“Let Justice Rise Up”: On Prayer and Times of Crisis

by Danya Lagos

The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors. More »

Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die” — On Collective Punishment and Spiritual Creativity

As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated.  Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality.  Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside.  In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion.  In the context of a  census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims  (Numbers 26:11),  ”And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.  Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?  More »

Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

The people of Israel have sinned. The blood of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the innocent Palestinian teenager brutally killed by Israeli Jews, is on our hands, and we know it. Our centrist and right-wing friends are sending letters to the parents and posting outraged Facebook statuses. As the Torah says, Zimri was sinning, “while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.”

And we lefties find ourselves with the unwelcome, and frankly despicable task of reminding everyone that, if you have been paying attention, you know the occupation regularly takes Palestinian lives. That the latest futile escalation with Hamas will not bring safety to the besieged South, but it has killed eighty Palestinians, including children, and it will kill more (though to be sure, much of that blood is on Hamas’s hands). That Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically resurrected house demolition—an immoral, failed deterrence policy discarded by the Israeli military, and that his cabinet will use recent calamities to build more settlements. More »

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Honoring God, Who Gives Life to All Flesh

by Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance and of Uri L’Tzedek.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God is called “Elohei haruchot l’chol basar,” the one who gives spirit to all flesh (Numbers 27:16).

In that spirit of a God who gives life to all beings, I ask that those who, like me, support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s civilian targeted missiles, stop and read the names below of the children who have died in Gaza since the fighting began. Know that the same God that breathed spirit into you breathed spirit into them.

Seraj Ayad Abed al-A’al, 8
Mohammed Ayman Ashour, 15
Hussein Yousef Kawareh, 13
Bassim Salim Kawareh, 10
Mousa Habib, 16
Ahmad Na’el Mehdi, 16
Dunia Mehdi Hamad, 16
Amir Areef, 13
Mohammed Malkiyeh, 1½ years old
Ibrahim Masri, 14
Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, 4
Nidal Khalaf al-Nawasra, unreported age
Ranim Jawde Abdel Ghafour, a young girl

Though I hold Hamas responsible for this war and for the tremendous suffering they have inflicted on innocent Israelis and Palestinians, I also acknowledge that no matter how precise Israel’s strikes are, innocents will be killed as a result. Including children. Children who have the same goofy smiles, the same dreams, and the same fears as our children. Israel’s right to self defense is not free. It comes with a profound human cost that we, as a people who strive for moral grandeur, must face.

Some Thoughts on Chosenness: Toward a Non-Exclusivist, but Non-Colonizing, Particularism

Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook asking for thoughts on the concept of being a/the Chosen People.   Some respondents affirmed chosenness as a call to duty, others commented on the problematic exclusive nature of Chosenness, the superiority in it, others asserted that many peoples are chosen and one simply posted the alternative, emended language of the blessing over Torah, “Praised are You…Who chose us WITH all the nations” (“אשר בחר בנו עם כל העמים”), instead of the traditional “Who chose us FROM all the nations (“אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים”).  The whole chain is on Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Facebook wall.  My comments might interest Jewschoolers, so in the spirit of The Jeffersons, I’m spinning them off here.

“ברוך…אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו.”
Praised are You…Who chose us from all the nations by giving us Your Torah.  (The traditional blessing over Torah study and for receiving an aliyah at public Torah reading)

[Background premise: I do not believe that, on the whole, most people do the most good through universal humanism. For the most part, people live in stories and those stories shape their ability to do specific good. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is a dystopic nightmare to my ears.] More »

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

The Scouts as Stubborn, Old Guard Leaders: The Torah’s Warning Tale

This week’s parashah (Shelach-Lekha; Bemidbar 13-15) focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass rebellion and breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was unconquerable.  Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describing them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה”.  Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“?  The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”.   The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:

“‘They were all people’:  All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad council for themselves.  Why did they take this council?  They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’.  Because they took this bad council for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word.  (Zohar III (Bemidbar, Shlach-Lekha, 156b) More »

Careless Communication and Social Dysfunction: Understanding Yitro’s Departure

The book of Bemidbar chronicles the difficulties of freedom, the always-looming hangover of redemption’s intoxicating inauguration.  Miriam and Aharon grumble about Moshe’s wife and power; the people rebel, demanding meat; Moshe starts to crack under the burdens of leadership, begging for help; the scouts stir up the masses to insist that entering the land is impossible; remorseful zealots, regretful at God’s decree that they won’t possess the land, try to conquer it without God’s sanction, and get routed; a brazen stick-gatherer publicly flaunts Shabbat violation; Korach, Datan, and Aviram join forces to stage an uprising against Moshe and Aharon; Moshe loses his grip, reacting aggressively to the people’s panicked cries for water; the masses succumb to temptation to a pagan orgy at Ba‘al Pe‘or.

This theme of breakdown of the social order stands in stark contrast to the beginning chapters of the book, which can read as almost mind-numbingly banal, if such a thing can be said, in their perfectly structured, utopian ordering of the camp and its leadership structure.  So, how did we get from point A to point B, from perfect structure to chaos?  Literarily, the turning point is the Israelites’ departure from their resting place near Sinai to march toward Canaan, so it is worthwhile paying close attention to what transpired in that transition.  Crucially, the Israelites’ departure is framed by the personal parting of ways of Moshe’s father-in-law, Hovav (aka Yitro), from the Israelites, suggesting that it was his absence or the process of his departure that led to communal breakdown.  What’s more, the depiction of this parting of ways is itself marked by halting, unclear communication and lack of closure, as if to suggest that it was communication failure itself that made the parting of ways, and the consequential breakdown, fait accompli. More »

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »

Trampling Torah and perpetuating antisemitism on the 700 Club

Jews are more successful financially, Pat Robertson said on his TV show, because they are “polishing diamonds, not fixing cars.”

I’m not sure who is worse in this clip, Robertson or his guest, anti-gay wacko Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In the jaw-dropping segment of Robertson’s 700 Club , courtesy of Right Wing Watch, Lapin was stumping for his book about how the Bible wants you to get rich:

“When you correctly said in Jewish neighborhoods you do not find Jews lying under their cars on Sunday afternoons, no, I pay one of the best mechanics around to take care of my BMW, I’d be crazy to take my time doing it myself,” Lapin said. “Or for me to mow my lawn, I’m the worse lawnmower in the world, but the young man who lives down the street from me, he’s one of the best and he’s happy to do it and I’m happy.”  More »

Darosh Darash Moshe: Thoughts on Halakha and Rabbinic Responsibility through Parashat Shemini

Most attention paid to Parashat Shemini focuses on the divine fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu when they tried to offer a strange fire on the brand new altar at its triumphant moment of inauguration (VaYikra 10:1-2).  No fewer than twelve explanations  are offered in Rabbinic literature to explain why God took their lives.

However, it seems worthwhile to me to focus more on the aftermath of this shocking event.  After Moshe’s bizarre poetic eulogy (v. 3), after the immediate removal of the corpses (vv. 4-5), after Moshe’s rapid-fire, sober instructions to the kohanim for the immediacy and for the generations (vv. 6-15), Moshe returns to check in on the other business of the day:  what is the state of the goat that had already been offered as the national sin ?  The mood may have gone haywire after Aharon’s sons were killed in the line of duty, but Moshe played it cool, unswayed by his nephews’ death, mind still on the urgent business of the day of managing God’s housewarming party.  Let’s take a look:

VaYikra 10:16-20: More »

a freylikhen shushan purim!

Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!

The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary:

A Malcontented Beheading: Sermon Slam Piece on Amalek

This past Sunday, I MC’ed a Sermon Slam in Jerusalem, on the theme of Amalek.  Here is one of my favorite pieces from the evening, by Charlie Buckholtz, a Jerusalem-based writer whose writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Tablet, and the Daily Beast, and who blogs at badrabbi.tumblr.com.  His book Are You Not a Man of God?  Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition, co-authored with Tova Hartman, was recently published by Oxford University Press.   You can watch video of this performance here and listen to it in podcast form, along with another excellent one by Candace Mittel, a Pardes student,  here.  To find out more about Sermon Slam, visit its Kickstarter page. –aryehbernstein

A Malcontented Beheading

By Charlie Buckholtz

 

Back seat, BMW SUV.

Back streets of Queens careening by me, through me

in the window, as I wonder how it is I ended up here:

mid-day, mid-life, mid-week, on a visit to sit with the family of a dead guy I’ll never meet.

Taking lessons from a driver who knows he’s in the driver’s seat.

It’s this kid’s car, he’s 15 years my junior; pops just gave it to him the day before the

funeral; now they’re schmoozing pros and cons of the on-board computer.

Apparently it was between this one and a Mercury–next the conversation turns to pee-pee, naturally.

“So abba, how you pishing these days?”

Gotta love the Jews, right? They never quite fail to amaze.

Anyways, pops is obviously completely unfazed, no hesitation—

such a detailed explanation, it left me slightly dazed.

Pops you see is my boss, the shul president.

Pretend that we’re friends — maybe we are — but it’s as irrelevant

as the rain that was falling all around us that day, pounding like a dozer, hounding me like a moser,

making everything feel even smaller, closer…

No sir! I have a sudden violent urge to say

I am neither an impostor nor a dissident…okay?

Still I guess I’ll keep the rain in the event:

never know what details the future reveals to set new precedents.

Can’t say I remember what the thread was…guess I lost it in the dissonance.

More »

On the Deceptive Limits of Pluralism and the Need to Pursue Core Commitments

I just stumbled across a provocative piece from a few years ago by my teacher, Dr. Devora Steinmetz, published on the blog (“Yidion“) of Ravsak, the network of community Jewish day schools.  Titled “It Can’t Be About Pluralism”, it argues that pluralism is a misleading term because of its multiplicity of meanings, and an insufficient one as an expression of institutional values.  I think that this is a very good challenge to progressive communities and institutions who often wave the pluralism banner and, perhaps, hide behind it, though it may end up being empty.  I encourage you to read the post in its entirety at Ravsak.  Here is one, key paragraph:

“A school needs a core, and pluralism cannot be the core. Schools need to talk more about the way they envision their core, and talk of pluralism should not be allowed to divert our attention from what may be a difficult discussion of what is at the core. To my mind, the core of a Jewish school must be talmud Torah, Torah study writ large, Torah study that includes the formation of a person who is steeped in the practices of the tradition, who experiences him or herself as a participant in the ongoing practice of learning Torah and the ongoing quest to understand Torah, and who continually tries to reshape him or herself as a person guided by the teachings and the spirit of Torah. Pluralism—whether it has an epistemological, communal, or pedagogical meaning—can be an element of the mode of talmud Torah in which children at the school are engaged. But pluralism has to be about something—has to describe the way in which we do something—and at a Jewish school it should be about the search to know and to understand Torah, the quest to grow as Jews, and the commitment to serve others and to help shape a vibrant Jewish community.”

Where Hipster Brooklyn and Youth Group Nostalgia Meet

Sermon Slam participantsA couple of weeks ago, an email came over the Jewschool contributors’ listserv asking if anyone wanted to cover a SermonSlam taking place in my neighborhood. As someone who has enjoyed other kinds of slams in the past (poetry, story, and grand – IHOP, not baseball), I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still something of a Brooklyn newbie, having lived here for less than a year. So I want to fully own that my preconceived notions of what a SermonSlam might be were entirely colored by an outsider’s stereotype of Brooklyn hipster culture. Now, to be fair, I have lived here almost a year—it will be a year this Shabbat—and so I have been around long enough to know that most of the stereotypes about Brooklyn hipster culture are true. And I should have been tipped off by the fact that the event was being held at Congregation Beth Elohim (known in the neighborhood as CBE), a very large Reform synagogue that often plays host to community events, many of which I have enjoyed this year.

You see what I’m getting at, right? What I had pictured as a cool, vaguely underground event, perhaps in a dark room with a stage and a bar, turning words of Torah into performance art, was in fact more like a youth group program for young adults, held in a large, well-lit synagogue social hall, with the performers relying a little more heavily on the “sermon” than the “slam.” The only drinks were of the cola variety, and the evening was padded with games straight from my synagogue youth director playbook like Jewish Geography 2.0, affably executed by hosts Ben Greenfield and Samantha Kuperberg, who themselves seemed to have arrived straight from a summer on the staff of Camp Ramah.

BUT! And this is a big BUT! (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie…) I’m pretty sure if you went in to the event with fewer or different preconceived notions, you would have been thrilled. More »

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 »