Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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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

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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!

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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

 

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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?

 

How are YOU telling your story this Pesach?

When I interview people for a job, one question that I’ve used for quite a few years is: What type of music do you like? I’m not interested in genres, but in songwriters and performers. I’ve been inclined to hire people who like Springsteen, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Sinatra, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, and for my classical music, Tchaikovsky.

Why do I use this question in an interview? Because it’s a great way to get to know a person. When they’re mentioned one of the above, I know that they like music that:

  • Tells a story and means it.
  • Flows. Seamlessly. Both the story and the music.
  • Can be moved to. After all, you want the story to make you move. Not just dancing, but also move people to get up and act.
  • Is passionate. Like the people I want to have around me, working towards a goal passionately.

Think about these storytellers:

  • You can just see the policeman stopping Jay-Z, when you hear him tell the story in 99 Problems
  • Even if you’ve never seen the Nutcracker Suite, listening to the music gives you insight into the story and let’s you imagine it.
  • Steely Dan’s My Old School gives you a picture of the former student who is now with the “working girls at the county jail.”
  • Who doesn’t recognize the characters that we’re introduced to at the bar in Piano Man?

Each performer and/or songwriter puts you up close to an unfolding story in a passionate way, and actually gives you such a clear picture that you are there.

Sound familiar? At this time of year, it should. This is exactly what is asked of us at the Passover Seder: Engage people in your storytelling and in your story-singing in such a way that we all see ourselves in the story (“as if he personally came out of Egypt”).

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Let’s all learn from those people whose storytelling skills we respect: musicians, songwriters, artists, and storytellers. On the Seder night ahead, let’s use the passion and our best ways of communicating to see the story, experience our presence in the story and to envision how the story continues from generation to generation.

And as we invite others into the story, may we move them and ourselves to continue the story and move to the world we want for ourselves and for generations to come.

Chag Sameach, a Happy and Joyous Pesach to one and all!

The Kids are Alright

If you’re old enough to know where the title of this post comes from, you’re not a kid, or even close to being one anymore. But for the first time in ages, everyone in the United States (and in a good portion of the world) is watching teens step up, beginning in Parkland Florida and expanding out.

Watching teens in very public places as they take positions on public policy is watching a roller coaster. One minute, a young lady is delivering a wonderful speech, delivering moral messages to a world that’s watching. The next moment, she’s spinning herself around, because she knows she’s hit the mark. An idealistic young man takes on a government leader, successfully. Then he takes a victory lap to get high fives from his friends.

Having worked with teens for several decades, this is actually wonderfully normal teen behavior. Having total idealism and passion, unrestrained by the life experiences that beat us older people down, is incredible to witness. And doing a victory dance even while at the center of one of the most important crossroads of American life – so unacceptable for adults – is something that we understand for teens. Because, well, teens.

One of the most important teens to have ever lived is Anne Frank. The wisdom she imparted in her short life continues to be read and studied. And yet, as Dennis Prager once pointed out: I’m not going to take the philosophy of a 15-year old as the guide for my life. My addition to that insight mine would be: At the same time, don’t dismiss her idealistic thinking. She had the life experiences in the time in the attack to develop her thinking pretty quickly. So have the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

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As I sat in the BB&T Center last night I briefly judged the kids who performed their dances after scoring points in a discussion with some pretty hefty leaders. After all, it was “immature”. But then I thought some more. I’m 62 years old. I’ve been in leadership roles since I was a youth group president. I had a pulpit at age 23. So, yes, I’ve learned not to take a victory lap after I’ve said something important. But what right do I have to expect a 17-year old – who has been violently taken from a life of homework, snapchat and dating – and thrust unexpectedly into the international spotlight to have the knowledge that the “adults” (who, incidentally, had failed to protect them) would find their celebration unacceptable?

Here are teens: One teen legally obtained a semi-automatic weapon (among other firearms) and brutally murdered seventeen people. Hundreds of other teens are speaking out publicly, calling out adults for not being responsible, and protesting in school. According to scientists, none of these teens have fully developed “executive” skills. Yet, one is a mass murderer and the others are exercising leadership.

At the very least, we need to listen to the teens who are leading the way. Do they have all the answers? No. But they are stepping up in ways that people three and four times their age have failed to. The job for us as adults is to listen to what they are teaching us, mentor them as leaders and help move them to be effective as they set their paths.

And forgive their victory dances because, frankly, even us old folks would like to do those sometimes.

