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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
As I write this, I am in Jerusalem, celebrating the 69th anniversary of Israel’s birth, along with groups of wonderfully enthusiastic adults and teens from Broward County, Florida. They are our community’s delegations to the March of the Living, and have come here along with thousands of others from around the world, after having traveled through Poland to see the sites at which the Nazis and their associates tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of the Jews who escaped Europe or survived the Holocaust were among the founders and citizens who established this country and helped to reinvigorate Jewish living and learning in the United States, Canada and across the world.
While many in our group have been to Israel, some, like myself, many times, they still see the country differently when arriving directly from a visit to a concentration camp.
As we approached Israel a few days ago, flying over the Mediterranean, one could sense the excitement. Israel is a remarkable country that has faced, and continues to face challenges that most who read this are at least somewhat familiar with. The plane touched down on the runway of Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main airport, located just minutes from Tel Aviv. Everyone opened their overhead bins and turned on their cell phones, looking forward to letting loved ones know that they have arrived safely and are beginning their visits to Israel. We waited, somewhat impatiently, for cell signals. And, as we exited the plane and stepped towards the gate, there mine was: a message from my wireless provider (Verizon Wireless, if you’re interested) that proclaimed on my phone’s screen:
WELCOME TO PALESTINE
It included instructions on how to make and receive calls while in Palestine.
As those who know me can attest, my political leanings on Israel tend to the liberal to moderate end of things. I have no issues with people who choose to identify themselves as Palestinians. I am fine with the Palestinian Authority having some degree of control over the areas that have been agreed upon and am proud that Israel gave more respect to them than Jordan ever did during its years of control of those areas. And I long for the day in which all inhabitants of these lands will live in peace and security, whether that means a two-state solution or some other agreement.
If Verizon Wireless wanted to welcome me to Palestine when I’m in Jericho, Nablus or Hebron (I’ve visited each of them), I would probably just look at my phone, perhaps shrug my shoulders a bit and go on my way. And I would expect a nice “Welcome to Israel” once I crossed back over the Green Line.
But that’s not what happened. I was in the national airport of the sovereign state of Israel, on a piece of land that is not disputed, and the company that I have been a loyal customer of for many years, instead welcomed me to Palestine. And in the week that followed, not once did Verizon Wireless ever welcome me to Israel.
Oh, in the days that followed, I got all sorts of explanations, most having to do with what cell tower my phone may have connected to. By the way, it’s not limited to Verizon Wireless; other folks have told me about their providers doing the same. And it apparently doesn’t happen to everyone every time.
I don’t claim to be an expert on telecommunications, but I have to believe that technology today enables my wireless provider to pick up my exact location, regardless of whether the cell tower it’s using is in Tel Aviv, Nablus or Timbuktu. And even if my provider sends me an incorrect message, shouldn’t it then have welcomed me to Israel when it got me to a different cell tower?
This is not a harmless mistake. I know my way around Israel and its politics, so Verizon Wireless’s message welcoming me to Ben Gurion airport in Palestine angered me, but didn’t affect me otherwise. But what about the many who travel here for the first time: Christians on pilgrimages and tours, business people, diplomats? What are they thinking when they receive this message?
Corporations play significant roles in politics and contemporary events. They are not simply financial entities; they have values that they communicate in every part of their business. In my people’s recent history, the Holocaust relied on the work of major companies, many of the them still very much in business. Some companies, by the same token, used their positions to protect and rescue Jews and others during that awful period.
I’m not equating a cell phone message to the Holocaust. But I am saying that corporations, as much as individuals, need to take responsibility for what their companies do. In this case, they need to fix errors that communicate the negation of the existence and legitimate borders of a sovereign state. Israel deserves no less. And I, as a loyal customer, deserve no less.
I love Pesach/Passover. Love participating in a Seder. Love leading a Seder. To me, a Seder is a magical time that brings together families and friends for food, celebration and meaningful conversation. The Hagaddah, which guides the evening, is not a stationary document. It is dynamic, having evolved over (at least) several centuries and has had more than a few revisions and variant versions over the centuries since it was (somewhat) canonized.
