Lessons on “Leadership” from the Making of Moses

“Talk to strangers, when the family fails and friends lead you astray,
When Buddha laughs and Jesus weeps and it turns out God is gay,
‘Cause Angels’ and Messiahs’ love can come in many forms,
In the hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm.” — Saul Williams, “Talk to Strangers”

The Forward has published its fifth annual salary survey of leaders of American Jewish non-profit organizations.  This is sure to trigger welcome and robust communal discussion about what makes for appropriate executive pay in these organizations and about the shameful, persistent gender gap in leadership and in salary.  This attention to leadership, along with the general, communal, soul-searching going on post-Pew report, invite us to take a step back and ask a broader, structural question about what we should be seeking in leaders and how we should go about seeking and nurturing them.  What are we talking about when we talk about leadership?

This week, Jewish communities open the book of Exodus, and with it, the story of the making of our paradigmatic leader, Moses.  The Torah’s sparse narrative of Moses’s pre-leadership life highlights four characteristics that set the stage for his appointment as leader:  a strong moral compass, intellectual curiosity, readiness to change direction radically based on new knowledge, and personal disinterest in being in spotlight.  (My teacher, Rabbi David Bigman, has discussed these first two characteristics in his book, The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading, Geffen, 2011, in the essay on Parashat Shemot.) More »

Torah that Nourishes: a Jewish Food Ethic of Pleasure and Justice

ב’ה

Guest post by Aviva Richman

Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow.  Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!

We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how.  Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical?  Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible?  In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition.  To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)

The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.”  (40:9)  The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs.  What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?

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Parashat Hayei Sarah: Hebron, City of Refuge, where Violence Goes to Die

This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground.  Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968.  This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this:  Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it.  Therefore, it’s ours, always.  Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers.  This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularly subjected.

I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar:  even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael.  I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages.  This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.

The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan.  Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim. More »

On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia

“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)

In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life.  I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia.  As one friend put it:  “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”

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Seclusion, Intimacy, and Power: Taking the Laws of Yichud Seriously

Introduction:  Halakhic Insights from Outsiders

I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law.  They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice.  Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law.  It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.

I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private.  My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap.  Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud.  More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).

That’s interesting to me.  People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do.   What’s going on there? More »

Conflict and its Discontents: Revisiting the Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”

–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009

We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight.  The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty.  The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha.  This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.

“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account.  Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself:  I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)

We live in a conflict-averse world.  Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked.  In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words:  true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence.  The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b).  Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”.  If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.

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“Never Again!”: How are we doing so far?

Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, dedicated the second of his two major works (he wrote many, many more than that) Otherwise than Being with the following:

To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.
On the bottom of the same page, in Hebrew, he dedicates the book to the memory of his father and his mother, his brothers, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, all of whom were killed by the Nazis. The dedication is sealed with the traditional Hebrew acronym for the statement: “Let their souls be bound in the binds of life.”

The next page has four epigraphs. Two quotes from Ezekiel, one quote from Rashi’s eleventh century commentary to Ezekiel and two quotes from Pascal, from the Pensées.

The second quote from Ezekiel is from Chapter 9:4-6:

Then he … said to him, “Pass through the city—through Jerusalem—and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst of it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity. Old men, young men and maidens, little children and women—strike them all dead! But touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary!”

The narrative context of this strange and powerful quote is the arrival of a scribe in a vision to Ezekiel. That scribe is ordered to go through the city and mark the people who are righteous. Accompanying the scribe are six angelic beings each carrying a weapon of destruction. These latter are the ones who are commanded to “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity.” More »

Is There a Jewish Position on Gun Control?

For the last couple of weeks, as the fallout from Newtown continues, as the NRA displays its absolute contempt for anyone who finds anything other than guns of value, Jews have also been participating in the conversation about gun control in the US.

While Jews tend toward the liberal positions about guns, Judaism does not, in reality, always correspond with American 21st century liberal politics. Does Judaism have a position on gun control? Rabbi Aaron Alexander of AJU’s Ziegler school, writes a commentary in HuffPo that, although it focuses on one aspect and one commentator that gets at the crux of the Jewish view.