 

Hey, Lorde, Let’s Tour Israel

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Dear Lorde:

I get it. You had plans to give a concert in Israel and the pressure to cancel got to you. After all, there are dozens of other countries to play, and many of them don’t have a peace process that remains incomplete. Cancelling is an easy way out. Doesn’t give you more insight into the beautiful democracy that Israel is; doesn’t help you to know a start-up nation that has brought innovation to technology, communications, medicine, fashion and more; doesn’t help you better understand the 18-year old men and women who defend themselves and their country every day; doesn’t help you to know the women who are working within a democratic system to fight for women’s rights in a country that already gives women more rights that the countries that surround it; doesn’t give you insights into the country that is rated as one of the  most LGBT-friendly in the world.

And you know what? Not going to Israel also cost you the opportunity to get to know the Arab and Palestinian populations within Israel and in the West Bank. You opted out of Tel Aviv, but also out of Jericho, Ramallah and Gaza, cities that happen to have free elections for Palestinian leadership. Who knows? They might have wanted to hear your music there, too.

At concerts in Israel, Arab and Jew enjoy music. Together. Wouldn’t it have been great to stand before audiences and speak about the future, about peace, about a time free from violence?

So I have a very serious offer for you. Let’s go to Israel together. We can visit Tel Aviv and East and West Jerusalem. We’ll travel to Palestinian communities to hear what its people are thinking. We can visit the Arab member of Knesset who advocates for the rights of women (Jewish and Arab). We can visit kibbutzim founded by idealists who wanted to live in peace with the Arabs of neighboring villages. I’ll take you to drop in on some of my family members who are settlers in their West Bank city, just across the valley from Ramallah. They’re regular people, like you and me, working for a living and wishing their grandchildren wouldn’t have to go off to the army. We’ll go to Hadassah Hospital, where Jewish and Arab doctors work together to save lives of Jewish and Arab patients.

We can probably even hook you up to meet with Israeli leaders from across the political divide (both Arab and Jew), who struggle daily with how to reach a peace that assures the security of all parties.

Want to make a difference? So do I.

Have your people contact me and let’s go. Seriously.

You in?

Bringing Righteous Embarrassment back to Judaism

Memory: Back in my youth, students came to the school I attended a day after their parents had been on the front page of the local newspaper for criminal wrongdoing. We spent the day ignoring them, feeling badly that they were caught in a situation not of their making. But we knew that a wrong had been done.

We also knew to feel terribly about other scandals in which Jews were implicated – whether it was “white collar” crime or violent crime. When we read the newspaper (back in those days, it’s how we learned the news), our eyes went to the Jewish-sounding names to see who had embarrassed the Jewish people and how. Berkowitz, Ruby, Goldstein, Mezvinsky…We felt a sense of shame that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah could behave in these ways.

To be truthful, some of the shame my generation felt about Jews behaving badly had to do with being a first or second generation American Jew. My Judaic teachers growing up were mostly immigrants to this country. They had fled Europe just before or after the Nazi era. Or they had left Israel during times of economic hardship. They were proud Americans. They were also forever indebted to the United States, feeling that the country had accepted them as citizens who were nonetheless aliens in a foreign (and, frankly, Christian) country. And, as immigrants often do, they tended to feel a bit at risk. So the message that came through their teaching was: you (at age 15) represent the entire Jewish people in the United States. Your behavior directly impacts our safety in this great country. So stay on the straight and narrow, and be sure to express regret and consternation when one of your fellow Jews does something bad.

At the time, we joked about that message, but in hindsight, there was wisdom there: All Israel is responsible for one another (Mishnah).

Dr. Karl Menninger, in a memorable book, Whatever Became of Sin, alluded to how, in a world of moral relativism, society can lose sight of what is absolute wrong. Sadly, that spirit has infiltrated Judaism today. I’m no longer shocked to see Jews explain away acts of Jewish terrorism (which, admittedly are not commonplace, but do occur). Jewish felons were “railroaded” by the system, say defenders of some Jewish criminals. We were even treated recently to scenes of singing and dancing in celebration of a felon being released from prison (and yes, it is possible that he received a longer sentence than usual for the crime for which he was convicted, but it doesn’t change the reality of that crime).

As a rabbi and Jewish educator let me be absolutely clear: Felonies are wrong. Defrauding is wrong. Routinely hiring undocumented immigrants and having them work and live in poor conditions is wrong. When one does so as a Jew, it is what we call a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name publicly. When one does so in the act of providing for the needs of observant Jews like myself, it is unconscionable. Period.

Just to get things out of the way, I fully expect negative comments to this piece. I’ve already been told (after 36 years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal service) that I’m a self-hating Jew or that I hold Orthodox Judaism or Jews in general to an unfair standard (isn’t holding one’s self to a higher standing the point of Judaism?). Here’s the thing: I deeply respect those who disagree with my opinion. All I ask is that those who disagree commit themselves to respect for mine.

