Monday, October 31, 2016

A Torah Spin Consultant for the President- Advice to Candidates

A Torah Spin Consultant for the President- Advice to Candidates

We are only two weeks from these very critical elections. With all the dirt flung, some people might take this as a failure of democracy. Instead, it is the price one pays for a society in which all are free, all are of basic human worth, as distinct from a society in which all the people are tools or objects to be used. It has been defined for us by Churchill:” Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a few weeks, we are heading for election, in what must surely be the most bizarre election in modern American history. We probably have to go back to a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was selected to be Vice President and the head of the Republican party bemoaned: "Don't any of you realize there's only one life between that madman and the presidency?"  Of course, there are always surprises, such as the same madman getting the Nobel Peace prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

The accusations and curses are flung wildly, right and left, but that is how things get done in a democracy. In Russia, they have a better method—Putin’s enemies die mysteriously of radioactive poisons. In North Korea, the ruler has his uncle killed by a missile. Clean, clear politics.

However, every politician needs a political advisor. Both candidates show that they need a better advisor, a better spin doctor. This is the in thing. the spin doctors, for spin control, to keep things from flying off the handle.

So, I will be a spin Rabbi. Every good politician needs a Rabbi for spin control. So, I am offering my services to both candidates. Keep in mind, I make this offer only once in 4 years.
Dear   Candidate-Hillary or Donald
I recognize a major issue for both of you in the future administration. You both have Jewish families. You now need an official rabbinic political consultant.
I offer my services as Secretary of Torah Consultation. I recognize that this may infringe on the first amendment but we can deal with that later, since you both have said other things that may infringe on the Bill of Rights.

 I bring with me the depth of political advice found in the Torah, the heritage and traditions of the Jewish people. I offer 3500 years of collective experience in government.
First, are you sure you want to do this?
There is, in classic history, the idea of the “ Great Man”. –Now, “Great Woman”. A successful democracy will naturally allow the best possible person to rise to the top. A Washington, a Lincoln.

But I offer you Mashal Yotam!,Jotham’s Parable from the Book of  Judges( 9:7-21)
About a century before King Saul, one man, Avimelech, connived to get himself appointed King after he massacred 70 of his brothers. One brother survived and told the gathered notables the following story:
8 “Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’     9 “But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how gods and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’        10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’     11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’       13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes gods and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’           14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’
15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’  This is exactly what happened, as the ruler destroyed his own people.
My dear candidate, are you going to be the “ Great Man “ or “ Great Woman” or be the thornbush?
If you are concerned with image, I suggest you turn to the first Book of Samuel, to the first image candidate, King Saul, who was also the first fallen leader. Saul is tall, and extremely attractive as King, yet Samuel must remove from him his royal authority. God informs Samuel "Do not look upon his appearance or his tall countenance-for I have rejected him, for not as a human sees do I see, for a human sees only what is visible to the eye, but I see into the heart."
Image is not all that counts. The leader must first and foremost love his people.
Moses must confront a people who sinned and betrayed their national trust, in worshipping the Golden Calf. God offers to wipe out this useless and stubborn people; Moses asks to be wiped out of the pages of life and history instead.  Moses' people have given up on him, yet he would rather be erased form history than give up on them. (Exodus 32) He didn’t want a legacy—he wanted what was good for his people.
Elijah , on the other hand, is a leader who feels betrayed and let down by his people. He complains to God. "They have abandoned you, your ideals, your teachings. I, only I am left to be loyal. " ( I Kings 19).
 Moses, who was ready to fight God and die for his people, is rewarded with 40 more years in office. Elijah, who would die for God, but is against his own people, is fired from office.
Mr. or Mrs. President, are you in your office because you love the office, or because you love your people?
There is the other side, of course. A leader must recognize the difference between loving his people (or her people) and pandering to the whims of a fickle public.
Disraeli, that most masterful of politicians over a century and a half ago described the Achilles' heel of democracy."We live in an age of prudence. The leaders of the people now generally follow." Disraeli knew it long before the advent of the Harris polls, the Gallup polls, or the focus groups.
Mr. Candidate, I refer you to some advice found in our  Midrash Rabbah, some 1500 years old. The text envisions Moses talking to the seventy leaders, representatives of the tribes, this council which is ancestor to our idea of a Congress  
Moshe Rabbenu,  the first political liberator, told his council the following fable:
"The snake one day was engaged in a debate with itself. The tail of the snake complained to the head, "Why do you go first all the time. I, too, want to lead for a change." The head gave in to the demand. "Go”, he said .The tail went straight into a ditch, and dragged the head through the mud; it next went through a fire, and scorched the head; it finally went through a thicket of thorns, and scarred itself completely.   " This is what happens when the  head follows the tail. So it is in politics, when the small listen to the great, all is done well; when the great follow the small, the great fall on their faces." ( Deut. Rabbah)
This may sound undemocratic, but even in our democracy, we have a Supreme Court which is required to be unresponsive to the people.
A great leader cannot allow the fear of losing votes to dictate his decisions. Look back again to King Saul, who began his career illustriously, until he, too, like so many, failed in office. Samuel is ordered by God to remove Saul.
Saul fails to follow Samuel's instructions and lamely replies, "I was afraid that the people were going to leave me" and " I was afraid of the people."  That was his great mistake--he followed the polls too closely.
In both cases, the right to rule was taken from Saul, because he was intimidated by public opinion.
Surely, you might suggest, that this is a democracy--doesn't the leader have an obligation to do that which the people choose?
So, once again, on the other hand, this too, is in the Torah, far we are  told, "Acharey Rabim lehatot--the decision goes by the majority.
This too, is the rule in Jewish tradition, but there is a caveat: Lo tihyeh aharei rabim  leraot-you shall not follow the majority to do evil.. The vox populi,  the voice of the people, is vox dei, the voIce of God, only when it is morally correct .
For nearly a century, American democracy accepted slavery. That did not make it correct, and President Lincoln led the nation through Civil War to make that clear.
But, Mr or Mrs. President, you must show even greater courage on your part to be a true leader. It is not enough to not be afraid of public opinion. A true leader must show existentialist courage, the courage to do that which is right, against all odds. Think of a Churchill and the dogged determination to fight Hitler at Britain's weakest moment despite the advice of his fellow ministers.
A true leader will stand up, even to God, if the cause is right.
Abraham stands up to God. Moses stands up to protect his people from God. The prophets too, and the Rabbis.
Don't look for the honor and prestige of the position. It's no great honor.
 An ancient midrash informs us that, when God sent Moses to his task of liberating his people, he warned him ."My children are stubborn, rebellious, and troublesome . You must accept that they will curse you and throw rocks at you." (Ex. Rabbah 7:3)
You can be sure that our great leaders, like Washington or Lincoln, could easily sympathize with Moses..
There are the same traits that a true leader must cultivate, traits that may seem to contradict each other. For all the bravado that a leader must display, it is wrong to believe  too much in yourself. A Hasidic  master, Moshe of Kabrin, once warned "Do not think that God chose you because you are a great man. Does a peg on the wall, on which the king hangs his hat, boast that its beauty attracted the King's attention?"
Mr.or Mrs. Candidate, remind yourself, then, that, at most, you are the peg on which history hangs its crown for the next four or eight years
Finally, even the wisest and most infallible of leaders must be ready to consult the experts for advice. How do we know this?
When God creates Adam, the first human, he says "Naaseh Adam , Let us make Adam. " The Rabbis ask the question  "Who is "Us"? To whom is God talking?
They suggest that God is talking to his angels? Why does he need their participation.?
To teach you that, if God, King of all Kings, needs to take advice from others, you ,too , President, Emperor, or Prime minister, had better get plenty of good advice.
Keep one thought in mind and you will never go wrong .The sages of the Talmud warn anyone who wishes to be a fudge, or leader that he must always envision two things: a sword drawn at his bowels, ready to impale him, and the maws of hell ready to swallow him, at the slightest mistake.( Sanhedrin 7a).
Mr or Mrs.. President, with that encouraging thought, as you take upon yourself the mantle of leader of the most powerful nation on this planet, I am at your service to give you all the " on the other hand" answers that you will need. Good luck, and may God bless America.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Where are You? Taking a Stand as a Jew- A Message to Young Jews