Over a lifetime, I’ve seen a number of attempts to make the Seder more relevant. In my files and bookcases are the old Seder readings for Soviet Jewry (yes, I’m that old), the Shalom Seder that was all about peace, a Hagaddah for those whose Mitzrayim (Egypt) was addiction, Women’s Seder, LGBTQ inclusion Seder, American Heritage Hagaddah and more. They are all pretty cool and, along with the orange on the Seder plate and Miriam’s cup, some of these innovations sometimes are frequently included in my Seder. Along with a good dose of some Bob Marley redemption music.
At the same time, I saw a red flag when some new “hagaddot” and readings showed up in my (snail) mail box and (email) inbox. My concern is that relevance might actually kill people’s Seder. How so? I look at the Seder as a road map / outline, not as the total story. Four questions should pose other questions. Seeing one’s self as though s/he had personally left Egypt should naturally lead to the discussion of what slavery one has experienced. Dayenu ought to provoke conversation about “how much is enough?” Matza, the poor person’s bread, should take us into a conversation about poverty and about refugees.
My fear is that, by creating all the “relevant” readings, Hagaddot and Sederim, their authors may actually be destroying organic discussion by spoon-feeding us relevancy.
So, this year, I am planning to forgo the relevant additional readings, trash the inboxed Hagaddot and get back to basics. I crave the old school Seder and Hagaddah. And I want to let them serve as the jumping off point for important conversations about relevant and contemporary issues that they, done properly, take us to.
Best wishes for a Chag Sameach, a wonderful and meaningful Passover.
“Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed, the House of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the House of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This is to show you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace”(Zechariah 8:16).”
– Talmud Eruvin 13b
In the same year that Prince, George Michael, and David Bowie died, civility in political discourse died in America. It happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. References like “cheating Hillary” and “lying Hillary” entered the public forum, showing complete disrespect for a long-time public servant. People expressed disdain for “libtards”. Others began to charge that a candidate was a “Nazi”, showing both disrespect for the individual and for those who were persecuted by actual Nazis. Then there were unproven allegations that people were “racists” or “anti-Semites”, when no overt proof for the charges existed. And so, libel and slander became everyday occurrences on television, radio and social media. It got so bad that one writer declared that it was causing the “death of Facebook”.
Unlike American law, in which freedom of speech allows for some level of defamation, if a report appears to be truthful, Jewish values do not. Judaism considers lashon hara, evil speech, to be evil, even when true.
The Talmudic quotation above addresses the disagreements between the Talmudic scholars Hillel and Shammai, and for a number of generations, their followers. It tells us that disagreements regarding theology or religious practice did not drive a wedge between fellow Jews. While there were certainly occasions in Jewish history (including the Talmud) in which there was hostility between those with differing opinions, the optimal situation was always considered to be that demonstrated during the disagreements between the followers of Shammai and those of Hillel.
It is time for us all to chastise those who denigrate others, whether they be public officials, your best friend or the president. The Torah’s teaching of “do not hate your brother [or sister], but surely rebuke your neighbor, so that you do not incur sin” is as much about public discourse as it is about stopping any crime. We have an obligation to warn people away from defamatory speech, even if that doesn’t make us popular.
There are deep issues that divide us. Deeply. Individuals are passionate, and sometimes even extreme, in their opinions. The American constitution, with its guarantees of a free press, separation of powers, and checks and balances is being attacked. And the above mentioned obligation to “rebuke your neighbor” applies to critiquing a government that behaves in ways that betray the public trust. And yet, even in fulfilling that obligation, Judaism cautions us to still do so from a position of love, or at least, respect.
Jewish tradition is so careful to seek purity in communication (lashon naki) that the rabbis suggested that, whenever the Torah referred to animals that “are not pure”, it used that expression rather than “impure” intentionally. The goal was not speak in a more positive way, rather than even directly impugning the reputation of a poor animal. Don’t our fellow humans deserve at least that level of consideration?
We are living in challenging times. Let’s elevate the conversation.