Personally, I am happy for any family reunited after incarceration. If you’re the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, your release is cause for public celebration.  But if your crime was not of those types, celebrate humbly with your family this Shabbat and commit yourself to a life as a law-abiding citizen who will work hard to be a credit to our people.

 

 

 

 

Al Chet [For The Sin…] 5778

Each year, Jews throughout the world recite a part of the liturgy that has become known by its first words, which repeat throughout the text:  Al Chet. Some prayer texts have updated the list of sins that a person may have committed, and that certainly someone in one’s prayer community has committed.  In reflecting on my year and on the year of our community and our world, I offer the following Al Chet:

For these sins…

  • For not demonstrating what Rav Kook spoke of as ahavat chinam, unconditional love
  • For not adequately using the thinking skills God has given us:
    • Da’at – Intelligence, knowledge
    • Bina – Understanding
    • Haskel – Insight, critical thinking
    • Chochmah – Wisdom
  • For forgetting to show respect for those with whom we disagree
  • For not being Godlike by balancing strict justice with mercy, and not teaching that balance to the world
  • For not holding personal integrity as the primary prerequisite for leadership
  • For not being supportive enough of Israel and guaranteeing its security
  • For not expressing the value that Israel must hold itself to a different and higher standard
  • For not being a patriotic enough citizen of our country to demonstrate allegiance and to demand that it be a beacon of liberty and freedom
  • For allowing bullying and insulting behavior in communications and allowing people to confuse it with strength
  • For not stepping forward to strongly condemn all hatred and rooting it out immediately, especially as we still live in the shadow of the Shoah
  • For not doing the small, individual things that demonstrate our partnership with God in protecting the environment
  • For putting obstacles in the way of individuals who wish to be part of our synagogues, our schools, our Jewish community
  • For using Judaism as a tool to punish rather than as a tool to repair the world
  • For performing rote prayer and ritual, forgetting that they are there to speak to us

For all these, Lord of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

 

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Pro-Jewish, Pro-Israel and What it all Means

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The Jewish people, and with it Judaism, has changed dramatically over 200 years. Two hundred years ago, nobody dreamed of women as rabbis or cantors, Glatt Kosher was only known to a very small group of communities, German Jews were incredibly comfortable, and the concept of a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel was, at best, a theoretical possibility.

Fast forward to today. Women as cantors and rabbis are a significant proportion of the leadership in liberal movements, and have made some progress in spiritual / religious roles in the Orthodox community, Glatt Kosher has become so pervasive that it now often misused to mean “strictly Kosher” rather than its technical meaning, the Shoah destroyed any semblance of full comfort for Jew in Germany or anywhere else. And the state of Israel is not just a reality, but a major player on the world scene.

Israel, of course is not a monolithic entity in any way – religiously, culturally or politically. And as Israel’s politics have, in just the last 50 years, been a pendulum, swinging from one side to another and back again, it has made being a pro-Israel Jew a rather dizzying ride. While the mainstream Jewish community has hung on to the wild ride, it has given rise to some people on the edges asking: Do I have to be a pro-Israel person to be a “good Jew?”,  “Does pro-Israel mean I have to support every decision Israel makes”,  “Do anti-Israel sentiments automatically indicate anti-Semitism” and the like. None of these questions have simple answers. But Israel is clearly a core element of Judaism for the vast majority of Jews in the world.

How did that happen? After all, in the late 1800’s, Zionist leadership tended to be secular Jews (many of them formerly religiously observant) with strong socialist and utopian tendencies. Religious Jewry, whether Reform or Orthodox, was largely not on board.

Without going into the historical causes that brought most streams of Judaism into the Zionist/pro-Israel fold, the process was actually not unique in Jewish history. Since the dawn of the Jewish people, Jewish communities have redefined and tweaked what Judaism stood for. Talmudic rabbis all but eliminated Biblical punishment for sins; the community that experienced the exile from the land planted the seeds of belief in a Jewish messiah; Safed and Spanish Jewry developed mystical approaches to Judaism. In each case, the new beliefs became integrated into Judaism so much, that today we barely know what Judaism looked like without these developments.

So, too, with attachment to and support of the state of Israel. The vast majority of synagogues recite a prayer for the state of Israel (despite its omission from Artscroll and Chabad prayer books); the flag of Israel is prominently displayed in most Jewish organizations; the singing of Hatikva is expected in any community gathering. Just as the elimination of capital punishment, the belief in a messiah (or a messianic era) or the teachings of mystical approaches, Israel has become accepted as an integral part of Jewish identity, including religious life. Parenthetically, I have even been made aware of rabbis who will not accept a person to become a naturalized member of the Jewish people without him/her making a commitment to Israel.