 Yizkor  Yom Kippur
Where are You? Taking a Stand as a Jew
I address my words today not for the benefit of most of us here, but as Moses said, “Those who are not here with us today,” for the future, our children, grandchildren, especially those in high school and college, where the ideas that will shape the future are being taught and debated.
To speak of the future, I need to go back in time, to1951. My father had served as the Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt and he decided it was high time to leave Germany.  He challenged the community to decide where they belonged—in the land of bloodshed and sorrow, or in another, greener land.  He recalled the contest of Elijah against the priest of Baal, the contest that ended with the words which we use to end Yom Kippur- “Hashem Hu Haelohim”—The Lord, He is the only God  It was a decision that people made after hearing Elijah’s challenge,” How long will you keep hopping from branch to branch.” Stop sitting on your suitcases, he told the community, and move on.
Fast forward over 65 years. Most of the Jews moved on to Israel, America, Canada, and elsewhere, but a small community remained. The small community prospered, and it was enhanced by the flow of newcomers from Russia and even Israel. There were new Rabbinical schools, a Jewish Museum in Berlin and a world class memorial to the Holocaust.
But over the last year, there has been a chill. It is not near the blizzard for Jews in France and Belgium, nor the freeze for Jews in Britain, but the surely start of a winter chill for the Jews in Germany. The country has absorbed a million refugees from the Middle East, primarily from Syria, without recognizing that they brought with them the entire baggage of ideology that was the hallmark of Baathist rule in Syria for decades- it was a population indoctrinated for decades on the hatred of Israel and Jews. The good intention was to undo the shame of the Hitler years. The consequences have been quite the opposite of the good intentions.
So  Jews have been attacked by anti-Semitic vandals from among the refugees. To make matters worse, the reaction among Germans against the refugees has given rise to movements that also harbor ancient hatreds of the Jew. The mood is suddenly darker. One of the spokesmen for the Jewish community, Daniel Killy  concluded that Jews are no longer safe in Germany.( Jerusalem Post, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Feb 2016).
Europe’s Jews have discovered, to their great dismay, that the left, the bastion of tolerance and acceptance, has adopted a fashionable anti-Zionism that serves to cloak   open anti-Semitism. The British Labour Party, just for one example, was shocked to find that many high ranking members openly espoused clear hatred of Jews.
It is very much possible then, that my father was right-- 60 years premature-- but right. How long can the Jews of Europe keep bouncing form branch to branch?
But that is Europe. America is different. We are strongly rooted, well-entrenched. It is even said that Jews are everyone’s favorite minority. We have no worries. I thought so myself for many years--until recently.
No, I do not worry about a resurgent Nazi or Klan. That is an aging and shrinking population by any demographic measure, a population plagued by drugs, family collapse, and dwindling numbers.
However, I do worry about our campuses, so I address my words to our youth, even if very few are sitting here:
To my dear grandchildren, to your dear grandchildren:
You are going to be educated among the best and the brightest.  The great American universities are there to open your minds to new challenges, competing ideas, ideas that will be annoying and uncomfortable but are essential to shaping future visionaries of this country. That is what you are promised.
However, for a long time now, we have witnessed a phenomenon termed the” Closing of the American mind.” Ideas are now marched through a narrow gate of permitted discussion.
For example, there is the concept that no one from the mainstream may appropriate ideas or elements on an oppressed minority. Borrowing of the cultural trappings of another is now considered an act of imperialism.  This is a very fascist concept, first developed by Richard Wagner, when he denied that the Jew could possibly ever understand what it meant to be a German.
The trend today is to set up “safe zones” and “trigger warnings”, so that no one be offended by any concept or statement. Except for you, my young Jewish collegiate!
Thus, Jennifer Rubin reports in the Washington Post, ” Oh, but Jewish students are a different matter. . .  the fact that none of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity seems of concern to the offense police tells us much about their agenda. Some minorities are more deserving of protection and respect, apparently.”
The most harrowing and threatening to our youth is the attempt to shut down any discussion of Israel which does not label it as “apartheid, racist, colonialist.”  It comes from a new concept on the campuses of “ intersectionality” that claims that all oppressed peoples, a broad umbrella, that covers every ethnic group and every gender-oriented group, no matter what the differences may be, must work hand in hand to oppose “ white, male privilege” and imperial colonialism.  It is particularly the Palestinians on campuses here that have successfully planted themselves as the core most oppressed group, and have created the atmosphere in which, you, the Jew, male or female, are guilty of “white, male privilege”.
With this comes an attempt to shut down Jewish expression.
Look at what is reported by the Washington Post. In the first half of  2016, “on more than 100 public and private colleges and universities with the largest Jewish undergraduate populations, . . . 287 anti-Semitic incidents occurred at 64 schools during that time period, reflecting a 45% “over the first half of 2015.
 What atmosphere will you now confront?
Jennifer Rubin summed up, “As a result, Jewish students engaging in Jewish activity having nothing to do with Israel — wearing their Jewish sorority or fraternity letters, displaying Star of David necklaces, walking to Hillel for Sabbath dinner — report fearing for their safety and wellbeing. “
Here are the claims thrown at you. You need to know them and know the answers, but don’t expect anyone to understand you.
You are told that if you identify with Israel you stand accused of genocide. Arabs, including Palestinians, are being killed by the tens of thousands by fellow Arabs, aided by Russia, and Iran, but if you fail to demonstrate against Israel on the campus, it is you who stands accused of genocide.
You are told that you must support the boycott of Israel to protest the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. You will not be told that this boycott platform calls openly, not for the withdrawal from the West bank, but the withdrawal from Planet Earth.  Thus, one of the key leaders of the movement declared,” OK, fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state. . . Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself. (Ahmed Moor)
You are told that you are colonialists, that you are European invaders and the  uprooters of indigenous peoples. International law recognizes the right of colonized people to rise up and even engage in acts of terrorism. You are told that as a colonizer, you, or the Jewish state you admire has no right to defend itself. Not in the West Bank or in Gaza, and certainly not in Tel Aviv.
You are not told, because it contradicts the party line, that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East. Yes, not just because European Jews stem directly out slaves brought from Judea to Rome, 1900 years ago, but because, until the past two centuries, most Jews lived, and had lived in the Middle East since Abraham and his family. You are not told that the nations of the Middle East would have been congratulated by Hitler for creating  Judenrein states.
You are not told that your “white male privilege” came at the expense of being spat upon as “impure “ in the Middle East, that you paid a special tax for the privilege of breathing in Moslem societies and that you survived at the mercy of the Christian rulers of Europe,  that you were equally despised, for centuries in both Europe and the Middle East. No, rather, because your families have succeeded in this country, you are guilty of “privilege.”
Why, you might ask, should we not just close the door on those who shout at us and block our meetings and deny speech to anyone not toting their party line, dictated now directly by Palestinians here in the United States.? Just ignore it?
Because, quite understandably, we, as Jews, are used to siding with the oppressed, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To be on the side that calls for justice is in our skin, in our DNA. We have been through so much; we want to be on the side of righteousness. That is where our Jewish youth stand.
Historically, we have been there. But be aware, that the very revolutionary movements to which we belonged spat us out the minute it was expedient, be it in the former Iron Curtain, and yes, in the movements for Arab nationalism, as well.
If you are going to be involved in justice and the struggle for the oppressed, do so, because you believe it is right, but do not believe that you will be beloved for it as a Jew.
Now, you might ask, why should we really care? After all, it is very natural for students to be burning idealists and get carried away with the fervor. They grow out of it as they meet the real world. Wasn’t I once on the front lines of a campus protest in the heyday of protests? I grew up, I matured.  Bill Clinton grew up, and became a centrist President. Isn’t that what always happens? Maybe not!
I address my concerns to you, my next generation, because ideas have consequences. The campus protester today becomes the thought leader tomorrow. Those young protesters will become future elites, they will hold positions of influence, it is inevitable. But they will bring with them the attitudes towards Jews and towards the Jewish state that they learn today. Today’s American leadership, on both sides of the aisle, support Israel strongly. Tomorrow’s leaders, however, will have been influenced by the likes of Omar Barghouti and the radical Palestinians on campus. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can shape whether this country continues to underwrite Israel’s security. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can affect the well –being of the Jewish community here, too.
You must be ready to take a stand. You must say, like Abraham,“Hineni”, Here I am.
I want to leave you with these words of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. He was passionate fighter for the cause of the Jewish people, without let-up, to the point of hounding President Truman till  Truman could no longer stand to see him. Nevertheless, his drive helped seal the United States’ recognition of the new Jewish state. He composed a poem of the history of the Jewish people. I will read only the opening and closing verses:
I stood with Abraham in his lonely vigil
And read the destiny of my people in the stars.

