Category Archives: Beth El Congregation

Transmitting Tradition

This appeared in today’s (1/19) Baltimore Jewish Times –

A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next.  This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs, and their struggle, in each generation, to bring children into the world.  The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult.  And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.

That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some four hundred years after Sarah and Abraham lived.  At the beginning of Parshat Bo Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt.  Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground.  “Go, worship the Lord your God!,” he says to Moses and Aaron.  But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an after thought.  “Who are the ones to go?”  Moses’ response is clear:  “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters…!”  And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise.  “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!”  (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).

So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone.  It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment.  Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness.  But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.

Of course we know the end of the story.  As the plagues rain down Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse, men, women, and children.  In this way Moses averts yet another crises in Jewish continuity.  There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus, and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren.  Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, books, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, summer reading, Uncategorized, winter reading

Spiritual Multitasking

While most of Baltimore gears up for the Ravens in the playoffs, true baseball fans will tell you that it is now less than 2 months before pitchers and catchers report to begin the early spring training season.  One thing that will make that start especially interesting this year is the presence of a rookie player from Japan by the name of Shohei Otani who just signed with the LA Angels.  He is the rarest of rare breeds in modern baseball – a two way threat who can both pitch and hit.  At one time in baseball, and even in other sports, it was common to have “two way players.”  But today common wisdom dictates the opposite, and that it is not possible to do two things, and to do them both extremely well.  We will see if Otani can be the exception to that rule this year in Major League Baseball.

I will confess to you long before he throws his first pitch or hits his first home run that I do not have high hopes.  There is a classic talmudic statement that Rabbi Loeb used to quote all the time – tafasta meruba lo tafasta – if you grasp too much, you end up with nothing.  It seems to me that in today’s world specializing is the key.  The problem is we have trouble remembering that, particular in an age when we talk all the time about ‘multi-tasking.’  Multi tasking means that you are doing multiple things at the same time.  A harmless, or at least relatively harmless example is talking on the phone with someone while surfing the internet at the same time.  I suspect many in the room have done exactly that at one point or another, and if so I can almost guarantee you that while doing it you’ve missed something the person on the other end of the line said.

A much more dangerous, but unfortunately probably just as common example comes from texting and driving.  Current statistics suggest that over %60 of traffic accidents today are at least in part caused by the driver using a cell phone.  %60!!  Research in the field of psychology shows that in general multitasking impairs cognitive function.  When people multitask at work production goes down.  When students multitask while studying for an exam they don’t do as well.  It seems that the human mind works best when it focuses on one thing at a time, finishes with whatever that thing is, and then goes on to the next thing.

But as a rabbi I am more in the human soul business than the human mind business, and so I wonder – does spiritual multitasking have the same kind of negative impact on our souls that cognitive multitasking has on our minds?  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you thinking about that question this morning, and to begin investigating it by looking into something that happens in the story of Joseph that we’ve been reading the last few weeks, and that finally comes to its conclusion in this morning’s portion.

You’ll remember the narrative.  Joseph has become the most powerful person in Egypt next to Pharaoh, and the famine that he predicted by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams has come to pass.  And then fate seems to come in to play.  Joseph’s brothers, who betrayed him and sold him into slavery, come looking for food for their families.  And although Joseph recognizes them, they don’t know who he is.  This is his opportunity, the moment he has been waiting for!  He has his brothers in his power, and he can take his vengeance upon them.

Of course we know the end of the story.  What happens?  Ultimately he decides to forgive his brothers, and that leads to the moving reunion with all of the kissing and hugging that is the opening of this morning’s portion.  But the decision doesn’t seem easy for Joseph, and in fact he toys with his brothers, and is quite cruel to them, before finally deciding, in the end, to let go of the past and to move forward with mercy into the future.

Commonly commentators explain Joseph’s behavior as having to do with his emotional state.  He both loves his brothers and hates them.  He wants to be merciful, but at the very same time he wants revenge.  He is trying to forgive, but he is having a difficult time letting go of his anger over what happened.  And so he wavers back and forth, sometimes acting cruelly with them, and other times being merciful and kind.  But there is a curious scene in last week’s Torah portion that might explain Jacob’s behavior in another way.  The Torah tells us that at one point, when his brothers still didn’t know who he was, Joseph served them a meal.  And here is the odd way the Torah describes that meal:  וישימו לו לבדו  – they served him – Joseph – by himself – ולהם לבדם – then they served the brothers by themselves – ולמצרים האוכלים אתו לבדם – and then the Egyptians by themselves.

