Monthly Archives: December 2013

Hillel Circles the Wagons – What is in the Middle?

Sunday’s NY Times reported that Hillel, the national Jewish student college organization, has formalized a new policy banning any speaker or program that challenges the State of Israel and its policies from appearing at a Hillel sponsored event.  In doing so the organization is following in the steps of AIPAC, the Israel lobby group in Washington, which does not allow its representatives to appear at any program or meeting where a member of an organization that does not agree with its policies is on the agenda.  And about a year ago members of Atlanta’s Jewish community tried to ban Peter Beinart from speaking at a Jewish book fair there, saying that his views on Israel were not acceptable.

I understand the impulse.  We look around and see a world that is hostile to Israel, we see anti-semitism (just this morning reports of a French comedian’s anti-semitic gesture being used by French athletes), and we fall back on the old Hillel maxim (not the organization, the Talmudic sage) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But while we are thinking about the sage Hillel lets remember that he was the bar plugta, the one who argued with, another great sage from antiquity, Shammai.  Hillel and Shammai always disagreed about matters of Jewish law.  If one said black, the other said white.  If one said something was permitted, the other said it was forbidden.  In the end, Hillel won the debate soundly, and in the over 300 disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, almost all of them were decided according to Hillel’s opinion.  Yet the opinions of Shammai and his house are all recorded and preserved in the Talmud.  Even though they were wrong.

This seems to me a fundamental Jewish ideal.  The Talmud, which is the core document of Jewish life, is a record of debates.  Page after page, disagreement after disagreement.  Sometimes the debates are about trivial matters, sometimes they are about issues that would have a long lasting affect on the entire Jewish community.  The point is that the Judaism we practice today, a rabbinic-Judaism, was formed through these debates, through the arguments.  And the record of those arguments is complete – both the winners and the losers are present on the talmudic page, both the main stream opinions and the radical ones.  That is authentic Judaism, the shakla v’taryia, the give and take, the intellectual back and forth.

To stifle debate, to close it out, or avoid it, to present only a single unified view, is just not the Jewish way.  Is it easier?  Yup.  Is it safer?  Maybe.  But since when have we Jews chosen the easier way?  And why should we start now?  And by the way, if Hillel’s mission is to foster authentic and meaningful Jewish life on campus, how can they do that when they are not operating in an authentically Jewish way?

So I say kudos to the Swarthmore Hillel.  They recently declared themselves an ‘open Hillel,’ and have stated they will not abide by the new national Hillel guidelines.   By doing so they have reminded us all not only of the importance of free speech in our country, but also of the role that open debate and discussion should always have in Jewish life.

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Speak Out! Some Additional Thoughts on the ASA Boycott

This a text version of my sermon from yesterday, 12/27/13 – 

      The Jewish community has been following over the last couple of weeks the story of the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  The association – called the ASA – is an organization made up of academics from around the country, most of whom teach at the university level in the fields of history or the social sciences.  It is about 60 years old at this point, and has close to 5000 thousand members – so it is a prominent academic organization.  Just about 3 weeks ago the membership was asked to vote on on whether it would support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.  That is to say, the members of the ASA would cut off all formal contacts with Israeli universities.  The boycott was approved by the ASA membership – about %60 voted in favor of it – and the rational behind it, as explained by the organization, is that the boycott will help to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian population under Israeli control.

     This is not by any means the first time a prominent organization has shown a deeply misguided understanding of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict – you can look at a number of statements that have come out of the United Nations for examples, among others.  What is particularly disappointing about the ASA boycott is that these are people who are supposed to be first of all intellectually sophisticated, so you would think they would be able to look at the situation in terms of its depth and complexity, but also these are academicians, they are supposed to do their homework!  I doubt any of them would put their names onto a paper that was going to be published without thoroughly researching the material, yet that is exactly what an entire group of academicians has done here. 

