Tag Archives: Genesis

Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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Finding the Way to Sesame Street

In many ways I grew up in two neighborhoods at the same time.  On the one hand there was my real neighborhood, my parents’ home sitting at the corner of Leroy and Matthews Streets in Binghamton NY.  That neighborhood was typical for a small town in upstate NY in the 70s.  The homes were filled with white middle class folks, hard working and honest, patriotic, salt of the earth kind of people.  All of the children went to public school, and of course to get to class we walked the half of a mile or so there and back, even from the time we were in first grade.  As far as I remember my family was the only Jewish family on the block.  A diverse group we certainly were not.

But then there was my other neighborhood, a place I visited pretty much once a day, everyday, beginning in 1969, at least up until 1973 or so.  Many of you have also been to that neighborhood, or traveled there with your children or grandchildren.  It is located in a place that was probably intended to be New York City, on a street named Sesame St, and all kinds of colorful characters lived there.  There was Kermit the Frog, the soft spoken and existentially challenged talking frog, often musing philosophically about life’s difficulties.  There was Big Bird, the 8 foot tall bright yellow canary like creature, enthusiastic about life and gregarious in a naive way.  Of course Ernie and Bert,  the Odd Couple-like roommates, one orange and one sort of mustard colored (that was Bert!).  And then you had my favorite muppet, Oscar the Grouch – after all, what could be cooler than living in a garbage can?!

But in a way what was most amazing about Sesame Street was the diversity of the human characters on the show.  You remember kindly Mr. Hooper, Big Bird’s friend, who ran a sort of corner grocery store.  There was a Hispanic family, Maria and Luis, and their daughter Gaby.  There were black characters, white characters, Asian characters and handicapped characters, old and young, every type of person you could meet on a New York street, and in any one skit from the show you might see any or all of them interacting with one of the colorful muppets.

The Sesame Street neighborhood was very different than my actual neighborhood, but I had a sense from watching the show that there was actually a big world out there with all kinds of people in it – I just felt I had not yet had the opportunity to meet them.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up as an adult living in a neighborhood much more like the one I watched on TV growing up than the one I actually lived in.  Becky and I live in a development out in Owings Mills, with probably 40 or 50 homes.  About half of the homes have African American families living in them.  Maybe one quarter of the homes are Jewish.  There are some interfaith families.  There are Indian families and Asian families.  And even plain old Caucasian families.  It is the kind of neighborhood that feels very familiar if you grew up watching Sesame St.

And I’ve been thinking lately about how lucky I feel to live in such a diverse neighborhood.  When you work full time and professionally in the Jewish community you can sometimes loose track of the fact that not every place is like Pikesville.  You spend so much of your time with Jews, so much time thinking about Judaism and Jewish issues, so much emotional energy worrying about the Jewish community and Israel, that you actually need a reminder every once in a while that it truly is a big world out there, that there really are all kinds of folks in the world.  And by the way that God cares just as much about them as God cares about me and my family, or any neighborhood in Pikesville or down the Park Heights corridor.

There is a well known debate recorded in the midrashic literature between two great rabbis, Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.  Their disagreement centers on one question:  what is the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that sums it all up? Were I to ask you that question, my guess would be that many of you would cite what we commonly call the golden rule verse, the principle expressed in Leviticus 19, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  After all, that seems to pretty much capture it, and if you follow that one verse at the end of the day you’ll probably be following many of the other laws in the Torah.  And that in fact is the verse Rabbi Akiva chooses – love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, is the Torah’s most important verse.

But the other rabbi, Ben Azzai, disagrees.  He cites a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse far less familiar than the golden rule verse, and on the surface a seemingly strange verse to choose as the Torah’s greatest.  It is the very first verse in the 5th chapter of Genesis, and reads like this:  זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of the line of Adam.  And what follows is a genealogical list that goes on for 31 verses, one of the classic biblical passages that people often make fun of – this one begat this one who begat that one – I think you get the idea.