Whether you or I agree with every decision made in Israel, today or historically, is not the issue. Israel has incredible challenges and a wide range of ways in which it can address them. I find some of these paths unacceptable, and others desirable. Regardless of what parties are in charge, we stand in support of a strong and secure Israel. When we disagree, we do so not as detached, outside observers, but as “insiders”. Our disagreements are, for the vast majority of Jews, not about Israel’s right to exist or to be a “Jewish homeland”, but about the strategies to make Israel the best Israel possible, consistent with the values that we believe a Jewish state should reflect. But unswervingly in support of Israel and its future. And those who fail to understand that miss an important fact about the Jewish people today.

The Great Things that Have Resulted from the “Situation” in the United States

I know. The United States is a deeply divided country – politically, economically, racially, and other-llys. I am sorry that there are people suffering in this period of great upheaval. At the same time, there are some remarkable, if invisible, positive things that I observe happening:

  • People are watching and reading about news and current events. Personally, I am now watching CNN more than since my 33-year old son was a baby and CNN was the only thing on the TV when he’d wake us up at 3 a.m. Whether we are watching news programs and following news websites for entertainment or to actually follow the news, many of us are more up-to-date on current events than we’ve been in ages.
  • Critical thinking is, at least for some of us, on the rise. When public statements denying what the vast majority of scientists say about climate change, for example, it forces us to take a step back and ask “is that true”?  And hopefully, to research it and learn about things like data, rather than simply taking the word of a story or public statement.
  • Critical reading is, again, for at least some of us, on the rise. When a news story is declared “fake news” by the president of the U.S., or when he denounces a newspaper or television network, it brings a doubt as to what is or is not truth. For me (and I’m sure for others), that encourages me to read more and to ask questions that I might not otherwise ask, such as:  “Are there legitimate sources and proofs for this story?”, “Are unnamed sources as reliable as those named?”, “Have statements been made in writing or on video that are verifiable?”  Once we have to dig further in order to answer tough questions, the answers bring us closer to the truth.

How about you? Are you finding a silver lining amidst the upheaval?

The challenge of Politicking

Our world, and the countries that make it up, has become deeply divided. There may have been a time in history during which people could come together and discuss specific issues facing a community or a nation in a civil way. Today, the issues are too complex.  To relieve the complexity, there is a tendency to bundle issues together and to define one’s opinions as part of a general set of tendencies. For example, labels such as “progressive”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “Republican” or “Democrat” now carry with them the implicit assumption that, by identifying as one or the other, an individual has a consistent set of responses to every issue. The bundling of issues in such a way may make life simpler, but also results in not having to read too much or be a critical thinker, and leads to unnecessary conflict.

I have beliefs around gender equality, LGBTQ rights, Israel, human rights, racism, health care, reproductive choice, educational quality and more. When I go down the list, my opinions do not follow a strict “party line”. I have never pulled a lever in an election to vote a straight party ballot. And when there were online “tests” during the last presidential election to assess which of the candidates I most closely aligned with, I pretty much confused the algorithm, resulting in several candidates that I could conceivably vote for, but no clear recommendation.

In any case, as a rabbi and a nonprofit executive, it is important that I do not endorse candidates or parties, so having a set of beliefs that don’t easily conform easily actually works well for me. But, while I don’t endorse specific candidates, it is important that I take stands on the issues that have clear moral imperatives. Admittedly, it is a fine line, but here’s what governs the matters I go public on:

  • Integrity of public officials. Expecting candidates to keep every campaign promise is pointless. I don’t necessarily vote based on candidates’ views on issues, as much as I look to whether they are individuals of integrity with clear values. And once in office, I will take a public stand if I feel they are betraying a public trust.
  • I care about the United States of America. It (and a few states) supported my education, has been keeping me safe, and continues to provide me with opportunity. Trash it, and you’ll hear from me.
  • I will absolutely go public in support of Israel’s aspirations as a secure, democratic state, and one that I would like to see taking the moral high road.
  • Human dignity (“in the image of God”) is a moral absolute for me. Whenever I think it’s under attack, expect a response.
  • Respect and menshlickeit (being a decent person) matter. I won’t accept trash talking, bullying or insults in the public domain.

KEEP CALM AND BE  a MENSCH

That’s about it. If I appear too silent at times, I may be trying to defend my organization’s tax-exempt status. But silence does not always mean acquiescence.

What are your hot buttons for responding to issues?

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