     What has been interesting, and also gratifying over the last 10 days has been the response to the ASA boycott from within the academic community.  I am proud to say that Brandeis University, where Becky and I both went to college, was one of the first institutions to speak out against the boycott, and they have since withdrawn their membership from the ASA.  Since then the presidents of Harvard and Wesleyan have both spoken out against the boycott, the Association of American Universities, which is an organization comprised of the most prestigious research schools in the country, has publicly opposed the boycott, and Brandeis has been joined by Penn State University (Harrisburg), and just a couple of days ago by Kenyon College and Indiana University in terms of schools that have withdrawn from the ASA entirely.  

     Now to us this might seem like a no brainer, but the truth of the matter is with these issues it is much easier for individuals and institutions to remain silent and just let things happen than it is to step up, to speak out, and to take a stand.  Rabbi Loeb used to often say there are sins of commission, actually participating in doing something wrong, and then there are sins of omission, not actively doing anything but just stepping back and letting things unfold.  And the truth is, whether we like it or not, Israel is not particularly popular in academic circles these days, so it took some courage and moral rectitude for the individuals and the institutions to publicly take the pro-Israel position that they did and to call out the ASA for its misguided judgement.

     How that happens – how an individual, or how an organization, an institution, is able to make that choice, to do what is right, to say what needs to be said even if it is not popular, even if it is a singular voice – how that happens has always been something that is fascinating to me.  Obviously you need a certain amount of courage and confidence.  But I think more than anything else it has to do with a moral sensitivity, a simple understanding that some things are right, some things are wrong, and that when something is wrong you have a responsibility to speak out, to do something about it.

     To me that has always been one of the defining qualities in the character of Moses, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  Consider for a moment the position that Moses finds himself in.  Here he is, appointed by God, to be a spokesperson for God to the Israelites, and also to Pharaoh.  We already know he doesn’t want this job.  Remember in last week’s portion when God first asks him, Moses’ immediate response is לא איש דברים אנכי – I am not a man of words!  I can not do what you are asking me to do.  And then in this morning’s Torah portion it is clear Moses hasn’t changed his mind, reminding God that he has already tried once, and it didn’t go well – “the Israelites wouldn’t even listen to me, so how are the Egyptians going to listen to me, ואיך ישמיעני פרעה how will Pharaoh listen to me?!”

     But God does not take no for an answer, and despite his protests Moses finds himself, standing with Aaron, outside of Pharaoh’s throne room.  Put yourself in Moses’ shoes at that moment.  The door is about to open, he will be ushered into Pharaoh’s presence, he is going to have to say something to Pharaoh that Pharaoh doesn’t want to hear, and he himself doesn’t believe he has the ability to say.  But he does it!  He opens the door, he walks towards Pharaoh, and he delivers God’s message – “Slavery is wrong.  You Pharaoh, are not a god, you are a man, just like me.  You cannot keep my people in slavery.  They must be set free.”

     It was a powerful message, and it expresses values that are so familiar that we take them for granted.  But I will tell you that was not a message that Pharaoh had heard before.  In fact it may be that Moses was the first person in human history – ever – to stand up, to speak out, and to proclaim that message of human dignity and freedom.

     You know in the Jewish community we tend to be straight shooters.  We say what we mean, and we tell it like it is.  That is why 5 minutes after meeting an Israeli they will ask you what your salary is.  That is also why your bubbe will tell you that she doesn’t like what you are wearing and she doesn’t like your girlfriend.  It is why meetings in Jewish organizations can make you crazy.

     But it is also why, I think, Judaism has produced so many visionaries in so many fields over the years.  You couldn’t have had an Einstein, or Herzl, or a Ben Gurion, without that impulse that when you think you know what needs to be done, or said – you do it, or you say it, even if everyone else disagrees, even if everyone else thinks you have lost your mind – you still have a responsibility to say the words that need to be said, and to do the things that need to be done.  

     Most of us in our lives will not need to worry about walking into a Pharaoh’s throne room, preparing to deliver a message that a King does not want to hear.  But by opening that door Moses created a path that we can all walk on, in fact I would argue that we are all responsible for walking on.  It is not an easy path, but it is a sacred one.  And a very Jewish one.  When we are on it our steps should not falter our convictions should not waver, our determination should not wane, and perhaps most importantly of all, our voices should not be silent. 

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The Bible’s Liberal Politics

Each year on Christmas Day the New York Times runs a short phrase at the top of its front page, in green lettering:  Its Christmas – Remember the Neediest.  This is a reflection of a traditional religious idea – on days that are set aside to remember and reflect, to be glad and grateful, to be sensitive to the blessings we have in life, we should remember those less fortunate, and in that remembering make sure to do something to help improve their lot in life.

In Judaism this value can be seen in the connection of holiday celebrations and the giving of charity (צדקה).  On Purim and Passover we are expected to give to the needy, and in modern times the High Holy Day period has become one connected to a variety of charitable appeals, from the synagogue’s annual to Israel Bonds and just about everything in between.

This impulse without question goes back to the Bible itself.  In the Hebrew Bible we are warned again and again to care for the marginalized – the orphan, widow, and stranger.  Those who cannot care for themselves, who need some extra help to live a proper and dignified life.  It is ironic that in today’s polarized political climate, with so many conservative groups so closely identifying with the Bible and their understanding of its values, the initial impulse of the text was both progressive and what we would call today ‘liberal.’

Consider the following biblical concepts:  there should be a sliding scale fee for poor people who need to access the sacrificial system in Jerusalem (Leviticus 5);  financial transactions should be legislated and regulated (in terms of charging interest (Exodus 22 and other places) and in terms of the full remission of debt every 50 years (Leviticus 25)); a persons of means is commanded to return an item a poor person gave them as a loan guarantee if the item is essential to that person’s dignity and comfort (Deuteronomy 24); and the list could go on and on.  On the macro level, it is clear that one of the Hebrew Bible’s overarching concerns is the prevention of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.

As holidays come and go in our various faith traditions, we are reminded in our celebration of those days to not forget the needy.  The Bible would extend that message, for in its hundreds of laws as well as in its central values is a message – the needy should not only be remembered on sacred days, but on every day.

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The Real Hunger Games

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the Hunger Games:  Catching Fire continues to be one of the highest grossing movies of the season, the New York Times this week ran an article about the need that reality show producers feel to continue to ratchet up the stakes of their televised ‘games.’  The Times article reported that while filming a French version of the popular American show Survivor a contestant was killed.  We are still a bit too civilized to show the actual death on air, but for how long?  The sad truth is that the death will raise the show’s ratings, not the opposite.  It seems that the gap between Suzanne Collins’ (author of the Hunger Games trilogy) fictionalized future world where the government uses televised death games to keep a restive population under control and our own present day is not that great after all.  Anybody out there surprised?

And as I type this the NFL, our true modern gladiator sport, is wrapping up its regular season and preparing the country for the playoffs.  In a season where the public eye has turned more and more towards the dangers of the game, how debilitating it is for so many players long term, and the immediate danger of repeat concussions, the public appetite for football has never been higher.  Revenues for the league are expected to top the 25 billion dollar mark this year (yes that is with a ‘b’), and the dark secret is that as we cover our eyes to avoid watching the horrendous collisions on the field we spread our fingers so as not to miss a single big hit.  

As a rabbi working in Baltimore (and a football fan in my own right) I know that the true religion in town takes place in a cathedral filled with 70,000 screaming fans dressed in purple on Sunday afternoons.  But I also know that long ago Judaism eschewed the trial by fire of the arena for battles of the intellect.  In many other ancient cultures the coming of age ritual was of a physical nature – the young man had to survive alone in the wilderness for a period of time, or go on his first hunt.  Judaism transformed the physical trial to a ritual of the mind and spirit, studying sacred text and publicly participating in a communal service.  Note there are no winners and losers – instead, success is predicated on a young person’s willingness to put in the time and effort, by doing so showing him or herself, and the community, that Judaism will be a guiding force in that young person’s life.

Without question one of the reasons the NFL has become so popular is that our children are raised on sports from a young age, many of them from the time they are 3 or 4 years old.  It is no accident that as religion becomes less and less popular, sports becomes a more and more important part of family life.  In conversations I have with parents wrestling with this tension I always remind them of one fundamental fact:  almost without exception their children will not be playing sports in any serious way after they are 20 or so years old;  but they will be Jewish for the rest of their lives.

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The Ignorance of Boycotting Israel

The announcement this week that the ASA, a respected national academic organization, has decided to boycott Israeli universities, is yet another example of the bizarre and unbalanced way that the world at large views the Israeli-Paletinian conflict.  Much has been written over the last few days about how out of kilter, short sighted, and unbalanced the ASA’s position is (read articles by Wieseltier (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115961/american-studies-association-boycott-israel-travesty), Dershowitz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.563920) , and in today’s NY Times, David Brooks (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/20/opinion/brooks-the-tragic-situation.html?ref=international&_r=0).  Each article is well written, acknowledges that Israel does make mistakes, and points to the challenge of fully understanding  a situation that has a tremendous amount of moral ambiguity, all messages the ASA obviously needs to hear.

My challenge to the ASA would come from another perspective – that of their own academic integrity.  There is a classic philosophical structure used to examine an issue – one side proposes a thesis, the other an antithesis.  The two sides compare views, argue their points, and ultimately come up with a final position that reflects both original positions called the synthesis.  One would expect that academics are familiar with this exercise.  One would also expect that academics would thoroughly familiarize themselves with any issue they are preparing to ‘publish’ on.  Would any academic with integrity publish a paper on a topic without researching the topic in a serious way?  Hard to imagine.  And yet that is exactly what the ASA has done here.

So it is surprising that a group that prides itself on academic rigor, on a connection to the world of the mind, thought, logic, and knowledge, produced a position about a complicated and multifaceted issue without doing their homework.  That Israel is not perfect we all know and admit.  But to believe that Israel is entirely immoral, that the Palestinians (and other Arab countries) have no culpability, that this is not a two way street, that tragedy is not experienced on both sides of the equation, is simply ignorant.

Academics should know better.  Next time they should do that homework.  After all, that is what they demand of each other in the Ivory Tower.  Why leave those standards behind when they walk out into the real world and weigh in on an issue that truly matters?

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A Holocaust Dream

The haftara reading from this past Shabbat (Parshat Va-y’hi) is one of the most devastating texts in the entire Bible.  It describes the once great King David on his death bed, obsessed with the wrongs that have been inflicted on him during his life.  With his dying breaths he recites a manifesto of revenge to his son Solomon, literally telling him to kill all of the old enemies that plagued David in the course of his life.  What a tragic ending for a great but deeply conflicted hero!  At the end of all things, seeing only the hurts and disappointments, remembering only the enemies, feeling only anger and bitterness, wanting not release, but revenge.

Of course we all know people who live their lives in a similar way.  Not with the same level of anger or desire for revenge, but viewing their years through the lens of a tragic or hurtful experience and focusing on that to the exclusion of all else.  It can be many things – a divorce or a death, a ruptured relationship, an unfulfilled career, a failure in business.  Some people come back to that moment over and over again, reliving it, wrestling with it, reflecting on it.  It becomes the defining moment, the particular narrative that describes their lives, at least in their own eyes.  And in this way a tragedy becomes even more tragic.

Now to the title of this post.  Like many Jews, I have been learning and thinking about the Holocaust since I was a little boy, when I first encountered the subject in Hebrew school.  But last night, for the first time in my life, I dreamed about it.  There was a long, hospital like corridor.  I was walking down it, one person in a long line, being guided towards some distant destination.  In my dream (as can happen in dreams) I knew what this was, I knew that we were being sent to a sorting area, that many of us would be killed immediately, while others would go to a labor camp.  There was an inevitability, no thought to turn and run, to fight or rebel.  Just to walk forward.

I was with family and friends, and we were dressed elegantly.  There was a child I knew up ahead.  He had gone too far in front of his parents and he rounded a corner.  He was gone.  I knew the time was drawing near, and I wanted only one thing – to see the people that I loved one last time.  Just a glimpse.  To see them in this world, in sunlight, with perhaps a gentle smile. 

I woke up and lay still in my bed.  In the quiet of dawn my mind needed to draw itself out of the dream world, to come back to the reality of the present day, my life, this world, the safety of people I care about.  Some hours later now, sitting and typing this post, looking out the window at a beautiful blue sky and a bright morning, I am still haunted.

In a way I suppose we are all haunted by the Holocaust.  Whether we know it or not, feel it or not, it is something that is under our skin and somewhere in our subconscious minds.  I think the challenge that comes hand in hand with that fact is to not let ourselves become David like.  To not define ourselves as individuals, or as a people, by the tragic and unimaginable events that took place in Nazi Germany.  

Time itself may aid us in this task.  There are few left now who experienced the Holocaust first hand.  Within a few short years they will all be gone.  Then the task will fall on us to remember and recall and reflect.  But also to balance the sense of tragedy with other triumphs, both before and after.  Experience gives us many lenses to use to view this world, our lives, our people.  We should not lay aside any of them.  But we also should not use one to the exclusion of all others.

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Mumbling, Praying, or Both?

We Jews tend to be a garrulous people.  If you’ve ever been to a worship service in a church, you know that there is almost a hush in the room, a feeling of reverence and awe as people wait quietly for the service to begin.  In shul, it sometimes takes us a couple of minutes – full minutes! – to get the crowd quiet enough to even begin the service.  People talk, laugh, comment, walk in and out, and do it all again – and that is after they’ve ‘quieted down’ and the service has begun.  I admit that people are fairly quiet during the sermon, but that might be because they are sleeping.  Lets face it – by and large Jews are by nature noisy – we are kibitzers, from a long line of kibitzers.  And we wonder why the young people at the service make so much noise in the back of the sanctuary!

A talkative service environment is nothing new.  Find a traditional siddur and look at the brief description before the amidah.  Often it will say תפילה בלחש – prayer recited in a whisper.  In other words, even during our moments of silent prayer we are expected to be making noise, mouthing the words quietly, but just loud enough so that they can be heard.  We do come from a long line of ‘God-talkers.’  Abraham argued with God.  Moses did as well.  Job followed in their footsteps.  Hannah, the sages’ paradigm for prayer behavior, prayed quietly to herself, but her lips moved the entire time.  If you’ve ever davened in a traditionally oriented minyan you know that people are constantly mumbling various and sundry phrases from the liturgy, voices rising and falling as this or that word strikes someone and speaks to their spirit.  It can sound a bit confusing, even intimidating, but listen for a while – the voices weave together to form a pattern.  This is an old conversation with God, carried out by individuals in the context of community, over thousands of years.  There is a sense of familiarity – we’ve done it before, many, many times.  

I worry sometimes that that sense of familiarity is being lost in the liberal Jewish community.  We are still pretty darn good at kibitzing with each other, but we’ve become less and less comfortable kibitzing with God.  If you’ve ever lived in New York City you’ve spent a fair amount of time on elevators with people you don’t know well, or at all.  The silence in an enclosed elevator car can get pretty uncomfortable, even oppressive.  What to do?  Make conversation!  Comment about the weather, ask about last night’s game, whatever it might be – just say something.  A simple breaking of the quiet not only makes people feel comfortable, it makes them feel connected. 

So it might seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to say, but I’d actually like a bit more noise during services, especially during the moments of quiet prayer.  After all, if there is one thing Jews have learned over time it is that a little mumbling can go a long way.

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