There is simply no rational way of escaping the fact – not opinion- that gun ownership raises risks of death and injury for everyone in the house where the gun is owned. Nor is there any credible evidence that gun ownership deters crime or stops crimes in progress. Jewishly, significantly increasing safety risks to oneself without showing a significant benefit to offset it would require a ban on gun ownership.

Secondarily, hunting for sport, as Rabbi Landau says (the commentator that Alexander is writing about) is considered negatively by Jewish sources. Taking pleasure in something that causes pain is contrary to Jewish values. Even when we eat meat, we are required by Jewish law to slaughter it in a way that causes no pain to the animal (that is why an animal whose slaughter is performed with a knife that has even a single nick in it is considered treif). Arguments aside about whether or not such a death is truly painless (and there are certainly those who advocated vegetarianism – such as the gadol hador – the great one of his generation, Rabbi Soloveitchik), the value is clear: Jews are not supposed to engage in such behavior, except if there is no other option – in other words, one may stave off starvation by hunting, but it’s not something Jews should do if there are other sources of food.

Finally, it is worth knowing that the ban on Jewish hunting is not merely a halachic matter (matter of Jewish law) custom too has long viewed the hunter as a negative character. Those who make their living by killing are considered the very height of what my mother would have called “a goyishe kop” (please excuse, non-Jewish friends). If one looks through old haggadot, the wicked son, the rasha is often portrayed as a soldier or a hunter.

Sport hunting is not a value. Hunting for food – outside of a starvation case- is not a value. Safety for one’s family is a value, and the evidence is that having guns in the home not only does not protect one from intruders, but increases risks of accidental shootings, suicide deaths, and deliberate shootings, particularly in cases of domestic violence. Societally, then, there is one last case to be made. Many people argue that the case for owning guns is that the second amendment is determined to let us protect ourselves from a tyrannous government. God knows the Jews know from tyrannous governments.

To consider this rationally: does the possibility that a bunch of neighbors with assault weapons might gather together to fend off the United States government when it comes for us to send us to the camps balance out the overwhelming numbers of American gun deaths, and the evidence that very tight gun control, or even banning guns would reduce (not eliminate, of course, but reduce) gun deaths. That leaves us two questions actually. First, would those assault weapons stave off tanks, rockets and the very latest in military technology? Not likely. Second. If by some miracle there was a chance that it did, would it be worth it? I suppose that is a calculus that in general society could be argued, but Jewishly, I would say that the decisive view is no. The risks are too clear, and the protection far, far too little – if there is indeed any at all.

Say Kaddish for Bernie Madoff

I recall chatting with one of my favorite singer-songwriters, composer, musician and poet Alicia Jo Rabins in a Mexican joint in Chicago after a Golem show a few years back, right after the big market crash. I asked what else she was working on, and she started talking about a project revolving around Bernie Madoff. I (and I’m sure many others) suggested she apply to the 6 Points Fellowship, which happily saw the merit in her and her work.  The resulting project has finally reached its debut moment. Rabins’  new full-length song cycle, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, at Joe’s Pub in New York City on Thursday, November 8th and again on the 15th. Details after the jump. More »

The Imperative: National Day of Action for Low-Wage Workers

This is a guest post by Dasi Fruchter, an organizer with Uri 
L’Tzedek‘s  

Civic 
Engagement
 Campaign. 

 

“…and it is rationally compelling that a worker should not be left solitary and alone, to the point that he needs to hire himself out for a pittance to satisfy his hunger and to feed his family stale bread and house them in a dark and lowly hovel. To give them the capacity for self-defense the law grants him the right to organize, and to make regulations that will assist his peers, distribute work fairly and justly, and achieve a respectful employer-employee relationship and appropriate wage, thus enabling him to provide family with a standard of living equivalent to that of his neighbor” (Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uzziel, Hoshen Mishpat 42:6)


When I tell people what I do, I am often proud to include my identity as an activist and community organizer in the description. Also included in a very substantial way is my commitment to Torah-observant Judaism. Only several years ago, those two identities seriously clashed, but since I’ve become involved with Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Social Justice organization, fusing my commitments to both halacha (Jewish Law) and to social justice was a logical and seamless step.