Picture this scene in your mind for a moment!  There are three rooms.  In one room Joseph’s brothers are eating their meal.  In another room the Egyptians in the household are eating their meal.  And then in a room in between, Joseph sits by himself, eating his meal alone.  Because he is an important Egyptian his brothers may not eat with him.  But as powerful as he is, the Egyptians won’t eat with him either, because they know he is a Hebrew, and according to the Torah the food of the Hebrews is not acceptable to Egyptians.  So he has to eat by himself.  To use a classic Yiddish expression, Joseph is nisht a hin un nisht a her – he is neither here nor there.  He is a little bit Egyptian and a little bit Hebrew, but because he is a little bit of both – because he is a spiritual multitasker – he ends up being neither.

And I think the reason he ends up reconciling with his brothers is because he comes off of that neither here nor there fence, and he chooses to be true to his roots and to understand himself as a Jew.  What is the very first thing he says to his brothers?  אני יוסף –  I am Joseph!  This could simply be revealing his identity to his brothers, but it could also be understood as  a moment when he fully embraces his identity as a Jew.

So maybe it is no coincidence we are reading Joseph’s story every year right around the time that Christmas comes along.  It is a time of year when we Jews can feel pulled by the culture that is all around us, and conflicted in terms of how we should relate to that culture.  Research is showing that more Jews are dabbling in Christmas.  If you will, they are spiritually multitasking.   Some are exchanging presents on December 25th, some are having parties on that day, some are putting up trees in their homes and decorating them.  And as Christmas itself  becomes more and more secular it becomes more and more enticing because it gets easier and easier to say ‘it isn’t a religious thing, it is just a nice time of year.’

Joseph sets a good example for us all.  We should not be sitting on the fence, we should not be a bit of this and a bit of that.  We should not be spiritual multitaskers.  We should be Jews.  Christmas is a wonderful day for our gentile brothers and sisters, but it is their day, not ours.  Let them celebrate it and God willing find true meaning in its message of peace and hope for a better world.  But let us remember that we have our own distinct and proud religious heritage, and our own beautiful spiritual realm in which to dwell.  May we find meaning in it this weekend, and every day of our lives –

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Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Crossing Over Into A New Year

I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces.  These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.  The huppah is one prime example.  The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so.  While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.

Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life.  A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community.  The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.

There are many other examples.  It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).

Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another.  Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again.  There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time.  Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free.  Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever.  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives.  New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah.  It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast.  But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives.  We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold.  More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time.  2018?!  That seems like an awfully big number.  Wasn’t it just the 1980s?  Am I really that old?  Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?!  New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life.  And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.  Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out.  There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”

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Kehilah

Kehilah is a term the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue began using a couple of years ago to describe congregations.  The sense of the word is ‘sacred community,’ going back to the Torah’s use of the word as meaning a ‘gathering-together’ for religious celebration.  But the idea of a sacred community is more than that.  Sacred communities  support their members, sometimes during difficult times, sometimes during moments of joy.  In sacred communities people show up for one another.  Being part of a sacred community means that your phone might ring if you haven’t been in shul.  It means that you feel safe in a class environment to ask questions or make comments.  It means that you feel respected, valued, and cared for.  It means that you have a home away from home, and it also means that you feel part of something that is greater than you.

Over the last months I have been privileged to witness the ideal of kehilah at work over and over again.  I’ve also discovered that when I see sacred community in action I feel enormously proud of the congregation I serve.  During those moments Judaism becomes a living entity, a binding force between people with a common goal and vision – to bring God’s presence into their lives, their synagogue, and their world.  Let me give you just a few examples.

A beloved member of our Shabbat morning minyan lost his wife and life partner at a young age.  They lived some distance away, a drive of 30 minutes or so, much of it over back roads.  It was important to the family to complete a traditional seven days of shiva, but they knew it would be difficult to make the minyan because of where they lived.  But members of the kehilah – the congregation, the sacred community – showed up each night, making sure that the requisite ten were there for the bereaved husband to recite kaddish for his wife.

Here is another example of kehilah at work.  I received a note from a woman who had lost her husband.  She was not initially a member of our congregation, but after her loss began coming to our morning minyan.  The note she sent expressed how touched she was at the welcome she received.  People greeted her each day, sat with her, helped her follow the service, made a spot for her at the breakfast.  Many shared with her their own experiences of loss, and talked with her about how helpful the minyan had been in terms of navigating that terribly difficult moment of their lives.  She knew each morning she had a community with which to share her burden.  She knew she would be greeted by a smile (really multiple smiles!) every day, and that people would ask how she was and if she needed anything.  She knew she was not alone in her grief, and that she could honor her husband’s memory through the structure of our tradition.

There are countless other examples.  Dozens of congregants ‘schlepping’ to Washington to honor our Associate Rabbi, who was receiving a significant national award.  The pride our Friday night regulars feel each week when the bar or bat mitzvah of that Shabbat chants the kiddush.  The work our members to do give back to the community in meaningful ways, whether through in-house blood drives or participating in food delivery for a local food band on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Congregants who help to lead shiva minyanim, or host congregational events, or come in to affix labels to prayer books.  In each case there is a sense of mitzvah, of the performance of a sacred deed, and in each case there is connection to kehilah, to sacred community, and through the kehilah to tradition, to history, to faith, and to God.

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Capital Ideas

Following the news this week about Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital I am reminded of an old story about a Jewish court presided over by a wise Rav who can see all sides of an issue.  After one side presents its case to the Rav he proclaims ‘you’re right!’  The second side then presents its view of the case, in direct opposition to their opponent’s.  After carefully listening, the Rav proclaims ‘you’re right!’  A second member of the court leans forward, saying ‘But Rav, they can’t both be right.’  At which point the Rav exclaims ‘You’re right too!’

So it is with Israel, Jerusalem its capital, the Palestinians, the (largely moribund) Peace Process and the way these issues are viewed by the right (in a political sense) and the left.  Both sides are a bit right (in the sense of being correct!), and both a bit wrong.

First the left.  The left is correct in that Trump’s move leaves Israel more isolated internationally, and potentially more exposed to violence internally.  En masse the western nations Israel would like to have a good relationship with have sharply criticized this week’s announcement, to include Great Britain, France, and Germany.  The left is also correct in that they continue to wrestle with the moral compromises required to maintain control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank (now nearly 3 million strong).  And they are right when they say that the continued buildup of settlements over the green line is making it harder and harder to one day separate the two peoples.

But they are also wrong.  It no longer makes sense to say that this declaration will destroy the Peace Process.  There is effectively no Peace Process at this point, and although you can point to the Netanyahu administration to explain this, the truth is the Palestinian leadership is just as much to blame, if not more so.  Besides, as many on the right have pointed out, the US refrained from making this change for decades, and it never helped to move along peace negotiations.  A better message from the left would have been ‘Yes of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and we are grateful the US has formally recognized this.  But we also want to remind everyone that if Israel is ever going to have a chance at peace with the Palestinians we have to be prepared to accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.’  The fact that the left is unable to say this is an illustration of how ideologically inflexible the lines have become, and of how difficult it is for people to view these issues with a sense of complexity and nuance.

The right, for its part, is also correct and incorrect in its reaction to Trump’s announcement.  They are of course correct in stating the obvious – Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that is not going to change.  Everyone knows that, even the Palestinians, so why not just come out and state the obvious?  They are also correct in pointing out that the Palestinians have been poor peace partners, never wasting an opportunity to waste an opportunity.   Last (but certainly not least) they are right when they remind us that Israel is commonly held to higher standards and expectations by the international community than just about any other country on the world scene.  All true.

But the right is wrong as well.  They are conveniently ignoring the real problem, which is the rapidly growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.  Trump’s statement does nothing to help Israel cope with that existentially threatening elephant in the room.  It certainly does not advance the idea of peace in any way, and it also in all likelihood removes the US as a trusted broker in any future negotiations that might take place.  If you have a US embassy in Jerusalem surrounded by one large territory that is controlled by Israel but is majority Palestinian in terms of its population, that is not a good place to be.  And yet it sometimes seems that Bibi and his right leaning cabinet are determined to take that path.

At the end of the day Jewish groups both right and left have almost overwhelmingly embraced Trump’s statement, as they should.  How can we reject something we have waited so long to hear?  But it is difficult to swallow so much snake oil just to get to the sweet taste at the bottom of the bottle.

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