At first glance Ben Azzai’s choice seems puzzling.  How could a verse that says ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ trump the great golden rule of the Bible, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’  But if you think about it for a minute or two, Ben Azzai has a point – יש לו על מה לסמוך – he has a leg to stand on.  Because ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ is based on a fundamental principle – all people come from the same place, in fact, according to the Torah, all people come from the very same person, or persons.  And if that is indeed the truth, then there is no one person better than any other.

I doubt very much whether the creators of Sesame Street were familiar with that midrashic discussion between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva, but I have a feeling they would have liked it.  Back in 1969 when Sesame Street came on the air for the very first time ideas like diversity, and ethnic and racial tension, and the struggles of the inner city were just as much a part of the conversation as they are today.  No question that is one of the reasons why the show depicted a neighborhood where there are all kinds of people from all kinds of places and backgrounds, but where everyone treated everyone else with respect, and where everyone was understood as being on the same level as everyone else.

You will probably remember the Sesame St theme song.  I am not going to sing it for you, but the lyrics of the first verse are as follows –

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away – On my way to where the air is sweet – can you tell me how to get – how to get Sesame Street?”

It is a simple lyric, and a song for children, but we all remember it.  Maybe one of the reasons is because the question at its core is this:  how do we get to a place where all people are respected and treated equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, color, or age?  Sesame Street began to ask that question all the way back in 1969, and we haven’t figured out the answer yet.  But we have to keep looking, and we also have to remember that the search for that place continues every single day –

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In the Image of God

this the text of my shabbat sermon from from 10/11/15

It might seem perfectly logical to us that the Torah begins where it does, with a description of God’s creation of the world – the literal beginning of everything. After all, why not, as we often say, ‘begin at the beginning?’ But there is an interesting argument presented by the sage Rashi in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, that it might have made more sense to begin the Torah in the book of Exodus. His reasoning is this: if the Torah is a book for the Jewish people, then why not begin it with the history of the Jewish people, which is the Exodus from Egypt?

And the question that Rashi raises stems from a long standing tension in Judaism between what I would call ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism.’ Big words, but fairly straight forward in terms of their meaning. Universalism is the idea that God is God of the entire universe, and that God cares about all people and all nations. Particularism is the idea that God is particularly interested in and concerned about the Jews and the land of Israel. These ideas can work together, but often they are perceived as being in conflict with one another. To get back to our original question about the beginning of the Torah you might think of it like this – if the Torah wanted to emphasize particularism – God’s relationship with the Jews – then it would begin with Exodus and the story of the Jewish people.

But it doesn’t. And by intentionally choosing to begin Judaism’s most sacred text with the story of the creation narrative, the Torah from the very beginning reminds us that the God we are in relationship with as Jews, is also the God that created the entire universe and all people. Think for a moment of the way the Torah describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. It is clear in the text that Adam and Eve are not Jewish, and not just the ‘parents’ of the Jewish people. Instead they are the parents of all people, and that would included any faith tradition, any race, any color, any ethnicity. The one thing the Torah is very clear about is that Adam and Eve were crated in God’s image – בצלמינו כדמותינו says the Torah – in our image, in our likeness. And since Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, it means by extension that all people – again, regardless of race, color, religion – are created in the image of God. This idea is central to Judaism, a core tenet of the faith, and is arguably the most important idea that Judaism has ever introduced to the world.

I had a professor in Rabbinical school who once said ‘the Torah doesn’t tell you something you don’t need to know.’ What he meant by that is the reason it says in the Torah לא תגנוב- ‘don’t steal’ – is because, as we all know, people will steal. They have to be told not to. And I think the same idea is operative with the creation story and Adam and Eve. We need to be told that all people are equal, we need to be reminded that all people come from the same place, precisely because it is something we too often forget. Intellectually most people understand the idea, but emotionally they get caught up in all kinds of things. They are afraid of what they don’t know and understand. They will take the radical actions of a small minority and ascribe it to a larger group. They will stereotype, so that certain groups will become in their minds innately lazy, or violent, or stupid, or money hungry. Sometimes these kinds of comments come from a place of hatred or small mindedness, but I believe most of the time they come from a place of ignorance, of simply not knowing enough about the other to fully understand who that person is and how they live in the world.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen two public examples of that kind of ignorance from presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. As you are probably all aware, the first comment was in response to a question as to whether Dr. Carson believed it was OK for a Muslim to be president of the United States. And he said he did not think a Muslim should be president. He was pretty roundly condemned for that statement, as he should have been. But the fact that he made a statement like that and has nevertheless stayed so high in the polls should make those of us in the Jewish community very uncomfortable. Because there is no difference between saying a Muslim should not be president and saying a Jew should not be president. It is exactly the same thing. It is singling out one religious group, and saying that group does not deserve to have the rights that are extended to all other groups. That statement directly conflicts with the values that this nation was founded on, and it is also clearly against the core value in this morning’s Torah portion, that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God.

Dr. Carson’s second statement, just a couple of days ago, was more directly connected to the Jewish community. In a bizarre conversation that conflated questions about gun control with the events of the Holocaust, Carson seemed to suggest that if Jews had had guns during the Second World War, Hitler would not have been able to kill the six million. I would imagine from that statement that Dr. Carson has no knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or of the armed Jewish resistance that fought against the Nazis throughout the war.

Now perhaps Dr. Carson is just a fish out of water, and he hasn’t yet learned the political game of talking and saying nothing, or at least of talking and saying nothing that will get you in trouble. He is obviously an intelligent man, I don’t think there is a question about that, but in some ways that makes his comments even more disturbing. When taken together, what he said about Muslims and Jews shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way the rights of minorities must be vigilantly protected. I would hope that anyone running for president would remember that the United States is a country made up of many races, many ethnic groups, and many faith traditions, and that one of the greatest strengths of this country is the way those various races, ethnicities, and faith traditions have learned to live together and respect one another.

There is a classic statement in the Talmud attributed to the sage Hillel: אם אין אני לי מי לי – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני – but if I am only for myself, what am I? The Jewish community here in America has done very well with the first part of Hillel’s phrase. We strongly defend ourselves and our rights, and we are intensely vigilant for even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, as we should be. But the second half of the phrase – if I am only for myself, what am I – is also crucial to the integrity of the Jewish community. First of all because Torah teaches us that we have a duty as Jews to care about others, especially those who are marginalized. But the second reason is because if the rights of one minority group are challenged or threatened, then the rights of another minority group won’t be far behind. So when misguided statements are made about Jews, we must speak out, and we do. But when misguided statements are made about other religious or ethnic groups – our responsibility to speak out is just as important. This morning’s Torah reading reminds us of the power and importance of that idea. Let us remember it throughout the year and beyond –

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The Turning – A New Year

There is a lovely phrase in Genesis 24 that describes the moment when Isaac walks out into the fields, just before he sees Rebecca for the very first time.  “Isaac went out to wander in the fields, לפנות ערב, just at the turning of the evening.”  There is an English word which captures this same sense – the gloaming, meaning dusk, or twilight.  That moment when it is neither day nor night, but for an instant or two, somewhere in between.  Or perhaps impossibly both at the same time.

Of course there are many turnings.  From youth to old age, from summer to fall, from night to day, from waking to sleep and back again.  And from one year to the next.  All different, but each with a sense of shifting, or perhaps drifting is a better word.  Between two states, or worlds, or times or seasons.  All with the sense that there is a flow, some great river-narrative that we all are riding, with foaming rapids and quieter eddies, with rocks and branches, its powerful current implacably moving us along.  It is a narrative less of words and more of moments, of winds and mountains, of laughter and tears, of feeling and deep blue skies and cold snow and fish swimming in clear water.  The ‘turning moments’ remind us that we are part of a grand story, ancient and wise and beautiful, that has gone on long before we entered it, and will continue long after we leave.  And there is awe in that thought, and perhaps comfort too.

A last thought, from the music always cluttering my mind.  The Grateful Dead were masters at finding the ‘turning moments’ of the musical journey they wove when they played on that great stage of life.  Order emerging from chaos, from a cacophony of notes a melody, from deep space a recognizable place to tread, to rest one’s weary soul.  When did those songs emerge?  How?  One song bleeding into the next, keys and scales clashing impossibly, but somewhere one note and we all knew.  A gentle swell of recognition, a new song, a new moment, a new place.  We arrived together.

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