I was with Isaac when he built the altar
Where his faith and devotion were put to test.
He went on to list the key events of Jewish history, from the Exodus to the rebellion against Rome to the Holocaust and the rise of Israel, and then he concluded, with a challenge to you, and all of us:
Shall I leave them now?
Can I part company with this immortal band whom I love?
They have become too dear and precious to me.

They are bone of my bone,
Flesh of my flesh,
Soul of my people.

They are my people.
Their quest is mine.

They will live within me
and I will live with them.
So, my young collegiate, this is your people, this Yom Kippur Day, and always. Here is where you belong.

Where are you ? Growing Up!

Kol Nidre 2016
Where are you ?  Growing Up!
Many years ago, longer than I care to count, I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I had an Israeli room-mate. He is now a professor of American literature at Tel Aviv University, but then, he was just starting his academic studies in that field. He had a very great command of written English but wanted to work on his spoken English. His problem was that when he tried to speak to me in English, I would answer in Hebrew, because I wanted to work on my command of the language.
One day he asked me a question about a book by the great novelist of California, John Steinbeck. He was stumped for the meaning of a word that he could not find in any English dictionary.
Here is the quote, about the last dying words of the family patriarch, Adam.
No dictionary had that word.
Of course, I took one look at it and told him, “Sure, it's Hebrew for" He will rule over it." ”
Luckily, I had read the book and knew that the protagonists were modernized versions of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel. What my roommate had to discover was that this entire American classic was a paraphrase of the story of Adam & Eve and Cain and Abel. Hence , the name, East of Eden, since that is the land of exile of Adam and Eve and their ill-fated sons. I will get back to this shortly.
I  return to our theme, which I have used as a refrain through this year’s High Holy Day services, ”Where are you? “. This is the first question of all history, asked when the first human being has failed a simple order, not to taste of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. We understand that in seeking that fruit which was good to the eye and the taste, there lay within it, the taste of evil. This first question of conscious  existence results in the first reply of all human beings, actually two replies. The  first response is shame and hiding. Lay low, don’t get caught. The second response is to pass the buck. Adam blames God for giving him Eve, Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit, Eve blames the snake, who has no one left in the Garden to pass the blame on to.   Therein, we have the foundations of ‘civilization and its discontents’.
One would hope that the next generation had learned from the parents. But it is the same story
Cain had been passed over—“minchato lo sha-ah”-- God favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though he offered it first. It’s just that Abel’s offering was better. It is all too human to resent the better, even though, or perhaps even more so, when the better is one’s own kin, one’s own brother. Cain is downcast, he is the eternal sore loser. We know what he does to his brother. If God’s question to Adam is” Ayekah” Where are you?  his question to Cain is “ “Ay Hevel  Achichah”, Where is Abel, your brother?. Same question,” Where is?”
At least  Adam’s answer was “ I was afraid,”; at least he recognized a failing. But  Cain completely shrugs off responsibility—outright chutzpah- I don’t know- “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
 We understand that  he really means- You, God, you failed, you were supposed to be his keeper, You passed me over, you made me angry, you are at fault!
Here is the human condition in bold face. I am never responsible for what I do. I am never responsible for what happens to me.
Now, back to Steinbeck. Here is the great twist in Steinbeck's novel. The Bible’s Cain is a miserable murderer, while the Cain of Steinbeck's novel understands the very point that the Bible’s Cain failed to grasp:
 “And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? ,”Surely, if you do right, There is uplift, the is redemption, good. But if you do not do right,  Sin crouches at the door; - that is , sin is seen as a beast of prey, like a lion, ready to pounce. Its urge is toward you—it wants you. It desires you, “v’tmshel bo”, Yet you can be its master.”
The very last line has the key word that runs through the Steinbeck book: “Timshel”. Adam tells his wayward son that he still has the possibility of choice. That is his great blessing. Cain didn’t get the point, but Steinbeck’s protagonist did. Steinbeck was positing what for us, as Jews, is a basic tenet.
We have the ability to make choices in life. ‘U bachartah bechayim”, You can choose life, “  That is stated explicitly in the Book of Deuteronomy.  In Steinbeck’s novel, the protagonist, of Irish ancestry, must go to Chinese immigrants who have gone to, of course, to a Jew, to a Rabbi, to learn what the message conveys.
This idea that we can choose, that we can take control of our lives, is something that, as Jews, we assume to be taken for granted. Yet, it is many ways a radical concept, an innovation in the scope of human history.
The more common narrative has been: fate. You recall the descriptive Greek myth of the  three Fates who weave the cloth of life and determine one’s end. It was said that they controlled even the fates of the Greek gods. Even the gods are doomed.  The popular notion of Karma, adopted from Hindu thought, speaks of a causality of previous incarnations.
 Even we as Jews, aren’t fully free from it. We speak of “gilgul neshamot”- a reincarnation of souls from one generation to the next, so that what happens now is a payback for what happened generations back.
Or even God-himself-herself-seems to make that point.
When we read the 13 attributes of God, we are reading from God’s promise to Moses of forgiveness. However, our version, which we chant repeatedly during the service, is not the version Moses recorded!
The original states,“ Nakeh lo yenakeh, poked avon avot al banim al shleshim v al reveim.”
“He will not acquit the guilty, but will visit the sins of the father’s upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation.”  Oh, Oh- This sounds like Fate, this sounds like Karma. If I am miserable, it is my grandfather’s fault. Blame him, not me.
So where is that freedom of choice? The prophets preach the theme continually that just because it is destined doesn’t mean it will if the people change their course.  Ezekiel spelled it out “ Just because the fathers ate sour grapes, the children don’t have to pucker their lips.” So when our sages edited our service, they recognized that periods and commas and vowels don’t exist in the Torah text, and they simply put a period in the middle of the sentence:
“ Nakeh!”- I will acquit! Period, end of sentence. The Rabbis have now emphasized that God is unlocking the door for us, if we will just grab the door-knob of life. That is now engrained in the  core of Jewish thinking.
But this idea has been roundly attacked, throughout the ages, and even more so in our day.
Just last month, a leading journal, The Atlantic, published an essay by Steven Cave ( Atlantic Monthly, June 2016) titled “ There’s no such thing as free will- but we’re better off believing in it anyway.”
“ The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable.”
He goes on to say that we need the illusion, nevertheless. It’s not a new thought - one of the great thinkers of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin of Switzerland, 500 years ago, posited that we cannot determine if we are damned or saved—only God will make that decision. However, we had better behave like we are the saved.  Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea- the Swiss became excellent at making cheese, chocolate and watches and holding our money!
But it’s not our idea.
When I lived in Israel, back in the 80’s, I organized a lecture for one of Israel’s prominent philosophers, Yeshayahu Lebowitz.  He put the difference between a human and a rock in this stark example. If put a rock on a ledge, balance it just off center, it must fall. Must!  A law of physics. It must fall.
Put a human on the ledge, at the same angle. We really don’t know if that human will fall. That human might make a decision, a choice, to move back. The rock can’t.
Every modern ideology has tried to lock us in the role of the rock on the cliff. That is at the core of Nazism and of Communism.  This is what I learned from my father, who experienced both world views from the inside, from Nazi prison and Soviet exile. This is what he wrote, in 1937, a year after spending time in a Nazi prison in Berlin:
“It has been an accepted thesis for decades within all trends of our culture that all events occur independently of human will. Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought.”
In the avant garde world view of his day , we are all seen as the products of  our class, we are the products of our genetics ( then it was called race), or we are the products of our infantile conflicts. We, ourselves, are nowhere in this equation.
He summarized in his essay:
“Indeed, the trap of fatalism is so tightly wound that it leaves absolutely no room for action on the part of human will and consciousness.”