My activist story is a long one, but I wanted to share an integral part of it with you. Every Shabbat in my childhood home was a fantastic event. Everyone was invited and the table bubbled over with joy, song, my father’s homemade challah bread, and stirring conversation. The personal engagement, the energy, and the palpable feeling of community were present every week. I particularly remember my mother’s commitment to inviting people that were different from us to our Shabbat table–the synagogue janitor or the school security guard. In retrospect, I now understand the communal space that we created at our Shabbat table – a combination of celebration, reflection, and earnest conversation across difference– was and is a radical space, a space that I try to foster every day in my commitment to Jewish spiritual leadership.

As I grew up, I learned that these workers, who I learned later were classified as “low-wage” workers, were not treated by society with the same dignity as people in professional positions. It was particularly striking to think about the workers who attempted to work on the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Though they were working 40-hour weeks, they still sunk more than $5,000 below the poverty line,  while attempting to live on $15,080 a year, often without benefits. If the wage had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years, it would be $10.55.  Nineteen states have already raised their minimum wage to keep up with the high cost of living, and New York State is the most recent addition to this group, though the bill faces immense resistance from the New York State Senate.

Sometimes, when I tell people about the type of work I do with Uri L’Tzedek, I’m immediately dismissed for my “left-wing” politics. I understand that there are different fiscal arguments for raising the minimum wage, maintaining it, or taking it away all together. What I don’t understand, however, is the acceptance that there are people working more than 40 hours a week who have no chance of making ends meet. I try to explain that this is not a partisan issue–it is a moral issue. Uri L’Tzedek seeks to achieve its social justice goals through not only ensuring that the minimum wage standard is upheld in kosher restaurants, but also through the constant struggle to achieve a higher standard for workers in the service industry. We want to limit poverty. This is not about the social safety net. This is a step forward to a living wage. When people work, they should be able to live dignified lives based on their labor.

So when I had the opportunity to represent Uri L’Tzedek as a part of a coalition of 60 faith organizations, workers, labor groups, and community members working on raising the minimum wage in New York, I jumped at the opportunity with gusto. Uri L’Tzedek, which serves as a part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, chose to be involved in the minimum wage effort as a part of a wider Civic Engagement project across the country.

It has been an honor to serve on a coalition with pastors, workers, and organizers–coming together to seek dignity for workers in the fastest growing sector in our country. Tuesday marks the three-year anniversary of the last time the minimum wage was raised in New York.

The coalition of workers, businesses, and community members will come together on July 24th for a National Day of Action for Low Wage Workers. The goals of the march from Herald Square to Union Square are twofold. The first is explicitly legislative and seeks to put pressure on prominent members of the State Senate to raise the minimum wage. The second goal seeks to plant the seeds for a vibrant and unified movement of low wage workers. Due to the fact that low-wage workers are spread across industries, they often face difficulty when trying to organize for higher standards or basic rights. This historic coalition and day of action will attempt to convey that if necessary, workers in the rapidly growing low-wage sector will stand up as a group against exploitation.

Following the march will be my favorite part–where Uri L’Tzedek will facilitate pop-up Batei Midrash (houses of study) all over Union Square. These small groups, facilitated by Jewish community leaders and Rabbis in the tradition of Jewish Torah learning, will study both ancient and contemporary Jewish texts together about ethical treatment of workers and responsibilities to the poor.

I hope you can join me there on Tuesday to create a strong and unified Jewish voice to advocate for the dignity of workers.

An article about this coalition was published in the New York Times earlier this week. More details for the National Day of Action for Low-Wage workers can be found here. Please email dasi.fruchter@utzedek.org for more information.

Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.

So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
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The “Jewish” Vote

(x-posted to Justice in the City)

Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?

If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.  More »

Read this Book

I could probably just about build a raft and sail around the world with all the books advocating for Jewish Social Justice that have come out in the last couple of years. Several of them are very good. I particularly like Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ first book, which is both thorough and excellent.
But I want to recommend a book that’s a little bit different.

Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, the founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, has just come out with a book very simply titled Jewish Ethics and Social Justice (Derusha Publishing). Unlike most of the the other books in this burgeoning genre, Rabbi Y’s book is a collection of essays previously published in newspapers journals and blogs. This is both a strength and a weakness, which I will touch on later. More »

A vote for reason

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation, this last Shabbat, on the published remarks in the Atlanta Jewish Times by Andrew Adler calling for a US President to be assassinated by Mossad agents.

Parashat Bo – 5772

As Napoleon waged war and sent French troops into Russia in 1812, the rabbis of the shtetlakh were faced with a serious political dilemma – who should receive the support of the Jewish community; Napoleon or Czar Alexander I? On the one hand, the experience of the Jews of Russia and Poland had been incredibly challenging, to say the least. Starting in 1791with Catherine the Great, the Jews of Russia were relegated to what was known as the Pale of Settlement, a swath of land comprising of modern-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and parts of Western Russia. Jews in the Pale were very poor and the Cossack cavalries made life generally dangerous for them. Life for Jews under Napoleon was very different. Once Napoleon took the helm in France in 1804, Jews were given full and equal rights under the spirit of the French Revolution. However, this came at a cost – part of Napoleon’s grand plan was to allow for the recognition of the Jewish religion while working hard at eliminating its practices. Once the Jews received full rights in France, anti-Semitism grew in French cities. Napoleon is quoted as responding to the rise in anti-Semitism by saying:

This is not the way to solve the Jewish question. I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them. More »

The legacies we leave

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition. More »

On the Culture of Greed

cross posted to Justice in the City

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting discussing an upcoming ballot initiative which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was opposed to the death penalty. The discussion was about the strategy that should be employed to convince voters to make the proposition law. The campaign’s tactic was to argue that the death penalty was more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This is, of course, true. As the LA Times reported:

[An] examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

However, sitting in that room, engaging in that conversation, I suddenly got very depressed. I realized how we had all been impacted by the culture of greed that has overwhelmed our country.

I want to make clear that I think that we urgently need to stop our country’s machinery of death and to begin the hard work of justice—reforming our prisons, making victims and/or their families whole, allowing for transgressors to repent and atone (as I argue here). I think that replacing the death penalty with LWOP is a good and important step on the way to accomplishing this. I was reacting to the fact that the parameters of the debate (cheaper is better) are not ones that I agree with and are destructive to the moral fabric of our country and society. Let me explain. More »

Occupy Kol Nidrei NY: “The fallacy that gold is God!”

(Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

My friend Getzel Davis, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a tremendous sermon at the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei here in New York.

All English during the service had to be shouted in short phrases, then shouted back by the crowd. (This is in keeping with the protesters who also use this method because they have no sound permit.) I vote that all sermons should be delivered in this fashion from here on out. I’ve never been among a congregation paying such rapt attention to a sermon.

Anyway, presented here in its entirety is Getzel’s sermon. Just imagine what it sounded like broken into short bits, shouted out in a call and shouted back in a response.

Getzel Davis about an hour before Occupy Kol Nidrei (Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

Friends – we are here tonight to celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has been misunderstood to be a sad day. But really, an early rabbinic texts calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days of the year. What makes this day happy? It is the day of forgiveness. This is what Yom Kippor means “The Day of Forgiveness.”

According to our myth, Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?

I believe that G!d is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?

Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew.

This is what Kol Nidreh is about. It is releasing ourselves from the oaths that we mistakenly took.

When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot .

The problem with this is that while chazakas are easy, they are often not skillful. It is easier to not make waves. It is easier to not make eye contact with those suffering. It is easier to trust others to run society. It is easier to sit on our butts.

Tonight, you are offered all the internal freedom that you can imagine. How do you want to live the next moments of
your life? Do you want to love more? Do you want to be more joyous? Do you want to speak your truth? What does
your truth say?

Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because it gives us the radical option of being here now. We don’t work. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex. We dress in white robes.

We do these things because Yom Kippur is a ritual death. It is the way that we allow our old selves to die.

Tomorrow, when we break our fasts, we step into newness. We step into being the people we want to be and not just the people we have been.

You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.

Us.

In the first chapter of Genesis the first human was created in the image of G!d If we need something to serve here on earth, we are given humanity. Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of G!d.

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed.

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say — I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »