do so in order to cast my lot with one of the candidates. If you would like my affiliation and my vote, I require your responses to the following:

  1. Would the people you work with, your friends, your children, and your spouse or partner consider you a genuinely decent person with a strong sense of values and a solid moral compass? 
  2. How should the health and well-being of American citizens, including its aging members and those affected by poverty , be taken care of in today’s and tomorrow’s world? Be specific and explain who is going to pay for what.
  3. What ideas do you have to ensure that today’s children are prepared educationally for a world that doesn’t yet exist?
  4. Do you believe that there is knowledge and expertise in science, academic research as well as experience of those in the military and foreign affairs that must be taken seriously as we look towards the future of the United States and our planet? If so, what are the threats you see (environmental, political, etc.) that concern you and how would you plan to address them?
  5. Do you unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism of all forms as well as prejudice and bigotry against all minorities or foreign groups?
  6. Do you support a strong and secure State of Israel? What steps will you take to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table to move their conflict closer to resolution?

I look forward to your response and wish you the best as you compete to earn my vote.

Image result for jews vote

This is the End of the Innocence (for American Jews)

Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.

Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated.  Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.

I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.

When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.

The scene  for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever.  And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.

Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.

The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.

The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:

  1. Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
  2. Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
  3. Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
  4. Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community.  I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
  5. Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
  6. Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.

The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?

 

Image result for proud jewish

It’s Not Your Fault and It Is Everyone’s Fault

As the director of security at my workplace said: It was bound to happen, it was only a question of when and where. It was yesterday and it was at Tree of Life, a congregation in Pittsburgh.

The finger-pointing and blame game began almost immediately.

It was the president’s fault.

It was the fault of the liberals who want gun control.

It was the fault of the victims, because their synagogue didn’t have armed guard (I have no idea whether it did or not, by the way).

It was the fault of Israel’s policies.

It was the fault of all Jews for being too complacent.

It was the fault of the mental health system.

It was the fault of one single person with hatred and bigotry and weapons.

These are the absolutely unconstructive, if not outright dysfunctional responses from people trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of something that cannot be rationalized away. Like the Holocaust or natural disasters, if we can explain it, it will put our minds at ease. But, like the Holocaust or natural disasters, we cannot.  So, we bicker over our responses and come up with all sorts of ways of avoiding what we really have to do today – mourn, and what we have to do tomorrow – act.

The individuals who are creating chaos in our society are not monolithic. They are responding in horrible ways to very complex times. To expect their motivations to fall into one single category is absurd. As a result, the appropriate responses (both in mourning and in action) are going to be complex.

Here is the only simple thing: All those who are conducting acts of terror and of mass murder are creating chaos and festering more hatred and violence.

We are in a war, but probably not the one you think:  It’s the war that the Dead Sea sects of the Jewish people spoke of in ancient times: The Sons of Darkness against the Sons of Light. But unlike the tribal designations for who are the forces for darkness and who are the forces for light, today the forces for darkness are those who promote anger, dissent, violence and terror. Today’s forces for light are those who are, to use the words of the Jewish tradition: rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, merciful humans who are the descendants of merciful ones. In other words, those whose characteristics of mercy are so ingrained on their souls, that it is practically part of their DNA.

Today, the Jewish community and its allies sit shiva. We mourn, comfort the mourners and each other.

Tomorrow we mobilize for action. We join the war on the side of the Sons of Light through acts of kindness, increasing mercy and love, decreasing the capacity for violence, and taking necessary measures to protect our community and our society.

 

 

 

Staying Off Balance to Find Meaning

days-of-the-week-kid-drawn-chart-n23041_xl

By this point, those of us who are fairly traditional Jews begin to get confused every year.

These weeks are disorienting, as we work for a few days of each work week, take a few days off, work again and off again — all while trying to do a full week’s work in half the days.

A similar disorientation is actually part of the holiday of Sukkot that begins late Sunday:  Then we go out to the Sukkah to eat, come back inside, go back outside.

In both of these situations, our Jewish traditions keeps us a bit off balance, but also keeps us on or toes.

If, as I believe, the purpose of the Jewish tradition is to transform who we are as humans, then this off-balance piece makes perfect sense: When we are in secure and predictable places and times, there is little incentive to change and to grow. On the other hand, the on-again off-again work week pushes us to rebalance our work-life lives and moving between the sukkah and the home is a reminder that even “the roof over our head” is not to be taken for granted, but is something that needs to be re-valued. Indeed, for many people, there is no roof or home and food isn’t even a given.

So, while we struggle to remember what day of the week it is (when the next work week begins on Tuesday or Wednesday) and whether we’re going to be feasting outdoors or living inside, let’s learn from it. This is the time to be creatively off-balance and to use this opportunity to re-calibrate our lives and our values.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

jerusalemsukkas

Cleaning up our Act This Yom Kippur

During the holiday season, the Selichot / Penitential prayers include the following declarations:

דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי – We have slandered

זַֽדְנוּ – We have sinned with malicious intent

טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר – We have added falsehood upon falsehood

לַֽצְנוּ – we have mocked

צָרַֽרְנוּ – We have caused others to suffer

We recite:

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּטֻמְאַת שְׂפָתָיִם

For the sin we committed before You through impure speech…

עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה

For the sin we committed before You through the words of our mouths …

וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּשִׂנְאַת חִנָּם

For the sin we committed before You through free hatred…

In all, there are around a dozen or more references to how and what we communicate that are on the list of what we seek forgiveness for at this season.

Following that point, allow me to share some bipartisan dialogue that we’ve seen from those who either ran for office on either of the two major parties ballots or who actually currently hold elective office in our United States.

In no particular order:

“XXX was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, XXX. He made XXX look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”

“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at XXX, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by XXX for quickly firing that dog!”

“Crazy XXX is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically”

“It’s one man, one man, myself, that’s standing for the truth, and the news media can’t stand that — the Democrats and Republicans, the cursed two-party, Jew party, queer party system — can’t stand that!”

“The holocaust is a bunch of kosher baloney. It’s an extortion racket pure and simple to extort money out of perpetrators

“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”

And then there are the disgusting uses of the words “libtard” and “Nazi” to describe those with whom we disagree. And the mischaracterization of the detention camps for children who have entered the country as concentration camps of the Nazi model. They aren’t.

These words and behaviors are not on the extreme sidelines of American life. Their sources are the President of the United States and candidates from either of the two major parties for congress or other offices.  They were from Illinois, from Minnesota, from Michigan and others.

clintons-at-trumps-wedding

Those are the tip of the iceberg. An average week on Twitter or on CNN or on Fox News will report dozens of these. This type of communication has replaced what used to be civil dialogue. Most of us can remember the Trumps and the Clintons pictured socializing together, we can see the Bushes and Obamas befriending each other, and during the Mc Cain funeral, we saw liberals and conservatives together mourning his passing. But today the voices of those who insult and those who hate is louder and more persistent. And every time we retweet, repeat or tolerate these types of expression, we become partners in sin and in moving the world a little bit farther from where it needs to be headed.

What has become missing in action in our country and in our world is a type of divergent thinking in which one side of an argument or the other doesn’t have to be stupid or just plain wrong. We have stopped recognizing gray areas and no longer recognize that both sides of an argument might be intelligent and that both are committed to the community’s good and welfare.

Two quick lessons, one from the Talmud, one from medieval debates:  In the first, the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued over many points of Jewish law. Hillel is generally the lenient, while Shammai tends towards the strict application of law. Eventually God takes the wheel in a heavenly rant in which he states that elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, both opinions reflect God’s living words, but concludes that the law follows Hillel. In discussing why Hillel’s opinion won out, it is suggested that it was because the school of Hillel always taught the opposing opinion – that of Shammai – before it taught its own opinion (Talmud Eruvin). It was humility and openness to more than one possible truth gave Hillel and his followers the edge.

mezuzah

The second lesson is that of the mezuza. There was a dispute as to whether the mezuza was to be hung horizontally or vertically. The argument could have turned easily into the type of name calling and insulting that we see all over social media today. Instead it led to the compromise that is universally practiced in the Ashkenazi community. Yes the mezuza is hung in the unlikely slanted position, a compromise in which both sides were able to claim a limited victory and validation.

It would be easy to see what is happening in the United States, and even to a degree in Israel and to say “this is not Judaism’s business”. There are fringe groups in the Jewish people who do try to isolate themselves and do not bring their Jewish beliefs and core values to the greater society. But in doing so, we deprive Judaism of its greater value and deprive the world of important lessons that we have to share.

We are, according to the Torah, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, the kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Not the only nation or people in the world, but one which aims to be a model to other nations. We Jews cannot be passengers in the boat of the larger world that has holes letting leak in, lest we all drown together. We have to step up to be leaders who are fixing the moral leaks of our greater world.

Our politicians and world leaders aren’t going to be angels. Certainly, that standard was not expected or attained by even the greatest of Jewish leaders from Abraham to Sarah to Moses to King David to Golda Meir. But each of them stepped up to admit their wrongdoings, often helped by ancient or modern prophetic voices who demanded they aim higher.

We need to step up to be those prophetic voices today. As Jews, we need to demand greater wisdom and higher standards for the leaders of our people and for the leaders of our country and our world. It’s not just about “but s/he is good for Israel” or S/he is good for our Jewish neighborhood”. To accept limited self-interest as the main tipping point in who we promote as leaders, while leaving moral leadership off the table isn’t Judaism. When we look to leaders and find that they are totally immoral in their personal and business lives, and that we have to actually censor their words because they cannot be repeated in the company of children, then we’re lost our moral compass.

We need to use everything at our disposal: our votes, our letters to the editor, our letters to our leaders, social media, donations, whatever it takes, to bring back what the Talmud refers to as lashon naki, clean speech in public dialogue.  We need to demand that personal and public integrity is more important than self-interest. As noted in the creation story (particularly that of the mystics) the world was created incomplete so that we can work to perfect it.

May we find the strength and courage to step forward to bringing civil discourse and respectful disagreement back, so that we can work together in service of the goal of improving ourselves, our communities, our country and our world in the coming year.

The Death of the Center and How Talmud Study Can Restore It

I know I’m a political moderate because I get criticized by both those to the left and those to the right. Sadly, in the world in which we live today, the word “moderate” is viewed negatively by liberals and conservatives alike. Both seem perfectly happy to throw disgusting insults like “libtard” and “Nazi” at each other without considering what the other side is saying. And having a president that routinely calls people insulting names publicly changes the nature of society, sending a message that disrespectful interactions are preferable to respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

moderation

The thing about moderate views is that they require nuanced thinking, if not downright divergent thinking. It is very simplistic (and untrue) to think, for example, that those who promote responsible gun ownership want to do away with the Second Amendment of the constitution or totally outlaw all weapons. Similarly, there are those who want to believe that opposing the recent American practice of separating children and parents who enter the country illegally means that they want completely open borders, with absolutely no safeguards.

On the other side, the idea that children in detention facilities are in “concentration camps” or that President Trump or his advisors are “Nazis” is equally simplistic as well as minimalizing what the Nazi era or concentration camps actually were.

So, how do we get to nuanced thinking?  One way is through Talmud study. No, seriously. Talmud isn’t just for Jews anymore. Even South Korea adopted Talmud study on some level in order to become “smart like the Jews” click here . While I was probably already a divergent thinker, Talmud study (even when it sometimes bored me to tears or required me to study it in a pretty dead language) opened some critical thinking horizons for me. Such as:

  • Two schools of thought that disagree can both be based on data, observations, and knowledge of precedent
  • Name calling and insults by one school of thought to another may appear, but are very infrequent
  • Sometimes the final answer in a disagreement is: Hell, we don’t know either. Can we kick it off to Elijah the Prophet to figure out?
  • There’s the very cool response to two diametrically opposed views: the question of whether a mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally ends up with moderation and compromise – in most communities, the decision is to hang  it at an angle between the two views
  • And in reflecting on the Talmud and on personal characteristics, Maimonides, in the 12th century, states that the “golden path” is that of moderation rather than extremes

2014-10-03-blogbellcurve

So we need to realize that in political and social matters (as in just about everything), there is a bell curve. There will be those few at the extremes that will take radical positions. Like the recent few Republican candidates that had been affiliated with the Nazi party or their friends, the extremes are out there, but in the very far edge of the bell curve with very few voices or followers.

Most of us congregate in the middle, at either side of the top of the bell curve. We’re the people that agree that you can’t have totally open borders, but disagree on how to reach an intelligent policy; The folks who don’t want individuals with serious mental illness or criminal intent to have guns, but disagree on how to assure it.

It’s time for us (Americans, as well as other countries that face polarization) to stop obsessing about the extremists and to focus on the vast majority that actually want civil, respectable discourse and the ability of our leaders to find the compromises needed to really make our world better.

And if picking up Baba Metzia helps them do that, so be it!

Some Mid-Term Questions

Listen, I’m not a politician. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am not even a registered party member anymore…changed my registration to “no party” in order to avoid the snooping that the federal government was trying to do, when it demanded that states turn over voter records.

I’m just a Rabbi. A Jewish educator. I vote Jewish. That is to say, I care about a wide range of issues and I look at them with a mindset that says: My Jewish values don’t dictate my vote, but they definitely inform it. Specifically, my Jewish lens includes:

  • Personal integrity. Not perfection. Striving for good. Striving for ethical. Striving for moral [includes idea of teshuva, that a person can change and improve]
  • Truth [a name of God]
  • Peace and its pursuit [Shalom is another name of God]
  • Responsibility [Ours is a religion of responsibility, not of rights]
  • Consistent values
  • Compassion [according to the rabbis, a litmus test of a Jewish person]
  • Justice [as in: Justice, Justice you shall pursue]
  • Strength [not power. Strength]
  • Standing up for minorities [I’m a member of a minority religious group, so I notice] or for those historically disenfranchised
  • Partnership with God [or with the Godly, if you prefer] in protecting creation
  • Security and safety [“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them”]
  • The security, safety and peace of Israel as the sole Jewish state in the world

 

questions-medium

So, when it comes to state-wide or national positions that are going to be on the ballot, I’ll be sending off my questionnaire to candidates and publishing those who answer these simple questions:

  1. What are the five top values that guide you in life and in public service?
  2. Are you respected by those of the other party/parties?
  3. How do you “play in the sandbox” with those whose views you disagree strongly?
  4. Are you respected by those in other branches of government?
  5. How do you “play in the sandbox’ with those in other branches, especially when they oppose you?
  6. How will you protect the right to bear arms?
  7. How will you protect citizens from gun and other violence?
  8. What do you think of scientific knowledge, such as global warming? Should our country be joining the rest of the world in environmental action? Is coal “clean” as a fuel, in your opinion?
  9. Do your religious beliefs, or those of religious leaders you honor, promote the idea that Jews (or Moslems, or any other group) will “not be saved” or “are doomed to burn”because they haven’t accepted a particular religion?
  10. What actions will you pursue to safeguard the security and promote peace in Israel?
  11. What are the three special interest groups or corporations that contribute the most to your campaign/s?

How about you. What are YOUR questions for those who want your support as they pursue leadership roles?