A year and a half later, he was again in a Nazi prison and shortly afterwards, in exile in the worker’s paradise of Stalin.
World War II and the Cold War were both waged to deny the legitimacy to either world view.
Pitiably, this view has crept back into our society.  It has crept in to higher academia and the universities, where I read of administrations encouraging the splintering off of ethnic groups as if they must be incompatible. Professors must issue “ trigger –warnings” and universities must create “ safe zones” where  thoughts can be walled off and students segmented. For their own good! For their own safety!  College counselors confess that they have never had so many students seeking emotional help because, in some way or other, they felt themselves damaged by something that was said by a classmate or an instructor.
I don’t understand. My father had communist professors and he had fascist professors in Vienna of his day. There were no trigger warnings. He had to listen to both sides, because the presumption was that he was old enough to deal with it.
All this goes back to this assumption that we are dictated in our thoughts and in our actions because we belong to one gender, or we belong to one economic class, or we belong to one artificial racial category. That was how Jim Crow worked and that has now been taken over by the people who are supposed to shape and educate a leadership that is supposed to be blind to all of this. It is well-documented, for example, that in what should be the color-blind institution of higher education, Asian-Americans are systematically discriminated against in admissions. It used to be Jews-now it is Asian-Americans.
I apologize that I digress off to the world of college, but it is that world which is shaping our future thought leaders.
It is time to take back our sense of personal control, of command of our lives. Any of you remember the old IBM punch cards. Do you remember that they said,” Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” It became a slogan for rejecting to be hole-punched and categorized. So, to take that metaphor, we need to reassert ourselves in our lives, our personal dignity. We are responsible for what we do and we are not cogs in a machine nor some arbitrary mix of DNA and bacteria.
I want to take my thoughts back to my beginning and the original version behind to Steinbeck’s East of Eden
Our Rabbis question why the brothers fight. The basis for Cain’s attack is intentionally left blank. In other words, when you read the Hebrew, you see that something has been erased. What was erased? The Rabbis said, “ Why do men fight?”- Over honor, over possessions, and over a woman-- yes in their case, over their own mother, Eve. They were Freudian before Freud. They then go on, though,” Does it matter, really, who is the better of the two? Does it matter if one was less righteous than the other? Does it matter that Abel provoked Cain. No. Cain did what was wrong and the mitigating factors are irrelevant. Responsibility is responsibility.
We conclude though, with a saving thought—whether either Cain or Abel was righteous or villainous is irrelevant to us, as human beings. You see, neither Cain nor Abel, we are told, have any living descendants. We, all humans, are the descendants of the third son, born to the first pair of humans, Seth. Yes, we are given the message: we are not fated to be either the pitiable Abel or the merciless Cain.  We have a third option for us, the door is open, the way is open. “ Timshel Bo”- You can do it. You have the ability to control your passions ,your urges, your drives. You can drive life, instead of being driven by it. That is the message of Judaism and that is the message of this season. May we choose wisely, and, as Moses said,” Choose Life” this year and every year, Amen.

Where are You? Our question for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah

RH 1st Day 2016

Where are You?  Our question for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah

If you have noticed, we have some yellow banners up on the corner at Fountain with the question, “Where are you?” Our pitch line, if you saw it, is” Be here with friends.” I hope, indeed, that as you sit here, you truly feel that you are with us here among friends.

However, I must admit that this pitch line was not originally to pitch High Holy seats. It goes way, way back, to the dawn of human consciousness.

To get into this theme, I want to tell first you the story of courage. It is told of a wealthy, wealthy billionaire, that bought a palatial estate, and invited all his friends and acquaintances to see his 1500 acre estate, his mansion, and the largest, most gigantic swimming pool imaginable. However, he had it filled with alligators.
He turned to his guests:" Dear Friends, I have discovered that I was able to acquire my wealth only through courage, only through the guts to take on impossible challenges. I prize courage so greatly, that I challenge any one of you. If you have the guts to jump in and swim across, and get out alive, through my alligators, I will give you anything you want--my house, my ranch, money."
The guests stood in absolute silence, astonished, and then, all proceded to the house for lunch. Suddenly, they heard a splash, and looked back to the pool, to see one of their company swimming straight across the pool.
The billionaire was astonished. He pulled the fellow out, wrapped him in his towel, shook his hands, and said. "Amazing! I am a man of my word. What courage! What bravery! Tell me what ever you want and I will give it to you."
The fellow stood there chattering and said," Tell me, who was the dumb idiot that pushed me into the pool."
A little cynical perhaps. However, our response to the question “ Where are you?” assumes that each and every one of us can actually take a stance and not wait till we get pushed into action by forces beyond our control.
Rosh Hashanah, by tradition, is associated with the creation of the world. 5777, if we count the days in the Torah exactly, I always add the caveat, ”plus minus some several billion years. However, 5777 years is a very accurate date from the start of human written recorded history, and it was recorded for the very first time in the region in which the Biblical Adam lived.
Our question then, “ Where are you” reflects the first question ever asked in written records. Adam and Eve have failed a simple command, “ Don’t eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We have the first recorded account of human failing. Then, Adam and Eve hide. We now have the first human record of lying low, keeping a low profile so as not to be found out. That is when the first question of humanity is asked,” Where are you?”
We now have the first human record of waffling, fabricating, weaseling, of shifting the blame. This is moral cowardice of the first degree.  5777 years later, and we humans still give the same answer. Do we have a better answer?
In the Torah account, 20 generations go by till there is someone ready to give a different answer. That is in our Torah reading of these two days. Abraham does not need the question; he has the answer. God calls his name, and he responds, “ Hineni”, “Here I am.”
There is one thing that Jews understood, throughout the ages—that life, reality, makes demands of us, demands that are no less than the demand to offer up Isaac on the altar. Our teachers and their followers understood that to be a Jew was to be up on the altar, to be on the Akedah, to stand at the edge, for the sake of what was right and sacred. The answer to “Where are you?” is “Hineni.” It is to stand at the transition from child to adult. It is the heroic stance in life.
So, who is the true hero?
I am personally, highly impacted by the experience of the Holocaust. Both my parents survived, my father, in exile in the Soviet Union, my mother, by passing herself as a Pole in Warsaw. I have found, that over the years, that fact of Jewish history has shaped me and continues to shape me.
From time to time, I go back to my father’s papers and writings. There is one, published sixty years ago, written less than a year after the fall of Hitler, with the Title:  Hero or Saint?
He looked looked at the history of heroism among the Jewish people. We don’t need to look at the Israeli army of the past decades for example. There is the obvious, the stories of the Macabees at Chanukah, of Bar Kochba taking on the Roman Empire.
Even in later ages, when we had been taught that Jews were meek and timid, we stood on the front lines, through the Crusades, the Chmielnicki massacres, into the past century when Jews served in numbers beyond their proportion in population in the allied forces during World War II.
Then, he went on:
“Our tradition and our history books ignore this fact.  Physical heroism, the cult of the hero, is unknown in Jewish tradition.
"The glorification of might, the veneration of power, do not belong to the way of the Jew, even when it is in the service of such legitimate causes as the defense of the persecuted and oppressed.
“Honoring only physical heroism is strange to us, because this honor goes hand in hand with physical strength and power, and the devil, too, can do the same. The criteria for heroism in Judaism is not in conquering the enemy, but in conquering one's self, for it is greater than conquering foreign countries,something identified with raw power and stained with blood. Therefore, the traditional history of the Jews saw the leading Jewish personalities as greater than heroes, and called them "Rabbenu "our teachers--and Zaddik-Righteous.
“Our will is set, since antiquity, towards peace and our dream is so vastly different from the military culture of Prussia and knights in armor." Great is peace, for it is for the sake of peace that the Torah, God's teachings were given, to bring peace to the world, as it says: All her paths are paths of pleasantness, and all her ways are peace."
The Bible, our foundation book, is filled with military heroes, yet we remember them for much more.
Abraham is ready to fight for the oppressed, and goes out to war. But he is a hero, because he is ready to quarrel with God for what is right.
Jacob fights with an angel but makes peace with his brother.
Moses strikes down a slave master, but is chosen because he is a tender shepherd.
The villain is the man of force, the one for whom the expression of power is paramount.
The hero then, is the hero of the will to do just, the moral hero.
Do we not have any heroes anymore?
 It’s not a new lament
 The prophet Ezekiel lamented the lack of courageous figures in his day, not military figures, not soldiers, but moral heroes. There was no one “haomed baperetz”, no who was able to stand in the breach of the walls to defend his people, not against invading armies, but against injustice and corruption. And even take a stand against God.!
The German playwright, Berthold Brecht, fifty years ago, wrote " Woe to the country that has no heroes", to which he then replied, "Woe to the country that needs a hero". His country, he knew, had found its hero, its Adolph Hitler. The rest, we know, were merely following orders.
Today, we have the celebrity, and the celebrity, basically, does whatever he or she wants.
We used to live next to a video store in this neighborhood. One day, dozens of cars appeared, the street was full of paparazzi, and then many, many police cars. What was the fuss all about?, I asked one of the policemen.
Paris Hilton, who was awaiting arraignment, had to return a video to the store. The police had to accompany her and so did the paparazzi. “
He summed up, “ Instead of protecting you from criminals, I have to protect you from  Paris Hilton!”
That is the world of celebrity.
Don't we have any heroes anymore?
There are real heroes in the world. They just don’t make it to the covers on the magazine racks in the supermarket line.
It has been 15 years since Sept. 11, of 2001, when 346 firefighters died trying to save the trapped victims of the Twin Towers.  In the intervening years since, thousands of American soldiers, volunteers all, have been killed or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But just as there is heroism in facing death, there is heroism in facing life.
I made mention of the survivors of the Holocaust. This congregation has been home to many. One of our veteran members, Joe Alexander, survived almost every concentration camp in Europe. Alex Satmary spent the war as a slave of the Hungarian army and then as a Prisoner of War in the Soviet Union.  Another leader here in the past, Harry Kotler,z”l hid his family in a ditch underground, and went out, day by day, from his hiding place, to forage for food for them in the open and return to save them. Another leader here, Max Cuckier, z”l had been a head of a partisan force. Frances Mandel, may she live many years, here, with her husband, Jack Mandel, of blessed memory, would have parties here to raise funds for programs in Israel, and all these people who had narrowly escaped hell would dance with all their might, right in this ballroom.  We had and still have many others such heroes in our midst.
To survive, to say yes to life, under such situations, to have the inner strength to make it from the morning to the night to the next morning again—that is courage, that is heroism. It was carried out by people that we have known who never received any medals of honor.
But just as there is heroism in facing the battlefield, and heroism in choosing life over death in time of horror, there is heroism in day to day life.
So, we have, in our sources, the implicit answer to the question the Rabbis asked question: “Aizeh hu gibor”, who truly is a hero, what do we Jews truly consider to be heroes?
The answer, that they quoted in the words of Ben Zoma, is: Who is mighty?” Aizeh hu Gibor--Hakovesh et yizro.” He who subdues his passions, and the proof, the Rabbi gave was from Proverbs (16:32):
"One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city."
This is in a nutshell what Judaism is trying to bring about in all of us. Warfare of the physical kind is sometimes, necessary, sometimes unavoidable, sometimes morally just and sometimes, it is a mitzvah. But we do not live in warfare all out lives. Our lives, day to day, are without guns and tanks—our lives today are, however, with cars and banks. Rather than raging against Al-Qaeda, most have trouble with rage on the road. A few have to deal with terrorist bombs, but most of us have to deal, on a daily basis, with greed, jealousy, rapacious appetites for food, for lust, for power.
So that is Gibor, a hero, “hakovesh et Yitzro”, who conquers his passions and drives.
 It is what the Moslems mystics, the Sufis call, “ the greater jihad”. The real battle, they taught,  is not against us infidel Jews or Christians; it is against unbridled infantile desire. If only the heads of Al Qaeda and ISIS would study their own scholars! The world would be so much better.
One of the great works on Jewish law is the Tur, upon which the Shulkhan Arukh is based. These are its opening instructions, upon which all the rest of Jewish law stands:
“ Be as courageous as the leopard, fly high like the eagle, run as swift as the gazelle, and be a strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in heaven.”
The sage, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, then goes on:
Be as courageous as a leopard. This is the first step to the worship of the Creator, for too often, one is afraid of carrying out his obligations to God because he fears those who would mock him. Thus said Rabbi Yochanan: May you fear God as much as you fear people.
Rabbi Meir was once asked ," Why did we Jews deserve to get the Torah." His answer was," We were" Azim"--we were brave. A courageous people deserved to receive God's word, and a courageous people could survive centuries of persecution. We are the spiritual and moral descendants of Abraham. Just as Abraham answered the call of God with, Hineni, Here I am, so may we be ready to answer the call in life, to make the right and just and necessary decisions in our lives. Amen

Shalom Rav- Great is Peace ( Thoughts after the funeral of President of Israel Shimon Peres)

Rosh Hashanah Eve 2016  

Shalom Rav- Great is Peace

According to an ancient tradition, it is on this day, Rosh Hashanah, that God created mankind, and in so doing, completed the action of Creation.
Do you imagine that it was an easy thing to create the first Adam? For everything else, God could easily say, “Let there be", but when it came to the first man and woman, he had to begin major pronouncements--Let us make. It is, as Rashi explains, the Royal We.  But it’s not enough just to say “take”. He needed dirt and clay, shaped and formed; he had to breathe life into him,no easy job.
Not only that, but our Rabbis note that by saying the Royal We, it is understand that there are bystanders listening to this. They go further, to explain that this is now taken up by a committee! Everything else is done by God as a loner. Not so when it comes to creating Adam!
Not only that, but do not imagine that heaven itself was satisfied with the whole process. Thus, it is said, when God was about to create the first man, the angels in heaven immediately began to argue. All is in harmony, and all are in accord with God up until he says, "Let's make Adam,humanity."
Now, they are split. One party demands,"Don't do it!" and the other demands,
 "Do it! " Psalms said " Lovingkindness and Truth came together, Justice and Peace kissed."(85:11). The Hebrew words used might mean kissed, but it also means
" collide"!  These values all collided!
Lovingkindness said" Create him, for he will be a kind and loving being!"
Truth said," Don't create him, for he will be all lies."
Justice said, "Create him, for he shall do justice."
Peace said," Don't create him, for he is only strife and contention."
What did God do?   He threw truth to the ground.
But the angels continued their quarrel and debate until God turned to them and said," Stop your  arguing! Na-asah  Adam." Adam has already been created."Not “ We will make man” Na-aseh: , but “ Ne’esah”, It has already been done. ( Ber. Rabbah 8:5)
What a controversial creature we are, that the angels in heaven themselves must disagree and that truth, God’s crown, is thrown to the ground.
This tonight is Rosh Hashanah, some 5777 years later, give or take a few billion. On this season of Rosh Hashanah, we hope to put aside that ancient celestial quarrel, and we hope to find some peace, Shalom, we seek just that trait which was so opposed to mankind, because mankind would be a creature of strife and contention.
I want, at this season in which we renew ourselves, to look at the word" Shalom", peace, to examine it from every angle.
Perhaps, as we proceed through this season, in our thoughts and in our actions, we shall succeed in convincing the angels that we, human beings, man and woman, are not all contention and strife, and that God did not struggle in vein, that we truly are worthy of this great and magnificent earth on which we live.
What is this word" Shalom"?
You may be familiar with the title song of a musical about Israel, "Land of Milk & Honey", with its explanation: Shalom, shalom, you'll find shalom, the nicest greeting you know." But Shalom is much more than a "nicest greeting".
As with every Hebrew word, it has a three letter root,shin-lamed-mem- wholeness or completeness-. It indicates shlemut- perfection.
In its Biblical setting, it was a a state of affairs, a state of well-being, tranquility, prosperity, and security. It's opposite, milchamah,  war, occurs when there is no prosperity, no tranquility, when things are incomplete. The word "milchamah"
 war, has its root, lacham, -- related to lechem-- to bread. When we miss our daily bread, for survival, we go to war.
Both Hebrew and Yiddish are  filled with words of Shalom- Shalom uvracha, Shalom aleichem, shalom bayit; has veshalim, mah shlomcha, shabbat shalom, shalom al yisrael. There is no shortage of applications for Shalom. -health, prosperity, absolute good, physical security; legal equity, submission, heavenly grace; kindness and mercy, friendship.
Shalom reigns as the paramount value in Judaism.
The Rabbis declared that " The world stands on three principals- truth, judgement, and peace-(Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel), and the Talmud adds--where there is justice, then truth has been vindicated, and peace prevails.
The making of Peace is different from all other commands, for of peace it is said, “Seek Peace and pursue it." With other mitzvoth, one can wait for the right occasion, but not so for peace; peace requires that we get up from our seats and go pursue it, seek it actively. ( Lev R 9.9)
For our sages, Shalom is a meta-value, it is the summit of all values .It is the name of God, the name of Israel, and the name of the  Messiah( Derekh Ertez Zuta Perek Hashalom).
It is the ultimate purpose of the Torah, as they taught us,"All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of Peace."( Tanhuma Shoftim)
When Jacob fled for his life he had only on prayer:--Ve shavti beshalom el bet avi: I shall return unto my father's house in peace.
Jacob, who would become Israel, sought only to return to his home in peace. What peace was he seeking? Peace with his brother, who was out to kill him and peace with his uncle who would cheat him, peace with his wives whom he would marry, peace among his children to come, and finally, perhaps most important, peace with God and with himself. During these High Holy Days, we shall seek peace and examine it in all its perspectives.
At the end of the Amidah, and also at the end of the Kaddish Shalem, there is a sentence from Psalms, which has become popular in recent years with a lively Israeli melody. It is "Oseh Shalom"—“May he who makes peace in the Heavens above”, where, the Rabbis explained, beings of fire and  ice exist side by side in harmony, “also make peace upon us and all Israel.”
But, we know that we can't wait for miracles. Jewish law forbids waiting for miracles. Therefore, our law codes direct us, as Jews, to work for peaceful relations among all nations, whether on the large scale, globally, or on the small scale, in the neighborhood, between Jew and gentile, between nation and nation, on the principal of " mipnei darkei shalom" ,for the sake of the paths of peace. We are taught that even when war is inevitable, we must first attempt the path of peace.
Yet it proves a difficult road to travel. There are foes that truly are sworn to destruction and to domination. There are foes that refuse any reasonable argument but who glory in self-destruction while seeking to destroy everyone else. There are real dictators who gas their own people. There are world powers that trod over others without a thought. We need to make that difficult balance, of fighting evil with one hand, while opening the hand of peace on the other, a difficult balancing act. God help us! We need the help.
We are also taught,  " Seek the peace of the City, for in its peace, you will find your peace."
The peace of Los Angeles is our peace, in her tranquility, we will find our tranquility.
We must pray for this city, and for this nation, for it is here, alone, among the nations of world, that so many different peoples, of so many divergent origins , have been  capable of living together in mutual tolerance and acceptance of their differences. This nation still is, in Lincoln's words, "the last great hope of mankind".
We as Jews need our peace. We always joke about the one lone Martian with a Yarmulka who builds two synagogues. " Mine, and the one I'll never set foot in." The joke sadly hides our deepest troubles. I mentioned Jacob whose twelve sons couldn't get along; we ended up with four hundred years of Egyptian slavery. Because the Jews of the land of Israel were split by hatred, we paid with two thousand years of exile.
We need our peace among ourselves. "Great is peace, that even if all Israel worship idols, yet when peace reigns among them, God says: I cannot wield power over them because peace prevails there.”( Gen R. 38). We must put aside our quarrels, and work hand in hand to survive.
What is the path to take, to get to world peace, to peace with our neighbors, to peace among Jews, to peace in the family?
We will find peace among peoples when each of us recognizes the truth, that we are all created to attain knowledge of God and knowledge of his ways, and apply them in our daily life.    Thus Maimonides promised." In that era there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife.The one preoccupation  of the world will be to know the Lord ( Hilkhot Melakhim 12.5).
A contemporary of his Abraham bar Hiyya, taught that,
"If each and every one shall love his fellow as he loves himself, then zealotry, hatred, and covetousness must vanish from the world, and it is these that are the cause of war and slaughter in this world."
It is echoed in a Chinese proverb which suggests the path we must take," If there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world."
It is inside ourselves that we shall find the root cause of peace. As Jews, we believe that we will find peace in ourselves when we recognize that we , ourselves, are God's creation, that each of us is a reflection, no matter how small, a reflection of God.
I must add to my thoughts an event from this week.
The past President, and one time Prime Minister, of Israel, the last of the founding generations, Shimon Peres, passed away this week. His funeral was held Friday morning, Israel time, and we watched it live feed on the internet till almost 2 at night, when we couldn’t hold ourselves any longer. Peres accomplished in his death, in a way, what he had worked for all his life. Under one tent there were gathered the leaders and high ranking dignitaries of the United States, Britain, France, and many other major powers. Moslem  and Arab countries sent representatives as well.
The one scene that moved me the most was to see Mohamed Abbas, or Abu Mazen, head of the Palestinian Authority, attend, and chat with Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the nasty speech Abu Mazen had delivered at the UN General Assembly just a week earlier.
Ofra commented to me, “ Who knows if Abu Mazen isn’t thinking to himself,” What legacy will I leave.” He has only a few years, maybe a decade, to go. Will there be such a gathering to eulogize him for his efforts to conclude a deal with Israel. Maybe, just maybe, God willing, he will want to  make that his great legacy, to finally bring peace to his people together with the people of Israel.(note- He had better hurry, as he just went through heart surgery ! ) As they say in Arabic, Inshallah, God willing.
The oldest words of the Torah to have survived the ravages of time are words found by archaeologists recently, words written nearly three thousand years ago, inscribed on a leaf of gold.
Only one thought could survive the ravages of time: It was the blessing of the priests the " Yevarechecha." We use it as personal blessings, on many occasions, at weddings or when we bless our children, and we use it to end the Amidah prayer every morning.
It is a  pyramid of blessings, a pyramid of three, then five, then seven words.
Yevarchecha H' Veyishmerecha
May the Lord Bless you and keep you
Ya-eyr H' panav elecha vichunecha
May the lord make countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you
Yisa H' panav elecha veyasem lecha shalom
May the Lord make his turn his  countenance  upon you  and give you peace.
May indeed, each and everyone of us be blessed with peace from God, peace within ourselves, peace within our families, peace in our synagogue, our community, our world. Amen. Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Thoughts for Labor Day 2016

Thoughts for Labor Day 2016

True confessions- I was once a socialist.

I lived in Israel in the 1980’s and worked as director of the Central Academy for Jewish Studies ( Hamidrashah Hamercazit L’limudei Yahdadut) under the Histadrut ( Israel’s labor union) at Bet Berl College. It was a very political position, as it was intended to bolster the image of the Labor movement to its significant religious population. The Labor movement had an image problem, as it had been seen as “ cold” or” ambivalent “ to religion. They had the best candidate in me, because I was not overly Orthodox, I had no prior allegiance with any wing within the Labor movement, and, as an American, I was pegged as neither Ashkenazi nor Sefardi, so I was safely neutral. That I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi was left unspoken. I stood at speakers podiums at Histadrut events with the heads of Israeli government and with the Chief Rabbis. On Pesach , I organized a strictly kosher for Passover seder, so that the head of the Histadrut could be quoted in the papers as saying that he had spent Pesach with the “ Reds”, Ha-Adumim” at Bet Berl.

As proof of my “redness”, I once marched in a May Day Parade under the red flag of Labor. And that march signaled the end of all redness in Israel, the end of socialism. It was the last march for May Day that the Histadrut organized in 1990, at which point also, the Labor Party distanced itself from socialism ( It was by then no longer a party composed of laborers, most of whom had shifted allegiance to the right-wing and free-market oriented Likud).

It was also the year that the Histadrut, holder of Israel’s largest industrial conglomerate, COOR, sold off its industries, because the Secretary General realized that making a profit and defending worker’s rights just wouldn’t work. This was after laborers struck against their own company, Sultam, and the workers held their own company manger as hostage. It would amount to robbing themselves in order to pay themselves. The industry couldn’t make a profit and the worker couldn’t get the conditions they needed.

 It was also the year that the Secretary General told the workers that they could not be protected in each and every situation. It was also when I was asked to create curriculum about the religious duty of everyone to work hard and effectively.

Even Kibbutz socialism is not what it was. I was chatting with a resident of Kibbutz Afakim, one of Israel’s largest, and in the past, most successful kibbutzim. Way back in the heyday of kibbutzim, everyone there  had a bicycle! Today, ownership has been privatized, profit taking is allowed, and everyone is more prosperous than ever. The grandson of one of the founders of Kibbutz ideology, Tabenkin, discovered that breakfast took too long and cost too much. He privatized breakfast. Everyone took their breakfast allowance, ate reasonably, pocketed the cash, and got to work, which was now profitable.

With all that said, all of this turn to the market and to privatization, both in Israel, and Europe, and especially so in the US, is possible because many of the dreams that were just pipe dreams in the days of Samuel Gompers and in the days of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire have become part of accepted law and practice in the major advanced economies of the world. That explains why the attraction of unions to laborers has shrunk so drastically, especially in industries that rely on highly educated laborers.

It helps for us, on Labor Day, to recall what Judaism, from the Bible, on has contributed to the value of labor and to the dignity of the laborer. It is especially clear as we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, where the Ten Commandments are restated, so that Sabbath is associated with liberation from bondage and the rights of the laborer, including the gentile, to rest, get an extra emphasis.

 It is no wonder that the great Roman thinkers were shocked by this idea, that one should spend one-seventh of one’s life in idleness. But is also telling that the Romans themselves caught on to the idea of resting one day a week from their neighboring Jews till today it has become a nearly universal minimum right of labor.

So, let’s look at some sources:
There is the Hebrew phrase: Derekh Eretz. In Yiddish, “Hob derekh eretz” means to be respectful. Literally, it is “The Way of the World.” Figuratively, as used in rabbinic texts,, it is to be meaningfully engaged in the world especially through physical labor. This is very significant, because already, 2000 years ago, Jewish society was transitioning from a farm and labor society to a mercantile and intellectual elite society.  In the Biblical society, the landed gentry had to be reminded of their obligations to the lower classes. Now, those who worked with their minds had to be reminded of their obligations to those who worked with their hands.

So, “ Derekh Eretz”, according to the Midrash, is God’s great blessing to Adam when he is expelled from the Garden of Eden. He complains, “ Shall I eat weeds of the field like and animal!”. To which God answers,”Bzeyat apechah”- by the sweat of your brow, you shall support yourself. The Rabbis explain that by labor Adam will transform the weeds of the field into delicious challah and pastry. It is the human capacity to work that enhances God’s creation.

So what can we say for the scholar who wishes to remain ensconced in the ivory tower of the Yeshivah?

“Great is Talmud Torah, Study of Torah, that is combined with Derekh Eretz, as the two together will lead to the abandonment of sin. All Talmud Torah that is not combined with work will, in the end, be nullified and will lead to sin.”   Being a great ( or not so great) scholar was not an excuse from holding a job and being responsible for a family. What goes on today in Charedi populations in Israel, that support themselves by political extortion, female labor, and avoidance of military service is not backed by this statement.( Pirkei Avot 2:2)

We are also taught, in Pirkei Avoth, to love labor and hate mastery over others ( Rabbanut). To this the Rabbis added,

“Love work” How? This teaches that a person should love work, and not hate work. Just as the
Torah was given through the covenant, so too, work was given through the covenant, as it says
“For six days you shall labor and do all of your work, and the seventh day is a Sabbath to your God.”( Avot Nathan on 1:10) In other words, to work in productive labor six days is as much as divine command as to rest on Shabbat.

What about the great leaders themselves?

Rabbi Yehuda used to go into the Beit Midrash carrying a pitcher on his shoulders. He
would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it.' Rabbi Shimon would
carry a basket on his shoulders, and would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one
who does it. '" (b. Nedarim 49b)

Labor is greater than piety.

Rabbi Hiyya ben Ammi said in the name of Ulla: Greater is the one who benefits from
the work of his hands than one who fears heaven. In regard to the one who fears heaven,
it is written “Happy is the man who fears God (Psalms 112).” But in regard to the one
who benefits from his own work, it is written “When you eat from the work of your
hands, you will be happy, and it will be well with you. (Psalms 128)” “You will be
happy” refers to this world; “It will be well with you” refers to the world to come. In
regard to the one who fears heaven, the text does not say “it will be well with you.” (b.
Brakhot 8a) In other words, your piety may make you feel good in this life, but it won’t open the door to heaven. Only productive labor can do that.

Because labor is valued, the laborer, clearly, is to be praised and treated well. Again, our book of Deuteronomy talks about the poor man who has fallen on such hard times that he sells himself .

“When your brother sells himself to you” (Deuteronomy 15:12) To this, Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1939 commented, “Employers are obligated to behave with love, honor, goodwill and generosity toward their workers. Workers, for their part, should act faithfully and should give themselves fully to the work that they were hired to do.”

So how far do we go in consideration for the laborer?

Some porters working for Raba bar bar Hanan broke a jug of wine. He seized their
Clothes in payment for damages. They came before Rav, and Rav said to Raba bar bar Hanan, “give them their clothing.” Raba bar bar bar Hanan said to him, “Is this the law?” Rav said, “yes, because of the principle ‘you should walk in the ways of the good (Proverbs 2:20).” He gave
them back their clothes. They said to him, “we are poor, and we troubled ourselves to
work all day and we are needy--do we receive nothing? Immediately, Rav said to Raba
bar bar Hanan, “Go, give them their wages.” He said to Rav, “Is this the law.” Rav said,
“yes-- ‘you should keep the ways of the righteous (ibid)’”

We have to respect the right of the worker to quit his job or to go on strike, even in the middle of the day because “the children of Israel are [God's] servants and not servants to servants." (b. Bava Kamma 117b)

What about timely payment?

Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people
or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the
daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them,
lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you." (Deuteronomy

The Talmudic commentary to this:

 “His life depends on them” indicates that anyone who denies a hired laborer his
wages, it is as though he takes his life from him." (b. Bava Metzia 112a)

The respect and concern for the laborer from the employer is a two way street.

Traditional sources compel employees to work diligently, to be precise in their work, and
avoid wasting the employer's time. Workers may even recite abbreviated prayers and excuse
themselves from certain religious obligations in order not to detract from their work. If a worker is picking dates at the top of a palm tree, and it is time to pray, he does not climb down, but stays on top, prays where he is, quickly, so as not to rob his employer of his time!  ( Brakhot
46a)  There is no piety possible at someone else’s cost!

According to Maimonides:
Just as the employer (literally: householder) is cautioned not to steal or delay the salary
of the poor [worker], so too must the poor person be careful not to steal the work of the
owner by wasting a little time here and there until the entire day is filled with fraud.
Rather, he should be careful about time.. . .. Similarly, the worker is
obligated to work with all of his strength, for behold, Jacob the righteous said [to Rachel
and Leah] " I have served your father with all my might." (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot
Skhirut 13:7)

Finally, even as the Sages discussed the question of what should be a minimum wage , so that the laborer could earn enough to feed his family , the key concern was how to raise the laborer to a higher level, so that then wage would go up with it. Ho could one raise the laborer to a higher and more prosperous level and so as not to depend on support from others, whether it be artificial price supports or government benefits, but from personal success.

We all know the 8 levels of Zedakah, charity, that were formulated by Maimonides in his laws on charity. He speaks of anonymous givers and anonymous takers, of those who give gladly and those who give grudgingly. But he caps it all:
“The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .”
That must be the ultimate goal of any public program to benefit the laborer, to enable the worker to move beyond the minimum wage level to a level that creates prosperity for the worker, the family, and for society  to “no longer be dependent upon others.”

Monday, August 1, 2016

Zealotry Leads to Shalom with a Broken Leg -A Further Reflection on Dealing with Difficult texts.

Pinhas   Zealotry leads to Shalom with a Broken Leg  -A Further Reflection on Dealing with Difficult texts.

July 30, 2016

We seem to have no end of people who are taking on the mantle of self-appointed judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner. The terrorists in Dallas and Baton Rouge who undertook single-handedly to wipe out police officers to avenge what they were told by many public officials was a campaign of racism by the police. The terrorists in a village in Northern France who decided that an elderly Catholic church priest had to be slaughtered because they were told it was an act of jihad to wipe out an adherent of a false religion.

There is political extremism and there is religious extremism. For the political extremism, here in the US, we can only say, to leaders who have stirred up the public, “ Chachamim, hizharu—Wise men, be careful what you say, lest you bring upon us exile and you drink from bitter waters.”( Pirke avot)

What about the religious extremists, who are also political extremists, in the case of ISIS or Al Qaeda?  As I stated in a previous sermon, we all have to deal with difficult texts. I can’t tell the Kadis at Al Azhar or the Imams in Qom how to define their laws and standards, but I can talk about how we Jews have handled it.

We also have our despicables, but I can say, they are few and rare. It is so because the our history has forced us to understand our teachings in the face of reality and not to bend reality to match our teachings.

We are in the period of ”Beyn hameytzarim”—Between the Straits- the period that leads up to the 9th of Av. This period marks the tragedies surrounding the fall of the first and second Temples .                   

We know that this was the period of the “Kanaim”, the zealots, and one of Jesus disciples, Simon the Zealot or the Kanaii, was a member of this movement. ( Some scholars suggest that he too may have been a member of such a movement at one point in his life).This movement led the revolt against Rome and eventually to the very destruction of the Temple. They were also known as “ Biryonim” in Rabbinic sources, which means, despite their noble aspiration, they were ,very simply, boors and ruffians. Biryonim was actually reborn in the 1930’s as a Jewish fascist movement, Brit Biryonim, modelled on Mussolini’s fascism. You may also have seen a movie that came out last year, called “ Sicario”, about the hitmen of the drug cartels. That very term is the one used in our own sources for these same vigilantes, “Sicarii”, which means “ dagger men”, as they were,  we are told, won’t to mingle in the crowds and assassinate anyone they suspected of collaborating with the Romans.

            Now, it would seem, from some passages in our sources, that this is a legitimate movement. Here is the wording of the Mishnah, written as if the Temple, destroyed over a century before, still stood: 

“ If one steals the utensils of the Temple  or curses by enchantment( with intent to  kill), or cohabits with a heathen woman( in other words, to have children that would become pagans) he is punished by zealots, Kanaim.( Mishnah sanhedrin 9:6)

            From whence this word, “ Kanaim”, especially in regard to the third offense, cohabiting ( the Hebrew word used is blunter)?

 It is directly from our Torah portion

            At the end of the previous portion, the children of Israel, after their blessing by Balaam, are now defeated by their weakness for exotic women who lead them in pagan revelry. One of the leaders, Zimri, takes up with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, right in front of Moses and a terrible plague breaks loose. Notice that this is not a matter of a private peccadillo but a flagrant act of defiance, not just sexual but religious, causing a plague, a physical disaster.

             Moses and the leaders are dumbfounded; their only response is to burst out in tears as they see the community as a whole backsliding.

            Something must be done. God calls for action; Moses calls for action. But no one does anything. Suddenly, Pinhas(Phineas), alone, rushes into action, and single-handedly slaughters the chief Israelite and his temptress.

            That was at the very end of last week’s portion. This week, as we open Pinhas, we have words of praise and blessing from God to Pinhas, for he “turned My wrath away from the people of Israel, for he was very jealous ( bekano et kinati)  for my sake.” Kano”-being jealous- is of the same root as “ Kanaii”, a zealot.

                         Pinhas is rewarded with a great prize: Behold, I give you my Briti-shalom, G-d’s covenant of peace. It would seem to be an ideal prize.

Now, it may well be that the Rabbis are describing a fact: we aren’t ordering the Zealots to do this.Rather, it’s a fact, that they exist, whether as individuals or as a movement, and don’t expect us to stop them. We can’t.

Or, is this an active instruction, a positive commandment, to act?

            From whence did the rabbis, draw this dictate? Maimonides ascribed the principle of kana’im pog’im bo to the laws handed down by Moses at Sinai (halakha l’Moshe mi’Sinai) noting that “if zealots attacked and killed [the transgressor] they are praiseworthy and energetic.” (Mishne Torah/Yad haHazaka: Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah, 12:4. )

            Are there Jews who still follow this? Just last year, a Charedi, Yishai Schlissel, believed he was in the mold of Pinchas and murdered someone at the Gay Pride parade in Israel. Fortunately, he was apprehended and this year the parade passed through peacefully. Is this the final word for us, this act of a deranged Chasid?

            (I found a halakhic discourse which covered the sources in this murder account very well and I am indebted to the author for summarizing the key arguments. It was written by the U S Under Secretary of Defense (2001–2004)( and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense ,1985–1987).   Dov Zakheim. He also happens to be an ordained Rabbi, something that doesn’t show up in his official resumes. You didn’t know that a Rabbi could serve as Under Secretary of Defense?)

            The Rabbis of the Talmud take a second look at this dictate. They look back on the previous centuries of rebellion against Rome and recognize that reality precedes zealotry.

             R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so. It has been stated likewise: Rabbah b. Bar Hana said in R. Johanan's name: If he comes to take counsel, we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Phinehas slain him, Phinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Phinehas was a “rodef” a murderous pursuer .( Sanhedrin 82 b on Mishnah 9). In other words, we certainly don’t encourage the act of zealotry, and the zealot is in danger of his own life, considered as if he were a murderer, while the sinner certainly may defend himself without impunity or danger of penalty.

The same Maimonides who praised the act also placed tight restrictions on it, based on the instructions of the Talmud:

The sin must take place before 10 or more witnesses; that the act of zealotry could only be undertaken during the transgression; that a court could not authorize such an act; that the zealot would be guilty of a capital crime should he kill the transgressor after having sought the court’s approval; and that should the zealot himself be killed, the transgressor would not be prosecuted for murder. Another great codifier of Jewish law, Rabbi Moses of Coucy ( Sefer Mitzvot Gadol)  added a key word to this list of restrictions: laShamayim—for Heaven—indicating that the zealot’s motives had to be pure. If his motives were mixed then he was no better than any murderer.

In our days, Rabbis have added that this act could only take when there is a Sanhedrin that is sitting in Jerusalem with the power to apply capital punishment. (Dr Itamar Warhaftig, "Go'el Hadam" (The Blood Avenger), Techumin 11(5750/1990), 354)

Chief Rabbi R. Avraham Shapira took a similar view. He was asked about the individual taking up acts of zealotry, and stated “gedola aveira lishma”— greatly severe is a sin committed to achieve positive outcomes.In other words,  the ends don’t justify the means.

He looked at one of the few cases of Jewish zealotry during the rise of Nazism :the case of Herschel Grynszpan . To keep you up to snuff on history, Grynspan  in  1938 murdered German  diplomat, Ernst vom Rath in Paris.

             Grynszpan’s motive was noble: to avenge the suffering of Polish Jews who had been dumped by the Germans on the Polish border but refused entry by their own country, Poland. What was the consequence? It was used as the pretext for Kristallnacht,  just the kind of provocation the Nazi leadership were hoping for. The violence that arose confirmed for them that the German peoples were behind them in their war on the Jews.

             Rabbi Shapira then pointed out that just as the murder ignited Kristallnacht, so similar acts of individual zealotry could have far reaching negative consequences. He therefore posited that an individual could not reach his or her own judgment in such "complicated matters," as he put it, particularly those affecting the Jewish people as a whole, but instead should seek guidance from leading rabbinical authorities. We can assume their answer would be a blunt” No.”(  Interview with Rabbi Abraham Kahane Shapira, “Geula uMikdash” (“Redemption and The Temple,” Techumin 5 (5756/1996), 432).

            [This topic ignited a discussion with my members, who disputed any attempt to lay blame on Grynszpan. What the Germans and their fellow travelers did what ultimate of their own choice.]

Dov Zakheim sums up the discussion on Schlissel:

            “Far more worrying is that in the absence of forceful admonitions by Haredi rabbis, there may be other Yishai Schlissels  lurking in the background, taking the law into their own hands, while grotesquely fantasizing that they are sanctifying God's holy name. “

Now, let’s get back to Pinchas and our Rabbis understanding of this portion.

            .           The Sages ask, though, why should he have been given this “Covenant of Peace” from God on high? Because he had earned the anger, not the approval of the leaders. He had taken the law into his own hands and they were ready to expel him for it.  That is the explanation for God’s intervention. But it is an unusual intervention and an unusual blessing for an act of killing!

            The sages note that the word Shalom is written in the Torah-text in an odd manner—the letter Vav in Shalom is cut in the middle! The peace is, so to say, incomplete

            Thus, the Ktav Sofer ( Rabbi Shmuel Benyamin Schreiber) explained it: It is true that sometimes, we must take drastic action to save a situation; nevertheless,  we must very quickly step back from it to a secure and solid basis, which is peace, the foundation and secret of all blessings.

            The Haftarah that is normally associated with this portion is that of the account of Elijah after his victory over the priests fo Baal. He runs for his life to Mt. Sinai. He describes himself to God as, in the mold of Pinchas, ”Kano Kaneti:-I have been exceptionally zealous for you. The Rabbis, attuned ot the nuance of the words, see that he is instructed to turn over his office to another and step down.  

            The commentators note: he has not learned his lesson- and “ Are you here still with the spirit of revenge.”

            That is G-d’s response to zealotry. God appears in the still small voice, not in the fire and earthquake: G-d was in the silent voice, because, again as Metzudat David states, Chaftez  Chesed Hu, He seeks lovingkindness!

            True, extraordinary times call for extraordinary acts—but beware of zealotry for the sake of zealotry!  Pinchas must be tamed by the covenant of peace.

            As I mentioned before, we all have to deal with difficult texts- in Christianity, in Islam,in Hinduism, in Buddhism, you name it. A text can easily be read in many ways. It is the community of faithful that give it its meaning, not the author of the text.

            There is an old Jewish joke of two scholars discussing wealth as the root of all evil. The wealthy have too much, and they are corrupted for it, while the poor have too little, and suffer for it. Surely, says the first scholar, we need only convince the rich to give up their wealth, and convince the poor to accept it. All would be perfect.

An excellent idea, the second scholar replied. Let’s start now. I will convince the poor people to accept the wealth—You try to convince the wealthy to give it up.

I and  other Rabbis can convince our Jews not to be zealous. It is up to the Kadis and Imams to convince the faithful ( and the many unemployed and failed souls that often become the fanatic perpetrators) in the banlieues of France or the war-torn neighborhoods of Syrian, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere to turn against zealots and zealotry. For our sakes, I wish them success.